Tuesday, March 10, 2009

A Reflection on "Emma's War"

Emma's War, by Deborah Scroggins,

I saw this book years ago in my advisor's office. I avoided it in the years that followed because of it's cover and it's title- a kneejerk reaction against a title that implies that war in Sudan belongs to a British woman in some way (or perhaps, because of the ton of weird psychological stuff that comes with being a white South African woman trying to study Africa and deal with her own demons simultaneously).

I finally picked it up, because it was of the few books in the African section at our local public library.

I was pleasantly surprised. It may be that I'm in a less critical space than I was a few years ago, but I felt like the medium of storytelling left plenty of space to the reader to play their own role in interpreting context. I felt myself thinking more about Sudan than I have for quite a while. And it allowed me to generate many questions.

The story was about what it meant for a British woman in Africa in the 1980s-early 1990s. This excludes a ton of other stories (what it meant to be a soldier in the SPLA, what it meant to be a recipient of aid). The story it was telling, it told well. Emma, the heroine (or villain) of the story had access to resources by virtue of her British identity, her beauty and her personal charm. Despite a lack of real skills, Emma worked for an NGO and had access to UN resources. She was "used" for these resources.

But she edged out of the roles and privileges available to her by actually "playing up" those roles and privileges as she entered into the Sudanese People's liberation army (SPLA) world. That is, her identity loomed large because stepping out- getting romantically involved with an SPLA commander- had massive political and social ramifications. Yet for Emma, love was love was love. It seemed to have no context or boundaries, and it meant absolute trust, faith and sacrifice. The problem was, her relationship had unintended consequences. If there was a way to connect this stories to other stories of aid (aid that kills?) it is this law of unintended consequences, and the inevitability of unintended consequences in a new space.

New Connections
I never thought of Nairobi has the center of aid distribution in East Africa, but it seemed from Emma's war as though Nairobi was an essential step in the aid chain- it was also apparent from this how multiple crises in the region would be linked in very practical ways.

I was shocked by the sheer number of flights aid workers seemed to take in and out of Southern Sudan. This made their presence, their role, and their understanding of their jobs all the more transient.

Questions-- some old, some new.
How can relief be helpful? That is, not development, but actual relief aid in crises?
What rights to information can NGOs evoke when they are providing relief?
What is the international community's role in civil war?
What does neutrality involve? Distance? Is it good to be neutral?
What would it mean for an aid worker to be engaged in a responsible way? Emma was by far the most engaged aid worker, but also probably the most exoticizing and irresponsible.
What are the rights of those receiving aid?
What would Emma's war look like in the 21st century? The same? Different?

News from (a) distance
Expat south Africans are now permitted to vote. More on this soon!

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