Saturday, May 10, 2008
The Tragedy of Emma McCune
Saturday, July 10, 1999
The Tragedy of Emma McCune
The unlikely coupling of an English girl and a Sudanese warlord reads like a fairy-tale romance; but one with an ironical ending
By Wayua Muli
Seven years on, Sally Dudmesh remembers her best friend Emma as if she died yesterday. We manage to catch her at the house that Emma and her were planning on leasing together, where she pours out her heart about her best friend, and shows us her 'Emma' scrapbook - a collection of pictures, pullouts of newspaper and magazine articles and photocopied cuttings. "We used to call her the First Lady when she married Riek, because we were so sure that if peace finally came to Southern Sudan, she would be among the most powerful women in that area. She did so much for the people and they all loved her and would have wanted her to be one of their leaders," says Sally. But in that curious way that life has of playing tricks on us powerless mortals, fate was to conspire against all of Riek's and Emma's dreams, in a way neither of them could ever imagine or prevent.
Emma's interest in Africa begun when she met Sally in 1984 at the Oxford Polytechnic, where Emma was studying art and Sally anthropology. Emma had spent her formative years in India and in Britain, and her rather unconventional life had resulted in a strong character with an individualism that would reach out and literally punch you in the face. "Emma was very tall and striking, and she had these peculiarly eye-catching clothes that she would wear to great effect," recalls Sally. On this particular day, she was wearing a long purple velvet coat whose effect was, well, very Emma. "I was reading a notice board when I spotted her, and she came and stood next to me. Then we started having a conversation as if we had known each other for years," Sally told us
The two discovered that they had many things in common - they made statements with their non-conventional clothing, for example. Emma wore extravagant scarves, hats and beads, whereas Sally - who had been bred in Africa - wore very bold African jewellery. They both had a fascination for the Dark Continent, and they had friends in common. One was Willie Knocker, a white Kenyan, who was Sally's live-in boyfriend in London at the time. The three of them became inseparable friends.
In 1985, Emma's travelling spirit was awakened when she took time off from her course to travel on a round-the-world-trip in a two seater plane with a friend. When Emma from the trip, she found it impossible to settle down to her art course. She had become exposed to a life that was wider than the confines of her British existence, and she wanted more. Also, Sally and Willie had left for Kenya, Willie's birthplace, and she was yearning to join them. She decided to join them later that year for a tour of Africa, but she had to work hard to find the money for the airfare. She got a job in a restaurant fraternised by African students with whom she quickly made friends. She soon found out that she was more attracted to African men - more so the tall, dark Sudanese ones - than to white men. She became fascinated with Sudan as a whole, keeping track of the conflict that ripped North and South apart.
There had been war in Sudan since 1955 when it was freed from colonial rule. In 1983 John Garang formed the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) to fight for the south. Riek Machar, a tall, distinguished, British-educated man from the Nuer tribe, was Garang's right hand man. There were constant appeals for help for the region, and Emma took advantage of this by contacting the Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) in Britain to help her get a job in Khartoum. In 1986, she got a job teaching briefly at one of the local schools. When she returned to London she moved in with Sally, who had by then come back from Africa. "She and I were always living together, wherever we went," Sally says. "She never bought any furniture or anything, but she would just move in and fit in somehow.
Back in London, Emma joined various organisations that offered aid to Sudan, and even started a newsletter on the region. But she was yearning to go back, and in December 1986, she got another brief teaching position in the country. Three months later she was back in London to continue trying to find a permanent place in Sudan, and to finish her Masters in African politics. In 1989, aged 22, Emma's dream of coming to Africa for good was finally fulfilled.
She spent her first few months on holiday with Willie, whose romantic involvement with Sally had ended, but with whom she was still good friends. The holiday with Emma invariably led to a romance, which Sally was only too happy to encourage. "Willie and Emma were such good friends of mine that I was only too happy to let them make a go of it," she says. Emma split her time between dodging bombs and bullets in Nasir, a small town on the Sobat River in the south of Sudan, and parties and safaris in Kenya.
January 1990 found her attending a conference at a hotel in Nairobi, where she hoped to meet Riek and tell him face to face what she thought of him and the war that was disrupting the lives of the school children in Sudan. She waited the whole day. When she finally cornered him in the evening, she launched into her tirade and fell in love, all at one go. Riek came face to face with a white woman with an axe to grind and was smitten by her. Riek's soft-spoken manner and wise answers to her questions were so unlike the war-lord behaviour that Emma had expected that she softened her stand and soon begun to ask questions about his personal life. They ended up spending that first night together. The next day Riek departed, leaving no information of his whereabouts.
Emma continued her relationship with Willie in spite of her feelings for Riek. However, she and Riek tried to keep track of each other, which proved almost impossible. Whenever Riek was in touch with the SPLA office in Nairobi he would ask whether anyone had seen her, and when she could, she would try and get radio messages to him. She wrote him letters that were never replied to. Finally, over a year later, Riek managed to get a message to her through a writer called John Ryle. He asked that she meet him in Nasir. Emma immediately begged a lift on a United Nations plane in an effort to get there on time - only to find that he had already left on urgent business. She returned to Nairobi to wait for a message, and when a few days later she heard via radio that he was back in his home base in Sudan, she decided to go there. Emma convinced Willie to drive her, something Willie later became very bitter about. He had earlier asked her to marry him and he was anxiously awaiting an answer. Somewhere inside of him, he hoped that this 'wild adventure' that they were embarking on would lead to a positive answer for him. So they got into his four wheeler and drove off towards the army garrison village of Wedenyang, Riek's base. Some 24 hours after their arrival, Emma had received another marriage proposal - from Riek. Having already decided that Riek was the man for her, Emma made up her mind quickly. The only problem was telling Willie. She finally told him on the journey back to Kenya. Willie was immensely hurt and angered by the thought that the woman he loved had used him to drive her straight to the arms of another man. Meanwhile, Emma convinced Street Kids International, the organisation she was working for, that Nasir, where Riek lived, was the perfect place to set up a school. So in April 1991 Emma found herself living in Riek's compound.
In June the two were married in a quaint little ceremony. Emma had no nice wedding clothes to wear and so she was married in a mud-splattered white Ethiopian shawl - their 'wedding entourage' Land Rover had been stuck in some mud and they had all had to get out and push. The Master of Ceremonies wore a pink quilted bathrobe (probably a 'mtumba' item whose purpose was unfamiliar to him); an inauspicious start, perhaps, but the start of a fulfilling marriage nevertheless.
"Emma never lost that initial attraction for Riek," Sally says. "The food was disgusting, the sanitary conditions appalling and there was literally no social life there, but Emma loved Riek enough to stay." She would occasionally visit Nairobi and stay at the house that she had shared with Sally in Lang'ata. She used the opportunity to attend all the parties she could and borrow Sally's clothes. "I would get so mad sometimes because she would take my best party clothes and wear them to the 'duka'," Sally laughs. "But it was okay. She was like my sister and I felt nothing but immense pride being with her, because of who she was and the things she had done."
In August 1991, political events in Sudan brought about a permanent change in Emma's life. The SPLA split into two, due to differences between Riek and his leader Garang. Garang's men blamed Emma for the split, claiming that she had been a British spy and a catalyst for the split. Suddenly Emma's life was in danger, and she had to travel everywhere with a bodyguard lest she fall prey to Garang's men. She was in England at the time, visiting her mother, but she flew right back to Sudan, in the middle of the fray, to be by her husband's side. The conflict soon became a tribal clash, when members of Riek's Nuer tribe massacred about 2,000 villagers from Garang's Dinka tribe. A ripe war erupted. To make matters worse, Emma lost her job as a direct result of her marriage to Riek; they looked upon it as taking sides, whereas the organisation was meant to be neutral; she had also lost friends and support because of Riek. She later suffered a bout of typhoid malaria which weakened her considerably. Ironically, Emma survived life in war-torn Sudan without a scratch, but died in the relatively safety of Kenya.
"This was the house Emma discovered for us," Sally says of the beautiful Ngong Dairy, situated about a kilometre from the Karen shopping centre on Ngong Road in Nairobi. From it, one has a lovely view of the Ngong Hills. This is the house where Emma had probably hoped to bring her first and much-wanted child to term. Riek's security men, however, looked at the wide expanse and told her that it was a security nightmare - so she ended up living in Riverside Park, in an apartment she called 'The Peace House'. She had finally found the perfect balance between her life in Sudan and her life with her husband; she had found a lovely house to share with him and to top it all, she was pregnant. Emma could not have been happier. That is the moment death chose to take her.
The day before she died, Emma held a dinner party at her house, where she had been in her element. The next day she decided to meet with her friend Willie - who in spite of the heartache she had caused him, had forgiven her - at Sally's house, the Ngong Dairy. "Emma has never been a good driver, and that particular day she was really excited about everything," Sally comments. Emma did not have a driver with her - not even a bodyguard, which was rather unusual, and was driving herself to Sally's house. At the junction of James Gichuru Road and Gitanga Road, with the sun in her eyes, Emma drove out into the intersection, where a speeding matatu promptly rammed into her. She was tossed into the yard of a neighbouring house with severe internal chest injuries. Had an ambulance been called immediately, Emma may have been saved. But the owner of the house where she had been thrown spent valuable minutes looking for the 'baby' Emma was muttering about, thinking that her child had been thrown out of the car, not able to see that Emma was talking about her pregnancy. It was only when a policeman arrived and insisted that they first take care of Emma that she was ferried to the Nairobi Hospital, where she died.
"I don't think anyone engineered her death - I mean we all knew that Emma was a terrible driver," Sally insists.
Riek has since tried to recover from her death, although he has abandoned the rebel SPLA movement for the government in Khartoum. His efforts to bring peace to Sudan through talks between the guerrilla forces and the government have come to naught, as the SPLA forces are now suspicious of him, and his popularity had at one time plummeted.
In an effort to reconcile herself to her daughter's untimely death, Emma's mother, Maggie McCune, has written 'Till the Sun Grows Cold', which was published this year. Sally sells jewellery in Nairobi and Britain, and continues to be good friends with Willie Knocker, who still harbours a little resentment about the treatment he received. And the African sun continues to rise and set, heedless of the little lives of these and other mortals who can only plan their lives as far as fate will let them