Lady MacBeth in mini skirt is still talk of Sudan - and Hollywood

Share this article

THE name Emma McCune is being whispered in the corridors of power in Khartoum following the death of vice-president John Garang in a helicopter crash - a death that has sparked off fierce tribal rivalries in Sudan.

Garang used to call the tall, attractive British aid worker a modern-day version of Lady Macbeth. "She is Lady Macbeth in a red mini skirt," he once told an aide during a visit to Harare, Zimbabwe, in the early 1990s.

It was a reference to her lavish dress style when she lived in impoverished African villages during the late 1980s and early 1990s and the fact that she wielded considerable influence over her guerrilla commander husband, Riek Machar, who is now trying to make a political comeback after a long time in the wilderness.

McCune has also got Hollywood talking, with a film being made starring Nicole Kidman as the flamboyant, young, attractive and idealistic aid worker who died in a car accident 12 years ago in Nairobi while carrying Machar's child.

Of Irish-Scottish ancestry, McCune went to war-torn Sudan in 1987, full of idealism and a burning desire to help starving African children. Like millions of other people of her generation, McCune, who was brought up in Richmond, North Yorkshire, was inspired by Band Aid, Bob Geldof and pictures of starving black children dying needlessly in Ethiopia and other parts of Africa.

After working as a teacher and fundraiser for Canadian-based Street Kids International - she founded more than 100 schools in the country's devastated south - and made headlines back home in Britain when she married rebel guerrilla commander, Machar.

McCune was six feet tall and her equally flamboyant husband (who was already married to a Sudanese girl) was seven feet tall.

"She looked up to him in more ways than one," said a family friend who is warning that the "true" story of McCune and her commitment to Africa will be turned into a slushy love story with a happy ending by Hollywood.

Garang, who was buried in the southern Sudanese capital of Juba yesterday, said that his erstwhile supporter - Machar - would never have broken away from his monolithic Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA) to form his own splinter group had it not been for the influence of McCune.

After meeting McCune, Machar told his supporters from the powerful Nuer tribe of southern Sudan that his aim was not to control Khartoum. Rather, he said, it was to create two Sudans - an Arab Sudan based in Khartoum and an African/Christian Sudan in the south.

Machar and McCune were hailed by Nuer tribal leaders as their unofficial king and queen. Towards the end of her short life, McCune lived in two worlds - one based in an African hut surrounded by some of the world's poorest people: another in London and Nairobi where she dressed like a fashion model, ate the finest foods in the best restaurants and boasted that although she was a white woman from a British middle-class family she was really the power behind an African guerrilla leader.

A few hours after John Garang died last week, his followers elected his number two as their leader and he has automatically become Sudan's vice-president following an agreement to end two decades of civil war in Nairobi last January.

Like Garang, vice-president Salva Kiir Mayardit is a Dinka tribesman. But he will need the help of the Nears if he wants to succeed in an Arab-dominated government.

Machar - long neglected and today little known outside southern Sudan - might well emerge as a national leader of considerable consequence.

But in Khartoum he is best remembered as the husband of "Lady Macbeth".