Review of Jebel Marra by Michelle Green, Comma Press, 2015

I don’t often review collections of short stories or novels, even those about conflict in Africa, one of my primary areas of interest.  This book, though, struck me as worthy of review for a couple of reasons: one is that the short stories, some little more than scraps of memory or brief vignettes, are highly evocative of the images that come back weeks, months or years after events that have imprinted themselves on your mind; the other is that the author sets out, according to the blurb on the back, to “reach beyond the myths so often used to simplify this crisis [Darfur] and offer moving, first-hand insights into a tragedy that – like so many others – disappeared from our headlines all too quickly”.

jebel marra

I have not been to Darfur but have followed the story closely and included a detailed account in my contemporary history of Africa, which is published in September.  So I knew, from a distance, the background, the players and the major events and humanitarian disaster that was and still is Darfur. But I’ve reported from many areas of Africa and many of the stories, from the viewpoints of aid workers or journalists, strike a chord with me and I can relate the shock, hopes, horrors and suspicions that populate the minds of the main characters to what I experienced in war zones of Angola, out with mine clearance teams, when I was arrested and deported from Kenya  or dealing with corrupt coppers, black marketeers and dodgy politicians across East and Southern Africa. Some of the experiences are very different but they still strike chord.  The first, very short, contribution called Debrief,  in which the character has memories that can easily flood out and overwhelm others, curiously reminds me of returning from one trip with a bad bout of lariam-induced memory loss and feeling that were lots of things I wanted to talk about but could never quite remember what they were or quite how they were important.

Many of the other contributions are more directly about events in Darfur, about the attacks by the janjaweed and the Sudanese air force on vulnerable communities, suspect purely because they are Fur or Zaghawa, just like the rebels.  Others deal with the suspicions of betrayal, the constant worry about whose side your driver, interpreters or guide is really on.  These will hit home hard to people who have experienced similar things and so the echoes resonate.

But I fear the author’s aims to use these stories to reach beyond myths and simplification will not be attained. Those who read, understand and identify with the stories will already have busted those myths or have their own particular understanding of the conflict.  What the book lacks for a more general reader who has heard of Darfur and perhaps been touched by the tragedy without understanding its dynamics or roots is context and sufficient detail or placing of the conflict in a time and place to make enough sense of the import of each narrative.  There is, from my cynical point of view, a continuation of the framing of the janjaweed as an uncomplicated representation of evil with the Fur and Zaghawa as victims. They were victims, of course, but they also had agency and acted with brutality and a disregard for human life when it suited them.  There is still an element of the Clooney-esque  good and evil about the references to the janjaweed. They were brutal, they were tools of Khartoum but the question is how much in this were they too victims of history, of the colonial mapmakers who created fronteirs that hemmed in and increased conflict between nomadic, trading or pastoral communities and of the ambitions of the dominant political and military elites in Khartoum?

For those interested in Sudan these stories will be fascinating and provocative reading, for a less-informed audience, the wider context that a novel or a non-fiction work framing the narratives could bring is missing and these would perhaps have been better formats.

Keith Somerville is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London; teaches Communications and Humanitarianism at the Centre for Journalism, University of Kent; and is editor of Africa – News and Analysis (www.africajournalismtheworld.com)