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Review of Far in the Waste Sudan: On Assignment in Africa


By Michael Medley

Far in the Waste Sudan: On Assignment in Africa. Nicholas Coghlan. McGill-Queen’s University Press, Montreal and London, 2005. Pp. 344. ISBN HB 0773529357. £22.95.

For three years between 2000 and 2003, Nicholas Coghlan was Canada’s top diplomat in Sudan: not Ambassador (the holder of that post was stationed in Addis Ababa), but head of the embassy’s Khartoum office. It was an office that Coghlan himself was obliged to set up, using rooms in the (much more substantially-endowed) British Embassy. Evelyn Waugh might have invented the early episode in which the newcomer attempts to affix his national crest at the door of his suite, and is told that it must be balanced by another one representing the mother country. When this arrives he is billed nearly fifteen hundred pounds.

As in a Waugh novel, landscapes, people and institutions are exposed in series of episodes, through their interaction with a slightly bemused central protagonist. But in the present case the procession of scenes seems much longer, and there is little plot. Nor is there an attempt to build any systematic thesis. Coghlan has evidently been an efficient maker of notes, and he appears willing to transcribe anything that could be of interest. He holds discussions with politicians and warlords; oil-workers and aid-workers. He travels to the deserts of the North and the forests of the South; to Darfur in the West and Dinder in the East. He sees the crumbling balconies of Suakin, the dune-lapped pyramids of Meroe, the mine-strewn mountains of Nuba, the moribund industrial complex of Nzara. He watches Dinka dancing in Wau, and Dervish dancing in Omdurman. He goes boating with the Blue Nile Sailing Club and airborne food-dropping over the war-torn South with Operation Lifeline. He makes the appropriate local allusions to Herodotus, Kitchener and Leni Riefenstahl. In short, he covers a high proportion of the things that the modern expat is expected to do in Sudan. He also thinks a high proportion of the thoughts that the modern expat is expected to think. He feels anger at the unending pervasiveness of acute suffering, amazement at the resilience of the people who suffer, dismay at the expense and inefficiencies of international aid, irritation with the frequent small-mindedness of officials, indignation at the callousness of politicians and warlords. Like most of us, in his discomfort he is driven to moralize not quite fairly or consistently, and to assert or imply more than he can assuredly know.

Why was the machinery of Nzara idle? “It’s the war”, everyone shrugged. No. It was neglect, pure and simple. Pure and simple explanations are what dignitaries come up with when they are feeling badgered.

To say that little in the book is very new is not to condemn it as worthless. A lot in the book is slightly new. A record of the particular dates and places at which a politician, project or institution was disposed in a certain way may well be of value to later students, if only as a touchstone for other material. Taken as a whole, this volume is probably a more complete representation than any other of the mainstream Western view of Sudan at the turn of the millennium. It hardly claims to be an academic work; there are no footnotes or formal references. But it has a serviceable index, so that one can imagine turning to it on occasion to see what Coghlan found in relation to a given topic. It is of particular interest, however, in relation to the oil controversy. The Canadian government had appointed Coghlan largely with a view to handling national and international concern over the role of a Canadian extraction company – Talisman – which was accused of cooperating with the Sudanese regime in scorched-earth tactics to protect the installations from Southern insurgents.

With such topics and uses in view, the book’s lack of an overall argument is perhaps no disadvantage. Coghlan’s observations reflect standard Western preoccupations, but they do not seem to have been deliberately selected and spun for purposes of self-vindication or anything else. The prose style throughout is clear and straightforward. At only slightly over twenty pounds for a beautifully-produced hard-back volume (and royalties going to a Canadian NGO), a reference copy should be purchased by any sizeable university library.

A few more episodes do stand out. The account of Maygoma orphanage in Khartoum – in which ‘some months, forty or fifty of the sixty or so admissions would die’ – is shocking even by the standard of Sudanese horror stories. The three Antonov planes queuing on a runway to depart for the war-afflicted South and bearing respectively food, medicines and bombs, make a telling emblem. Perhaps more evocative still is the portrait of the newly-appointed Wali of Abyei, who invites himself into a plane chartered by the Canadians, slots ammunition into a small shiny handgun, binds it into his turban, and settles down to sleep.


[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 69 (2007), pp. 80-82]

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