Forgiving sets you free

27 Jul 2009

Forgiving sets you free

Chatting over the phone from his London residence, hip hop singer Emmanuel Jal said he originally wanted to be an engineer, someone who worked with machinery.

Internationally acclaimed singer Emmanuel Jal tells his story

Chatting over the phone from his London residence, hip hop singer Emmanuel Jal said he originally wanted to be an engineer, someone who worked with machinery.

"But now I'm singing. I never thought I would do this ... it is a career that came without me preparing for (it)," the performer said.

He has even been using hip hop to tell American students and refugees in Kenyan camps about his life – leaving his Southern Sudanese home to seek an education and becoming a child soldier.

Confessing that he was still learning about the music, Emmanuel said, "I just got myself into something I didn't know much about." But he had always been familiar with the genre, which is characterized by ego-games and rhyme battles.

Living as a child with his mother and siblings near Bentiu, Emmanuel and his friends tried to outdo each other with insults. "I remember ... telling another kid that 'your mother is so ugly that when she stands next to a forest, she can scare the lions away'."

Emmanuel has also told his story through a documentary called War Child, which premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in February 2008, and published an autobiography under the same title.

"There was peace in Sudan for the first three years of my life, but I cannot remember it," he writes in his book War Child: A child soldier's story. "All I knew was a war that grew as I did," he says of a conflict that robbed him of his mother and eventually his childhood.

"I'd left my home because I wanted to go to school," said Emmanuel, recalling when his father sent him to study in Ethiopia about 1986. Along with hundreds of other children, he was bound for a refugee camp across the Sudanese-Ethiopian border when their boat overturned, and many of them drowned.

A born storyteller
Surviving the incident, Emmanuel joined the lines of "Lost Boys" marching towards Pinyudo refugee camp in Ethiopia. On the way, he witnessed starvation and lost friends to the desert as well as "monster" wild animals, the singer writes.

Emmanuel became popular with foreign aid workers in the camp, always willing to talk. A small child with a heart-shaped face appears in an archive snippet of the documentary, telling the workers about his dream to return home.

The foreigners were unaware that children in the camp were being trained nearby as child soldiers. In 1991, Emmanuel was fighting with the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) against Ethiopian rebels. But the refugees and SPLA were forced to move back to Sudan when the Ethiopian conflict intensified later that year.

Emmanuel escaped with some friends to Waat, Jonglei State, where Emma McCune found him around 1991. An immediate connection sprang up between Emma, a British aid worker as well as second wife of SPLA Commander Riek Machar, and Emmanuel.

Deciding he should have a better education, Emma smuggled him into Kenya in 1993. After she died in a car accident later that year, her friends took care of Emmanuel, until he moved to London four years ago.

Initially, Emmanuel used music against haunting memories, but it became a career when his debut album Gua (meaning peace in his native Nuer) was released in 2005. When his second album Ceasefire came out, Emmanuel began making money from music and set up an educational charity named Gua Africa (see box).

With his third album Warchild now released, Emmanuel is practicing a "lose to win" campaign to raise money for the Gua Africa-sponsored Emma Academy, to be built in Leer, Southern Sudan. Since December 2008, he has been eating only one meal a day, donating other food money to the Academy. With the help of other contributors, he has already reached $83,000, out of an ultimate fundraising target of $300,000.

Describing Southern Sudanese people as "education hungry", Emmanuel said, "The only thing that will stop war in Sudan is empowering people with knowledge." In his view, many people resorted to fighting because they lacked other ways of communicating to resolve disputes. "I think a lot of Sudanese ... don't know what they fight for."

Need for women's voices
Emmanuel also gained relief from war-time memories through his autobiography War Child. While working on the book, he admitted, "Every morning ... my chest used to shrink and half-way through the book I started to have terrible nightmares. It's horrible! Dead bodies ... houses burning ... But when I finished the book, I felt light."

In response to the argument that child soldiers are given more publicity than other victims of war, including young girls who are raped, Emmanuel noted the lack of women speaking out. His sister, he said, had only recently begun to feel she should talk about being raped.

"She is willing to speak about her story for the sake of women who are suffering," he said, emphasizing the need for strong women to speak about pain they had endured. Some women feared their communities would isolate and stigmatize them, he said. "They will be considered defective for being raped," thus unable to marry.

Emmanuel said he had eventually gained the ability to forgive his former enemies and himself. "I'm a peacemaker now because forgiving is the beginning of your healing."

The singer believes that once people forgive, they become free and powerful. "The first thing we need to do is to forgive the person (for) what they did to us, and then you forgive yourself. And you move on."

A school for Leer

Emmanuel Jal founded GuaAfrica to provide Kenyan and Sudanese children access to education. The organization has been planning a large scale project in Leer, Unity State.

"Emmanuel Jal had a dream of building a high-school in Leer, where Emma (McCune) had lived and worked, and was buried", said Trustee and Director of the would-be Emma Academy, Ruth Gumm.

When Emmanuel was working on his documentary War Child and met Leer town officials, he was awarded a 50-acre plot of land. The community also suggested that the existing primary school be renovated before further construction took place.

The original primary school was built in 1962 by the British, said Ms. Gumm. "It's in a poor state. The roof is infested with bugs, so it needs replacing." About 2,000 children study there at present, with classes split between the morning and afternoon based on age groups. Thus, the students receive only a half a day of education.

In the initial phase of the project, the goal was to add five classrooms to the already existing ones and build a library, toilet facilities and kitchen, said the director.

The second phase would focus on building a secondary school on the land granted by Leer. The site would also host sports facilities as well as a teacher and vocational training centre. Emmanuel said that they were planning a bakery too, where students would learn the art of bread making.

Gua Africa, which works mainly with volunteers, including the architect, is presently fundraising for the Emma Academy. The project budget is about $2 million with a two to three year time frame. The director said they were hoping to start construction in October this year, after the rainy season.

You can donate online to the Emma Academy at