Emmanuel Jal talked with Rowenna Davis
Age seven, Emmanuel Jal was a child soldier in Sudan; today, he is a champion for African education and development, and a rapper of international acclaim. His autobiography War Child has been read by thousands, and his music has topped African charts.
You’d think these phenomenal achievements would be enough to satisfy him, but meet Jal for more than two minutes, and you can visibly see his drive to do more. When I catch up with him in a North London pub the sun is burning, but a baggy hoodie still covers his skinny frame. Jal has made a commitment to eat just one meal a day until he has raised enough money to build a school in Sudan.
‘In my country one meal a day is normal,’ he says. ‘The only difference is that I choose it. I have no breakfast, no lunch – I can only eat from 5pm.’
Jal has a long way to go to meet his target of raising $300,000. Although there is no doubting his commitment to the project and his passion for the children he is fighting for, I wonder whether his need to fast is coming from a darker place. Perhaps his abstinence is a way of coping with inequity and injustice as well as a means to solve it; a way of living with escape when others have been left behind.
‘I find it hard to eat when other kids suffer. I feel guilty sleeping in a bed. I push myself an unhealthy amount but it’s worth dying for. If a man has nothing to die for then he may as well not live.’
It’s not difficult to see why he feels so haunted. When he was just six or seven (he does not know his exact age), his mother was killed by Muslim rebels at his home in southern Sudan. Orphaned, he was picked up by the predominantly Christian Sudan People’s Liberation Army.
‘The training we received was very organized. We learnt how to build our own houses, how to make weapons. We learnt that anything could be a weapon. We were children but we were trained to kill. We had to figure out how to bury another kid if something happened to him. People died in training, and there was no accountability for those who were lost.’
Many young recruits were orphans, and the military camps formed an alternative community of support and stability. Military life provides a sense of family, along with regular meals and – most importantly – a reason to carry on.
‘We were trained to be good soldiers – it’s like a father taking a kid hunting. You wanted to do well. You wanted to kill as many Muslims as possible. You saw your home get burnt down, your sister get raped and your family lost – there’s nothing to stop you hating. The image I have of Muslims is of them beating my mum. The seed of racism can be planted in a child. There must be a reason why we hate, but once that seed is planted it can grow into a bigger story.’
Jal’s story would have carried along this path if it hadn’t been for a woman named Emma McCune, a British aid worker who rescued him and more than 150 other child soldiers. Although she died in a car accident a few months after she met Jal, her friends fulfilled her wish of sending him to school in Kenya. It was only then that he started questioning his beliefs:
'If a man has nothing to die for then he may as well not live'
‘Education is the key to everything. I got to read the Bible and the Qur’an. I found out that the killing was about land and oil rather than religion. Before I was blaming Arabs, but everyone played their part. Education gives you truth, and the truth will set you free. It’s why I want to build the school and name it after Emma.’
For Jal, hip hop is also about education. Still in his twenties, he has now released three albums, and was asked to play at Nelson Mandela’s birthday concert in London’s Hyde Park last year. He points out that hip hop has been used in Africa to help change governments, and remains committed to the belief that it is one of the most productive ways to deliver political change:
‘I got into hip hop because I have a message. You can say so many words in one line. You can tell a story, and it has so many meanings. It’s also the only music form that has conquered every corner of the globe. It’s anywhere young people are.’
‘A peaceful world is what I’m after, but you have to have peace within you first. You can help get that through music – it’s the quickest form to speak to people, and they respond to it.’
Jal uses music as a way of coping with the things he can’t change, as well as a means of fighting for the things he can. One line from his new album, ‘Sometimes you gotta lose to win, never give up, never give in’, is designed to give strength to his listeners, but it also gives him the strength to continue his fast. Jal might have gone from child soldier to celebrity, but all he’s thinking about is what else there is to do. As he puts it simply when he gets up to leave: ‘I might be here, but this story is much bigger than me.’