He began childhood with an AK-47 in place of a family. He learned to kill his neighbors while children in other countries learned to read. Today, he leads a non-governmental organization, Gua Africa, dedicated to teaching peace, reconciliation, and providing education for South Sudan’s most vulnerable children.
Recruited among 12,000 other children to fight in Sudan’s civil war, Emmanuel Jal describes his childhood with the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army a living “hell.” Before the age of 10, he witnessed the rape of his aunt, his mother killed by the civil war, and the loss of his siblings.
“When I was eight I became a child soldier. I did not know what was the war for. But one thing I knew was in an image that I saw that got stuck in my head. And when I went to the training camp I said I want to kill as many Muslims and as many Arabs as possible … that was the driving force. I wanted revenge for my family. I wanted revenge for my village.”
Emmanuel escaped and with help from a British aid worker, found refuge in Kakuma, a refugee camp in northern Kenya. While on the run, he and his fellow ex-child soldiers experienced severe famine – the worst moments of starvation prompted cannibalism when a group member died. Out of these 400 child soldiers on the run, only 16 survived.
Once in Kakuma he realized that the violence he once knew as his normal was less a construct of his community and more a result of a flawed government, a fixed system.
Safe from violence for the first time in his life, Emmanuel discovered a healing power in music; a discovery that became both his safe haven and his platform for change.
“Music changed me … One testament of how I find music powerful is when, I was still a soldier . I hated the people in the north, but, I don’t know why, but I don’t hate their music. One day they brought an Arab musician to entertain the soldiers … and I almost broke my leg dancing.”
Through his success in music, he was able to fund, Gua Africa, a nongovernmental organization supporting children’s education in Kakuma’s refugee camp. The organization helps to educate the next generation of South Sudan teaching peace education, reconciliation, and sustainable development.
Emmanuel asks those investing in his home country to “Give us tools … Invest in education so that we (can) have strong institutions that can create a revolution … to change Africa.”
Emmanuel is living proof that the pen is mightier than the sword.