Emmanuel Jal: War Child to Peace Soldier
Last Friday evening, the pews of Cannon Chapel vibrated to the tempo of Emmanuel Jal’s song ‘We Want Peace’ from his new album See Me Mama. Co-hosted by Emory University’s Institute of Developing Nations and the Carter Center, activist and artist Emmanuel Jal visited Emory’s campus to sing a few songs and share his gut-wrenching story of transformation from a child soldier in Sudan to an internationally-acclaimed recording artist and humanitarian.
Through his most current campaign, called We Want Peace, Jal has collaborated with celebrated figures – such as Alicia Keys, George Clooney, Peter Gabriel and Atlanta’s own Jimmy Carter among others – to raise awareness to the fundamental principles of peace in a region historically recognized for violence.
To an audience of students, faculty and staff, Jal communicated pivotal episodes of his life through the medium of Spoken Word and the universal language of music, which he describes as the only form of art that truly “speaks to your mind, your heart and your soul.” Typically, his tracks speak of peace – not only as the attainment of freedom, equality and justice but also as the promise of fulfillment, when “bellies are full and we live in an environment where conflict can be prevented,” he said. Jal refuses to wallow in maudlin ballads of past struggles and hardships, instead urging others to sing and dance with him in a celebration of deliverance from a world of genocide and destruction.
Nonetheless, the context of Jal’s childhood produced a soundtrack much different than the up-tempo lyrical songs he performed last Friday.
During the late 1980s in the regions of present-day South Sudan, the persistent explosions of nearby bombs seemed to provide the rhythm to a cacophonous melody of rattling machine guns and screaming victims, and the sky flashed with the lightning of warfare as villages were burnt to the ground.
This was during the recent civil war in Sudan that pitted the Arabs in the north against the Liberation Army in the south. Young Jal, even when handed a gun and deemed a soldier, understood little of the politics behind the force that had taken the life and family he had known.
At the age of seven, Jal joined an assembly of other displaced children on an arduous trek to Ethiopia with the prospect of gaining an education in a refugee camp established by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). Under the threat of starvation, dehydration, disease and wild animals, this procession of children – gradually dwindling in number – marched through the arid wilderness until eventually arriving at the refuge, where Jal recounts seeing “a sea of kids” bound by a common hope for deliverance.
In the camp, Jal and the other children were given two things to ensure their dependence on the rebel army: food to regain their health, and AK-47s to fight against those who had displaced them.
Jal remarked that at the time, being trained as a soldier – no matter how physically and mentally unmerciful – fed his excitement as “an opportunity to be armed.”
Reminiscent visions of his village scattering beneath the intimidating bark of thunder and gunfire planted a seed within Jal’s young mind of hatred, bitterness and the overwhelmingly sinful desire to reciprocate this violence on his enemies.
But after years as a child soldier, Jal decided to escape from his unfulfilled life with the SPLA to the town of Waat near the Ethiopian border, once again risking starvation and disease in search of refuge from war.
In a particularly life-changing episode during this trek, Jal sat beneath a tree and watched the life slowly leave his friend Lual.
Determined to survive the night, Jal resisted sleep in an internal struggle with the temptation of cannibalism that the unremitting aroma of dry meat from his companion’s corpse heightened.
Jal fervently prayed to God to be delivered from both starvation and being “forced to sin to live.” Miraculously, a crow fell from the tree above, shot down by another of Jal’s companions, and provided Jal a nutritious answer to his prayer.
Spiritually and nutritionally replenished, Jal was able to reach the city of Waat, where he met the person who would come to influence his young, but eventful, life the most: Emma McCune, a British aid worker who brought Jal to Kenya to receive a proper education.
McCune represented to Jal the epitome of a relational love that rescued him from ceaseless violence and instilled within him the importance of education and peace that he still endorses today.
Sadly, McCune died prematurely in a car crash in Nairobi, an event that caused Jal to retreat into music as a remedy for stress and frustrations, but his love for hip-hop eventually thrust him into an artistic and active career: using his music as a medium to tell his story of deliverance from war and poverty through the peace and education introduced by McCune.
Today, doubling as a recording artist and humanitarian advocate, Jal focuses much of his efforts on exposing his incredible story as a call for peace and equity in an otherwise war-torn world. In 2008, he launched an organization called Gua Africa (pronouncing gwah, meaning ‘peace’ in his Sudanese tribal language) that provides war and poverty-stricken communities and individuals with various opportunities to receive an affordable education, and in 2010, he commenced his current project We Want Peace to celebrate and support through music the maintenance of world-wide peace.
In a world commonly defined by opposing forces, open gunfire and conflicting hatred, Emmanuel Jal firmly declares that the biggest battle we all have to face to improve our environment does not involve shooting your neighbor down but rather raising him up with respect.
The difference between love and hate, war and peace, is proper education – the opportunity presented by knowledge and understanding as the only weapons necessary for the attainment of an environment devoid of conflict.
— By Austin Price