Memoir of a War Child
Emmanuel Jal’s new memoir offers a fresh perspective on growing up as a Sudanese child solider — and surviving the aftermath.
For the last decade, following the brutal civil war in Sudan that raged for nearly 20 years, media outlets have increasingly produced stories about the troubled East African nation’s Lost Boys—the displaced, typically orphaned children who survived the conflict. Mostly young men—female orphans were often adopted within Sudan and used for dowry bartering—many of the children were relocated en masse to middle America. A handful of these refugees became documentary darlings in films like Lost Boys of Sudan and God Grew Tired Of Us. A few met an even more glamorous fate, like Ger Duany, who had a supporting role in the film I Heart Huckabees.
Unlike his film star counterparts, after the war, Lost Boy Emmanuel Jal ended up in the care of a British aid worker, Emma McKune, who enrolled him in a Kenyan boarding school. When McKune died in a car accident, her friends continued to support Jal’s education. Eventually, through a rather labyrinthine series of fortuitous circumstances, Jal graduated from academia and began a successful hip-hop career, performing songs largely based on his accounts of life as a former child solider. After recording two albums in the first half of the last decade, Jal released his third album, War Child, in 2008, to critical and commercial success. That same year, Jal starred in a documentary also called War Child.
Last month, Jal parlayed his initial storytelling success by releasing a memoir, War Child: A Child Soldier’s Story. He is not the first Lost Boy to publish a personal history, but every young man’s story is unique. He chronicles his years as a soldier with remarkable candor, adeptly explaining the ways he was indoctrinated with anti-Arab hatred in order to convince him to kill his own neighbors. Jal teases out the complexities of the Sudanese civil war in a way his documentary didn’t allow. Later, to counteract the weight of his war stories, Jal concludes the book with tales of the famous friends he’s made throughout his career.
Jal, like many Lost Boys, is from the Dinka tribe, though he says that, over time, tribal affiliations came to mean very little in Sudan. “The war in Sudan was less distinct than a fight between black and Arab, Christian and Muslim,” he writes. “Centuries of marriage had blurred our tribes, age-old rivalries were used by the northern government to pit one against the other, and black Muslims from Darfur fought alongside Arab Muslim troops in the belief that they were taking part in a holy war against the infidels from the south.” Jal’s violent upbringing was sealed well before he stepped onto any battlefields by the fact that his father was one of the leaders of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA).
As many as two million people died during the course of the Sudanese civil war, which forced thousands and thousands of citizens to undertake occasionally deadly journeys across the desert, to refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya. Much of Jal’s memoir is devoted to the inhospitable trek to—and life at—a refugee camp in Ethiopia. For it was from his refugee camp, a supposedly safe place, that he and a group of friends were sent to war training. When not learning to use assault rifles and hate their countrymen, Jal and the other boys were trained in hand-to-hand combat. At one point, Jal’s best friend in the camp—a complicated relationship, as friendships were banned—was ordered to beat Jal. Later, when the roles were reversed, Jal didn’t hesitate, taking pride in beating his friend in return. At the time of this incident, the boys were eight years old.
Throughout the book, Jal offers a look at the depth of his trauma with several illuminating—and sometimes darkly funny—anecdotes. At one point, Jal notes that has no idea what his actual age is, so he’s forced to estimate based on his size and strength. And when his adoptive caretaker, McKune, first takes him to Kenya, he tries to eat a bar of soap, which he’s never seen. While in school, he gets into trouble for fighting, and in the evenings he has awful nightmares of a childhood fraught with disturbing imagery nobody should face, let alone a child: eating bugs and rats, shooting his own people, witnessing the brutal rape of his aunt, and watching the murders of his closest friends.
But his life in Kenya allowed him to begin his music career in earnest, and Jal struggled for a number of years before finding his own style and voice. His accounts of empty concert halls or audiences that refused to applaud are heartbreaking as a reader since you know how much he had already struggled. With an almost masochistic perseverance, however, Jal nevertheless pursued the best-known gospel DJ in Nairobi until his first single got airplay. Before long, other stations had picked up his tracks, he received an invitation to perform at Live 8 and later, Nelson Mandela’s 90th birthday party.
Perhaps what leveraged Jal’s success in part was his commitment to Christian values, which is a cornerstone of his narrative. Throughout the book, he writes of his prayers for safety and how he questioned God’s plan for him at some points in his life. His rap lyrics are also peppered with religious themes. Yet Jal’s overt faith is not off-putting to nonbelievers the way some proselytizing Christian rock groups. His writing reflects a genuine non-denominational balance between appreciating the secular world and respect for his own values.
Today, after nearly a decade of charity work that began with his first organization, the Consolidation Association for Southern Sudanese Youth (CASSY), Jal runs Gua Africa and works as a spokesperson for the Make Poverty History campaign, among others. His own education inspired him to work on building several schools in southern Sudan, including one named for McKune in his home village of Leer.
Jal’s use of many mediums to tell his story seems quite appropriate. Surviving a bewilderingly violent childhood and becoming a famous rap star is hardly a linear path, and Jal’s story doesn’t fit neatly into any particular packaging or standard narrative structure. The pieces of his tale are interwoven in a way that help each compliment the other. If you pick up the book, be prepared to grab War Child—the CD or the film—while you’re at it. As Jal explains, “I’m still a soldier, fighting with my pen and paper, for peace till the day I cease.”
Brittany Shoot is a freelance writer currently living in Copenhagen. She has a master’s of visual and media arts from Emerson College. Read her at brittanyshoot.com.