Emmanuel Jal: Ex-child soldier turned globe-trotting rapper

Emmanuel Jal: Ex-child soldier turned globe-trotting rapper

During his visit to China, former Sudanese child soldier Emmanuel Jal talks about his transformation from a lost boy to an international rap star
emmanuel jal
Emannuel Jal listens to the sounds of Guangzhou.

When Sudanese child-soldier-turned-rap-star Emmanuel Jal came to China this past weekend, he was delighted to see all the eccentric food on offer in Guangzhou.

“Here people eat something’s penis, they eat scorpions... If I had an idea of a society that ate these things, I would have just eaten everything back then.”

He was referring to his three-month journey when he trekked through the jungle and the desert on foot with other black Southern Sudanese who were all trying to escape from life in the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). At first, traditional taboos made him apprehensive to eat snails or frogs, but it turned out to be least of his worries when even these small animals disappeared and his companions started dying from thirst and starvation. Vultures picked through dead bodies. He was only 12 years old. 

“It was one of the lowest [points] in my life. I’ve never gone through starvation where I can sit next to my fellow human being and he smells like food. I was tempted to eat my friend in that journey.” 

In his song “Forced to Sin”, Jal wrote about cannibalism: 

When the choices are to kill or to be killed
Steal or be stolen from
Eat or be eaten
Then what can we do
When you are forced to sin to make a living.

Voices in my brain
Of friends that were slain
Friends like Lual
Who died by my side from starvation
In the baron jungle
And the desert plains
Next was I….
But Jesus heard my cry
As I was tempted to eat the flesh of my comrade.

At the beginning of the journey, they had 400 people. By the end of it, 16 remained.

"You get scared"

Jal’s story is typical of the infamous exodus so many Sudanese children went on to escape the mass killings perpetrated by the pro-government Arab militia at home in the hope of reaching a supposed refuge. They are the so-called “Lost Boys of Sudan” named after characters in Peter Pan who were lost to their parents, who fended off crocodiles and pirates, who were displaced both physically and emotionally. 

Jal’s mother was killed, his village burned down and he witnessed his aunt raped by Arab militiamen. At the age of seven, he was recruited by the oppositional Sudan People’s Liberation Army. 

“After I was trained, I wanted to kill as many Muslims and Arabs as I could.”

For many years, his AK-47 was his most reliable companion. “You get scared. The only way to strengthen yourself is to remember what happened to your village, what happened to your people. It makes you angry. Then you scream and you go.”

Two rounds of north-south civil war in Sudan have cost the lives of an estimated two million people, and a continuing conflict in the western region of Darfur has driven another two million people from their homes and killed more than 200,000. 

From lost boy to rap star 

Jal was one of the few lucky ones to emerge alive from the three-month trek. He was rescued by an aid worker who smuggled him into Kenya where he was put to school. There, he saw Muslims and Christians living together and Muslim kids befriended him. “I was thinking to do bad stuff to them, but they were nice to me and I didn’t understand that.” 

He was once invited to a restaurant with a Muslim man in attendance and Emmanuel was tempted to put a fork into the man’s throat. “But something told me, no, no, this is Kenya, you cannot do this.” 

Through the years, he discovered the teachings of Martin Luther King, Gandhi and Jesus. He read the Koran and found passages that preached against killing.

“A lot of Arabs [in Sudan] believe it is god’s will for us to be slaves, and god gave them the land, but no! God didn’t give them the land! Human beings twist everything to suit them.”

After having this realization, it was a decision between continuing to hate or to forgive and move on.

“When I forgave, that was when the healing began.”

It was also in Kenya when he discovered his passion and talent in music. He turned to music as a form of therapy, creating a brand of hip-hop layered with African beats, rapping in a mix of Arabic, English, Swahili, Dinka and Nuer. His music became a hit in Kenya and gradually received attention in the West. His music was played on the TV series ER and in the movie “Blood Diamond”. He performed on TED Talks, at the Live 8 concert and at Nelson Mandela's 90th Birthday concert in London. His fourth album “See Me Mama” will come out at the end of 2010.

“Is this China?”

Jal performed for around 600 students and parents at the British School of Guangzhou last week. It was his first time in China. 

China has become the biggest investor in Sudan in recent years and is often criticized for indirectly funding the pro-government militia. Among the investors are a Chinese company that pumps oil from the grounds of Jal’s hometown, and a lot of Chinese people work and live there. One of his songs talks of miners “raping Africa like she’s your prostitute”, but he said China is not the culprit, especially after he has seen the abundance and freedom in Guangzhou.

“The image I had about China is people are oppressed and they can’t talk to foreigners. When I come here, everybody’s happy, they are talking to me, some are touching my hair,” he chuckled. “So I say, whoa, is this China?”

“If there is a way the money stops, Sudan will have no way to empower itself or to buy weapons [but] the truth is China is not interested in developing any other country apart from its own country. It’s interested in feeding its own 1.3 billion people, which is good.” 

“My anger and pain just goes to the African leaders, because they have no interest for their people. If they really have interest for their people, [with] a lot of money pumped to them, they will have developed their country.” 

On his last day in Guangzhou, Jal wandered around Xiaobei Lu, a district where many of the estimated 20,000 legal African residents reside. Among towering apartment blocks and bustling highways are shopping complexes frequented by African traders who buy garments and electronics at wholesale prices to resell in their hometowns. “I’m coming back to do a show for you guys,” Jal told a Guinea shop owner. The district is a testament to the growing relations between China and Africa. 

“It’s a double-edge sword. When you go to Sudan, you actually find the people who are doing development there are Chinese: they build roads, they build bridges, there are constructions. Although they are taking so much, people are happy with them. If you look at what the West does, the West gives aid, but there’s less development.”

Surviving to tell the tale

Back at the hotel, Jal was getting excited as dinnertime approached. This will be his first and only meal of the day. It will also be his 576th day for having only one meal per day as part of a campaign to raise money for a school in Southern Sudan through his charity GUA Africa.

“It’s not easy going around the world telling the same same same story,” he reflected. “It’s like you are forced to visit that place again.” But he believes he has survived, to tell his story and to make a difference.

My brother Lual
When you died in the jungle
I didn’t have the strength to say goodbye
My lips were dry
Even now I try
It’s hard
But I guess I’ll try
Goodbye my brother

I’m in a different war
Fighting for the children of Darfur
The children of Sudan
And the children of Africa

Han Yan Yuen is a freelance reporter and producer currently based in Hong Kong.
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