Emmanuel Jal speaks on youth during wartime at Hofstra University

March 23rd, 2011

The Hofstra Chronicle

By Svenja van den Woldenberg
Wednesday, March 23, 2011
Read Full Article Here

Emmanuel Jal, former child soldier now internationally known hip-hop artist, brought a packed Student Center Theater audience to its feet on Tuesday afternoon during his performance of “We Want Peace” as part of Globalization Day: Focus on Africa.

Jal came a long way from his home village of Tonj in Southern Sudan. Around age seven, Jal said civil war broke out in his hometown. “I thought the world was ending. The bombs were dropping; you see different kind of lights. My mother would scream…all I can see is her mouth moving because the sound [of the bombs] is so loud,” said Jal.

Jal lost much of his family during the war. He left home after his mother was killed, also at age seven, to join thousands of children traveling to Ethiopia in search of education. But like many others, he was recruited into the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and trained as a soldier. “I lost my childhood, there’s nothing I can do about it,” said Jal.

Jal preformed a spoken word about what he called the lowest point of his life during his lecture; he was starving in the desert and considered eating his friend to survive. Jal said he escaped the SPLA camp with a group of 400 other boys and they were fleeing to Kenya, only 16 survived the journey. According to the UNICEF website, 20,000 other children, mostly boys between the ages of 7 to 17, made this journey across Sudan to Ethiopia and back. They became known to the world as “the Lost Boys of Sudan.” The journey was only supposed to take one month, Jal said, but it ended up taking the group three months instead. “I was so excited to go because I wanted to see my brothers and sisters,” said Jal.

The group ran out of food and resorted to eating leaves and any animals they could catch. Many people got poisoned, he continued, and then the group had to cross the savanna. The group soon ran out of water and had nothing to cook with. “In the morning I would wipe my hand on the grass and would lick it several times. That was how we got water for the day,” said Jal.

Some people got frustrated on the journey and shot themselves, Jal said. “A couple of times I wanted to end my life, but something tells me to not do it,” Jal said, that and wanting to see his siblings is what kept him going.

The group reached a tree, a gathering place where people came to die. When the body becomes dehydrated, Jal said, the saliva dries up, you experience headaches and vision becomes blurry. He said it is much more torture than starving to death. “We were all ready to die. And I did a prayer, I prayed to my mother’s God and asked for water,” said Jal. After about five minutes, Jal said, it began to rain so the group collected water and was happy.

About two hours later, Jal said the group reached a swamp; there were so many mosquitoes around that he could only wipe his face clean so he could see. He collected snails from the swamp waters, to eat, and was laughed at by some of the adults in the group who were too prideful to eat snails and starved to death instead. When the vultures came to eat the dead bodies, Jal said the group shot them and ate them.

After a few days, Jal said the snails and the insects disappeared and a couple members of the group turned to cannibalism. “I look at my fellow human beings and they smell like food to me,” said Jal. When one of his friends was dying that night, Jal said, “I looked at him and I told him ‘I’m going to eat you tomorrow.'”Jal stayed up all night, so his friend would not die himself, and also because his mind was struggling with the idea of eating another human being; it was the only way he could survive but he knew if he did it would haunt him for the rest of his life. Again, he said he prayed to his mother’s God for food. Five hours later, a black crow flew by him and the group shot it and ate it until there was no trace of it left.

The group continued on, said Jal, and ended up in Waat where he met Emma McCune, a British aid worker married to a senior SPLA commandant. Jal was 11 years old at the time, he said, and McCune convinced him he should not be a soldier. Jal said McCune smuggled him to Kenya where he attended school in Nairobi and began singing. McCune died in an accident a few months later and Jal wrote a rap, called “Emma,” about what she did for him because he never got to thank her for what she did.

In addition to his musical work, Jal also founded several charities including GUA Africa and Lose to Win Challenge. He has published a book, an album and a documentary¾all called War Child.

“I have hope in the young people and the youth that they have. They have the power to change the future,” said Jal. “Thank you to all of you interested in Africa. One person alone can make noise, can only make a difference, but if two or more people come together we can change the world.”