Magazine article New Internationalist

Emmanuel Jal

Magazine article New Internationalist

Emmanuel Jal

Article excerpt

Age seven, Emmanuel JaI was a child soldier In Sudan; today, he is a champion for African education and development, and a rapper of international acclaim. His autobiography War Child has been read by thousands, and his music has topped African charts.

You'd think these phenomenal achievements would be enough to satisfy him, but meet JaI for more than two minutes, and you can visibly see his drive to do more. When I catch up with him in a North London pub the sun is burning, but a baggy hoodie still covers his skinny frame. JaI has made a commitment to eat just one meal a day until he has raised enough money to build a school In Sudan.

'In my country one meal a day is normal,' he says. 'The only difference is that I choose it. I have no breakfast, no lunch - 1 can only eat from 5pm.'

JaI has a long way to go to meet his target of raising $300,000. Although there is no doubting his commitment to the project and his passion for the children he is fighting for, I wonder whether his need to fast is coming from a darker place. Perhaps his abstinence is a way of coping with inequity and injustice as well as a means to solve it; a way of living with escape when others have been left behind.

'I find it hard to eat when other kids suffer. I feel guilty sleeping in a bed. I push myself an unhealthy amount but It's worth dying for. If a man has nothing to die for then he may as well not live.'

It's not difficult to see why he feels so haunted. When he was just six or seven (he does not know his exact age), his mother was killed by Muslim rebels at his home in southern Sudan. Orphaned, he was picked up by the predominantly Christian Sudan People's Liberation Army.

'The training we received was very organized. We learnt how to build our own houses, how to make weapons. We learnt that anything could be a weapon. We were children but we were trained to kill. We had to figure out how to bury another kid if something happened to him. People died in training, and there was no accountability for those who were lost.'

Many young recruits were orphans, and the military camps formed an alternative community of support and stability. Military life provides a sense of family, along with regular meals and - most importantly - a reason to carry on.

'We were trained to be good soldiers - it's like a father taking a kid hunting. You wanted to do well. You wanted to kill as many Muslims as possible. You saw your home get burnt down, your sister get raped and your family lost -there's nothing to stop you hating. …

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