Emmanuel Jal was born in Southern Sudan c. 1980. By the time he was seven, his father had left to fight with the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and his mother had been murdered by government soldiers.
After that he was recruited by the SPLA and trained as a soldier. For five years he fought with the army, but as the fighting became unbearable Jal and some of the other children ran away.
They wandered for three months, many of them dying on the journey until they reached the town of Waat. Emma McCune, a British aid worker who was married to a senior SPLA commandant, insisted that at 11, Jal was too young to be a soldier and adopted him and smuggled him to Kenya. There Emmanuel went to school and even though McCune died in a road accident, her friends continued to help him.
Jal began singing to ease the pain of what he had experienced, he also began to work at raising money for street children in Kenya and his first single, “All We Need is Jesus” was a hit in Kenya and received airplay in the UK.
Jal tries to unite young people through his music – he believes that music can help overcome ethnic and religious divisions. His first album – Gua – is a mix of Arabic, English, Swahili, Dinka and Nuer. The title – Gua – is a symbol of the unity for which he is striving as it means ‘good’ in Nuer and ‘power’ in Sudanese Arabic.
His second album, Ceasefire, is a collaboration with the well known Sudanese Muslim musician Abd El Gadir Salim. The collaboration between Jal and Salim demonstrates their vision of unity. On the album they emphasize their musical differences as a symbol of co-existence.
Jal dedicates his life to the wellbeing of children, believing that music is a vehicle for uplifting the spirit and surviving tragedy. The commonest theme of his songs is the campaign for peace – particularly in his native Sudan – and his condemnation of using children as soldiers.
A documentary about Emmanuel Jal called War Child was made in 2008 by C. Karim Chrobog. It made its international debut at the Berlin Film Festival and its North American debut at the Tribeca Film Festival, where it won the Cadillac Audience Award. An autobiography under the same name was released in 2009.
Jal’s charity, Gua Africa, builds schools and tries to help children and Sudanese war survivors.
Those of us who are lucky enough to live in relative peace should never underestimate the suffering caused by war or give up working to eliminate it.