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Meet Emmanuel Jal

2011 September 27

The Common Ground Awards are coming up (October 27) and if you’d like to come get your tickets now!

Leading up to the event we’ll be showcasing each of our exceptional 2011 awardees. This week the spotlight is on Emmanuel Jal.

A former child soldier in Southern Sudan, Emmanuel Jal is far more comfortable holding a mic than a gun. He’s dedicated his life to building peace through music, media and his organization, Gua Africa. Jal was born on January 1, 1980, the date every child soldier claims as his birthday because all records have been lost in the tragic events of the wars. He spent the early years of his childhood in the midst of Southern Sudan’s long running civil war. After the death of his mother at the age of 7, he was recruited as a child soldier for the Rebel army (SPLA). The training was hard, the food scarce and the fighting fierce. Jal and his comrades stole cows and chickens from the villagers and sometimes burnt their houses. They fought on the front lines for Sudanese independence. “There are no happy memories — everything was just violence, trauma, and war. That’s what I remember”, Jal says.

After the SPLA started to break into factions Jal was able to escape together with 300 to 400 other child soldiers. Their escape turned into a nightmare as they trekked three months through the desert, losing one friend after the other to famine and thirst. Only a few of the former child soldiers survived and made it to the refugee camp at Waat.

Jal’s luck held on. He found a guardian in the British Aid worker Emma McCune, who brought him to Kenya. “She smuggled me onto a flight to Nairobi — she kept the pilot busy because she was pretty and able to convince people. I hid among the bags and when we got to Nairobi it was difficult and strange — a different world.” Emmanuel adjusted quickly to this strange world and finally his dream came true: he was able to attend school.

In the year 2000 Emmanuel joined the gospel choir of his church, the catalyst for his musical career. It is his belief that tragedies such as war, starvation and injustice can only be put aside by being uplifted through music, film and dance. “Music can be used to communicate messages to the masses and create awareness, to influence the people positively.” From the gospel choir, Emmanuel started to rap. He teamed with Sudanese superstar Abdel Gadir Salim to release his first album, Ceasefire in 2005. Three years later in 2008 his album Warchild was released and became a number 1 record. He is also the subject of the documentary film, War Child. The same year he performed at the 90th birthday concert for Nelson Mandela, for whom he has deep admiration and respect.

Jal’s quest for peace is linked to his experience and his homeland. “It breaks my heart to witness what is going on in Sudan,” Jal says. To make a difference in the lives of other children, Jal  founded Gua Africa, an organization whose mission is to work with individuals, families and communities to help them overcome the effects of war and poverty. Based in Sudan and Kenya, Gua Africa focuses on providing an education to children and young adults who would otherwise be denied such an opportunity. Jal is dedicated to improve the life of the less fortunate and lives by simple rules: “Do not to others what you would not like done to myself. Love and respect every walk of life and be as honest as possible.” In 2010 Jal helped to found We want peace. Kicking off the campaign, and in dedication to Southern Sudan’s historic referendum, Emmanuel released what has become a world wide sensation: ‘We Want Peace’ 

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