Emmanuel Jal was born in the village of Tong (also known as Tony) in southern Sudan. Although he does not know when he was born, for practical reasons he has estimated his date of birth as 1 January 1980 (he could be anywhere in between 23 and 27 years old), and the following information takes that date as a marker. Emmanuel's mother died when he was 7 years old and his father was a soldier in the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA also known as the SPLM or Sudan People's Liberation Movement).
Sudan was a dangerous place for children and after the death of his mother, Emmanuel decided to join the thousands of children travelling to Ethiopia who had been told that they could be educated there. However, Emmanuel was among the large number of children who were abducted by the SPLA and taken to military training camps in the bush in Ethiopia. When international aid agencies and UN representatives visited the camps, the children's weapons and uniforms were taken away and they were given books to lend the appearance of a normal school.
Emmanuel spent four years with the SPLA and by the time he was 8 years old he had learnt military strategy and weaponry and at the age of 9 he was taking part in major battles. Following the fall of Mongistu and the failure of Operation Jungle Storm, the 1991 SPLA assault on south Sudan's capital Juba, Emmanuel trekked for hundreds of miles to join a rival rebel group in his home area of Upper Nile. He hoped that he would at least be able to be nearer his home. Of the hundreds who set out, only a few survived the journey. Walking hundreds of miles across Sudan, many died of starvation, thirst and animal attacks and were forced to turn to cannibalism on the dead to survive. Emmanuel managed to survive on snails, birds and the vultures that one of his friends had shot.
After several gruelling weeks Emmanuel arrived in Waatthe headquarters of a rebel breakaway SPLA faction. Here he met Emma McCune, a British aid worker who had famously married the rebel commander Riek Machar. Emma insisted that 11 year olds were far too young to serve as soldiers and adopted Emmanuel. At the time, he was one of the youngest soldiers in the army. After becoming pregnant, Emma left for Nairobi and brought Emmanuel into Kenya with her. She smuggled him onto a plane, where he lay hidden in between the bags. When porters removed and loaded luggage he had to sneak in between the cargo and stay hidden. He managed to clear Nairobi airport this way as well.
Emmanuel spent some months with Emma in Nairobi, who was staying with her uncle at the time, and began school at the Sawa Sawa Academy. Tragically, Emma was killed in a road accident in Nairobi a few months later in 1993 and Emmanuel found himself abandoned once again, one of countless millions displaced by Sudan's civil war. Deborah Scroggins, the winner of six national journalist awards for her reporting from Sudan and the Middle East, examined Emma's inspiring story in the bestselling book Emma's War. The screenplay for the book (which will touch on Emma's relationship with Emmanuel Jal) is currently being made into a film by Twentieth Century Fox, produced by Tony and Ridley Scott (Gladiator, Bladerunner), directed by Tony Scott (Top Gun) and starring Nicole Kidman in the lead role.
Returning To School After Emma's death, several of her friends helped Emmanuel to continue his education, and after a brief gap he started attending Tala Academy. He became an outstanding pupil and an upstanding member of the community. He completed part of his A Levels and applied for a place at the University of Westminster to study Engineering. Despite less than five years of formal education, Emmanuel secured a place and travelled to London. Unfortunately he had acquired a tourist visa and had to return to Nairobi where he was told it would be possible to get a student visa. This was not possible and he began school in Nairobi again at Brook House School, so that he could complete his A Levels.
Emmanuel starting singing around 1998, after he had a religious vision that impelled him to begin using his voice to ease his situation. He began attending churches where he was encouraged to practice singing and with Mrs Mumo, who ran the children's house in Nairobi where Emmanuel was living, he organised a series of fundraising concerts to raise money for local street children and refugees. He became increasingly active in his local community church and formed several music groups, including his current gospel band, the Reborn Warriors. He went onto produce his own single, "All We Need Is Jesus," which was a hit in Kenya and received airplay in the UK. Emmanuel has since released his debut album, Gua, which was funded by Brook House School and Andrew and Jennifer Shand. Gua, meaning 'good' in Nuer and 'power' in Arabic, fused staccato rapping in Arabic, English, Kiswahil and Nuer. The title track, which was a Number 1 hit in Kenya and featured on The Rough Guide To The Music Of Sudan, has been re-recorded for Ceasefire, Emmanuel's collaborative 2005 album with Abdel Gadir Salim, a venerated Sudanese Moslem musician from the north.
Despite different musical traditions, Ceasefire drew out the common links between the different Sudanese artists, and was followed by live tour dates. Emmanuel subsequently became the spokesperson for the Campaign to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers and performed in the winter of 2004 at a UN event in Switzerland to help create awareness for the plight of child soldiers. Today, he lives in an upmarket district of Nairobi andhas been nominated for an American Gospel Music Award (www.agmawards.com), and has appeared at Africa Calling at the Eden Project in Cornwall as part of Live 8.Courtesy Calabash Music