War Child is Sudanese rapper Emmanuel Jal’s memoir of being a child soldier during the civil war in his native country, and his “rehabilitation” afterwards — a process almost as difficult and horrifying as being at war. It’s an at-times horrifying read, but in the end it’s an inspiring biography. Perhaps more importantly, it’s a great portrayal of the awful ways war affects children and young adults.
War Child is not for someone inclined to freak out at explicit descriptions of violence and misery, or famine-level poverty, hatred (at times racial hatred) and frustration. Jal has lived through a lot and here he does not shy away from describing any of it, from the blood and guts to the racial tension and hatred.
Here’s the story: Jal was a child soldier with the SPLA (antigovernment rebels, at the time predominantly Christian/Animist) in Sudan and witnessed the rape and murder of members of his family. After the war, he moved to Kenya with the assistance of international aid organizations and strangers. Despite the kindness of those strangers, he had a rough time getting “rehabilitated,” finding his behavior was affected in all sorts of ways by his past; he had a tendency toward violence, an automatic impulse to steal when he could, an inability to concentrate. I imagine that from the perspective of anyone who’s ever worked with the children of trauma or immigrant populations, this book would be invaluable. It’s also just an amazingly human story. The author’s style is stilted and clearly colloquial at times, which means you’ll be learning many terms from the languages of Sudan (often terms that are cobbled together from several languages, or have an unclear meaning). That, and the book’s snapshot of village life in Sudan even outside of the context of war, add up to a book that is absolutely not to be missed.
Also, the last fifth or so of the book has a lot to do with Jal’s music career; indie artists are advised to check it out. Because he could not get play from Nairobi radio stations, against all odds Jal and his friends got a grant and released his album and one of his friends’, self-produced, self-promoted, basically no help from any music industry sources until Peter Gabriel gave him a vote of confidence at Africa Calling. At one point Jal describes giving well-attended concerts in London and then sleeping on park benches. Good to know it’s not just the U.S. where the corporate music promoters are brain-dead sleazebags who wouldn’t know good music if it bit them on the ass.
Jal is a Christian (raised a Christian, became an atheist during the war, then was “saved”) and I am most emphatically not (though I was raised Roman Catholic). Jal’s faith is critical to his rescue from despair, but he doesn’t especially preach. Descriptions of his music necessarily carry some expression of Christian joy, particularly his early work which was more explicitly Christian — before he started writing about his war experiences. If you can’t handle that, you probably won’t like the last part of the book. I think one of the strongest messages Jal presents is how he learned to not be prejudiced against Muslims, after a lifetime of hating them with all his heart (the war in Sudan was for all intents and purposes a war against Islamic and Christian/Animist populations, though its roots go deep into oil). So avoiding his faith would have been thoroughly disingenuous, and I’m glad he’s been honest about it here. It also means that if you are Christian, there will be a lot for you to like about the last part of the book, which ends on a serious up note and an inspiring sense of hope despite the fact that there is some harrowing reading preceding it.