Emmanuel Jal

Emmanuel Jal – PHI Center October 18th, 2014

On Saturday October 18th the PHI Center was offering a free screening of Philippe Falardeau’s (Monsieur Lahzar) new film The Good Lie. Starring Reese Witherspoon, The Good Lie is based on a true story of The Lost Boys which was a term given to the 3600 child refugees who travelled from Sudan to Kenya when civil war in Sudan broke out in 1993. The film was solid and had me dabbing my eyes for most of it.

I was intrigued to see it because of the remembrance week event Imago Theatre is producing called Have We Forgotten Yet? This week long festival from November 11th to the 15th at the Monument National (my little plug!) explores 20th and 21st century conflicts from around the world. One of the plays, Mary Vingoe’s Refuge, chronicles the experience of a refugee from Eritrea who travelled 4 years in order to get to Canada only to then face new regulations adopted by our country and the United States after 9/11 which drastically changed our aide policies towards refugees. Another play in our festival is Suzanne Lebeau’s The Sound of Cracking Bones which follows 2 children as they escape their lives as child soldiers.

Which leads me to the real attraction of the evening that followed the film. Emmanuel Jal, a former child soldier and one of the many Lost Boys who published his biography War Child: A Child Soldier’s Story in 2010, was to give a talk and concert. From the moment he took to the stage it was easy to understand why Jal has become an international phenomenon. I had seen him being interviewed on television years ago as well as when he was invited to talk by TED. Those didn’t come close to the experience of Jal up close and personal. This man has amazing energy and humility which is so attractive it was difficult to pull one’s attention away from him. Jal was 7 years old when he was conscripted as a child soldier. He was carrying an AK-47 a year later. When asked about the beginning of the war he explained how his experienced matched the portrayal  in the film (in which he also played Paul, one of refugees lucky enough to be transfered to the US).

(on the beginning of the war)
‘The first time I witnessed war I thought the world was ending.The ground was shaking, people running in different directions. My mother told me that the world would end one day and I thought this was it.’

While explaining the religious class system in Sudan he admitted that, being a Christian himself, he had only wanted 2 things as a boy; first to ride a bike, second to kill a Muslim. He went on to explain how this anger fueled him during his many years as a child soldier. Once he had escaped and started living in a refugee camp in Kenya, seeing Muslims and Christians living together peacefully ‘blew [his] mind!’ He then made a point to read the Koran and realized that both it and the Bible had good things in them that people simply didn’t practice. Why did he push on? Why did he fight to survive? Without hesitation Jal admitted it was the hope of seeing his family again, to know they had survived. One of the most shocking and amazingly honest moments of the night that had everyone suddenly still was when Jal was asked what life was like as a child soldier.

‘I am going to be honest with you. Violence is fun. With a gun, the rhythm of an AK-47 is addictive.’

He continued by saying that most kids don’t know you only die once; that it is the adrenaline of it all that pulls you along. He compared the experience of constantly having to fight in order to survive versus life in the west where systems are in place which do not force us into battle but rather give us a choice to avoid violence.

When asked about the pitfalls of aide work and the idea of white priviledge associated with it, Jal explained that his real understanding of the war became much clearer when he wrote his book and started his charities. He went on to explain that there are good people out there, even at the top of the charity pyramids, whose priorities are to help and make the world a better place. Because of the current set up, corporations run the world and governments go to war for them. Even some charites are stuck being the middle man and become servants themselves.

‘The corporations are the new empires.’

Talking about Emma McCune, the UK aid worker that changed his life by saving him, Jal beautifully expressed that those who extend a hand to others in need are finding a solution. This was yet another highlight for me. I spend so much time pondering the sad fact that there never seems to be any possible and realistic solution yet hearing Jal’s story of his on-going healing process and success made me believe once more that the choices we make, no matter how small or big, can help change the world into one that we are proud to be a part of.


Emma McCune and a young Emmanuel Jal.


 8 Life Lessons, in Jal’s words, that resonated with me

1- Most humans are all the same. Give them power and they will give it to their own.

2- It all depends on how bitter you are.

3- People need a family in order to heal.

4- Internal wounds take a lifetime to heal, the battles play out inside.

5- Learn how to forgive. Feed your soul with positivity and keep feeding it.

6- Stand up for your rights, not for your hate.

7- Hope is faith that tomorrow will come.

8- Educate a woman and you educate a nation. You educate a man and that educates 1000 people.

The concert which followed the talk was equally inspiring. It was a wonderful celebration of the human spirit. At times I felt the western priviledge guilt creep up which would stop me dead in my dancing but Emmanuel Jal was continuously encouraging by asking us to join him and dance ‘like crazy’. I then felt like this was, for the most part, his celebration and that my purprose was to honour it. And so, dancing ruled the night.

Emmanuel Jal’s 5th record The Key is out. All but the record company’s 2% of the proceeds go towards raising funds for one of Jal’s charities to benefit African entrepreneurs with a youth focus. 

For more on Emmanuel Jal click HERE