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What former child solider Emmanuel Jal can teach you about fulfilling your potential

The celebrated artist and activist who escaped almost certain death as a child soldier in war-torn Sudan on how the power of positivity can unleash your potential to live a grateful and successful life
Emmanuel Jal
Emmanuel Jal

Emmanuel Jal is a South Sudanese-Canadian artist, actor, former child soldier, and political activist. His autobiography, “War Child: A Child Soldier’s Story”, was published in 2009, and his new book “My Life is Art” – a manifestation of his philosophy, illustrating how awakening to one’s potential can transform existence into a masterpiece of positivity – is out now. Follow him on Instagram and X. Visit emmanueljal.com.

Emmanuel Jal’s life began amidst the horrors of South Sudan’s civil war in the early 1980s. Jal was a child soldier conscripted into the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), Christian insurgents fighting against the country’s military regime imposing “sharia,” or Islamic religious law, on the nation.

He escaped the brutality of SPLA and was rescued by British aid worker Emma McCune, who smuggled him to Nairobi. It was at a church school in Kenya where Jal discovered his love for music. Despite his traumatic start to life, Jal has emerged as a celebrated recording artist and peace ambassador. His musical journey includes seven award-nominated albums, with notable successes in the Afrotech sphere. He has graced global stages including Live 8 and Nelson Mandela’s 90th Birthday Concert, collaborating with luminaries such as Lauryn Hill and Alicia Keys.

Drawing on personal experiences, he advocates for reconciliation and peace, addressing international forums such as the UN and US Congress. Jal’s life story, documented in the film “War Child” and his autobiography of the same name, garnered widespread acclaim.

He featured in the Warner Brothers film “The Good Lie” and the major motion picture “Africa United.” Beyond entertainment, Jal is deeply engaged in global humanitarian efforts, supporting organisations such as Amnesty International and advocating for peace, as seen in his campaign “We Want Peace.” His commitment to peace-building has earned him prestigious awards, including the Vaclav Havel International Prize and the Desmond Tutu Reconciliation Award. Jal founded Gua Africa in 2009, a charity empowering South Sudanese refugees through education and training.

His new book “My Life is Art” is a manifestation of his philosophy, illustrating how awakening to one’s potential can transform existence into a masterpiece of positivity. Jal is hoping the book can act as a roadmap for others to turn life’s challenges into opportunities.

He took time out to discuss his take on life exclusively with Unfiltered. We began by discussing a brief extract from in his memoir, “War Child: A Boy Soldier’s Story,” of life growing up in a war zone witnessing atrocities committed against his family. “As a child soldier, my desire was to kill as many Muslims and Arabs as possible,” he wrote. “That was the place where the seed of bitterness and hatred was planted. As a kid, I didn’t understand what it was. I didn’t know what to call it, but it was planted.”

In your new book you begin by recounting experiences you endured as a conscripted child soldier in Sudan’s civil war. Can you tell us a little about those traumatic experiences?

I was Emmanuel Jal, aged 8 – with an AK-47. My life as a child soldier delivered only despair. The lowest point was being forced to march for weeks, with neither food nor water, across a vast barren wasteland to a different encampment.

I watched as children died before my eyes. I saw others eat their fallen comrades. I didn’t judge. I was tempted to do the same. I survived only by drinking my own urine.

Everyone’s definition of trauma will be different. As small children, my younger sister Nyaruach and I were separated by the unforgiving brutality of the Sudanese Civil War. Nyaruach endured truly terrible violations of her mind, body, and soul.

At age 10, she was raped by enemy soldiers. It would happen time and again during a childhood lost beneath a deluge of cruelty. Forget concerts, cinema, theatre – Nyaruach had a front-row seat on genocide. At a time when most young people are discovering independence and freedom, she was chained to slavery, starvation, savage attacks and forced marriage.

How have you used those bitter childhood experiences as a positive force for change?

I discovered that bitterness is like swallowing a poison and wishing the person who caused you harm to die, I came to realise healing begins in the heart and I had to let go of the past so I could see the value in my experiences.

Letting go of the bitterness in my heart made me experience a level of freedom I never thought existed.

My mind was occupied by so many things, worries, anxiety, stress and mental poverty but the most dominating of all was trauma. I had flashbacks in the day and nightmares at night. I had to find a way to overcome these challenges.

A positive mindset allows me to achieve my goals. It is the shield that deflects my worries

How did you change that mindset?

As a teenager living in Kenya, I was a troubled young man with many issues. It was a point in my life when I actually had some stability. The nightmares were more tormenting than the battlefields. Sometimes, in the darkness, I would lie there feeling sorry for myself and wishing I had never been born.

One day I locked myself in a closet. I talked to myself. I told myself good things. ‘I am wise. I am smart. I am a giver. I am a thinker. I solve problems. Things will get better, Jal, don’t give up.’

You started using meditation to deal with your trauma?

Yes. I would use my imagination to imagine myself free of the mental worries and trauma and then believe anything is possible. I wanted to figure a way out of the mental trauma.  One of the most important things I had to bring into my life was focus, so I would say mantras every day; I am focused.

Reprogramming what I call this burning desire to install new and positive habits into my life. I have other go-to elements to keep me afloat. A positive mindset allows me to achieve my goals. It is the shield that deflects my worries. Calm allows me to control my emotions so that I can see clearly. Love is the light inside me that allows me to see and makes my work easier.

I would do research about how to focus on what I wanted to achieve and then I would practice focus. I was really struggling in school and I could not concentrate in class. So, learning to focus became part of my healing.

As a celebrated artist Emmanuel Jal has graced global stages including Live 8 and Nelson Mandela’s 90th Birthday Concert

Your new book outlines the pillars you have put in place for living a life of purpose and overcoming adversity. Can you share any and explain how they have shaped your life?

Well, there are 11 pillars. I can’t talk about all of them, we’ll probably have to talk for a couple of days! But I can focus on one pillar that has made a huge impact in my life, which is that meditation.

You can use meditation to hack into your subconscious, to redefine who you are. Using it to create new habits and beliefs so that you can manage your thoughts, your whole thinking process, and achieve your goals and dreams.

My approach is a to do a mental analysis and a heart analysis. Visualise your social status, your mental status, all the other aspects of lives and see where do you need improvement.

What areas of your life did you feel you needed to improve and how?

I came to realise I needed a lot of improvement in all aspects of my life. But I had to break that down to examine how I could improve each aspect.

For example, I identified lack of focus as something I wanted to change in my life. I used meditation and a mantra. I recite positive things about my life. I practice them in my head and write them down to see how I can refine them. The mantra I brought into my life was ‘focus’.

So, I would say focus 200 to 400 times a day. And then I’d go and study focus. I’d learn from others who’d written about focus. When the brain is stimulated, such as during learning or exposure to new experiences, neurons become active.

This increased neural activity triggers the release of neurotrophins – these can also be released by factors like exercise and exposure to enriched environments.

When you understand the relationship between neurotrophins, neuroplasticity, and cognitive functions you can change your life.  

You talk in the book about using a positive mindset to attack everyday problems too, can you expand upon how you do that?

I divide this into steps, the first being acknowledging the problem and believing you have infinite intelligence to overcome it. I believe solving problems adds value to your life and those of others around you.

Also forgive. That way your mind can travel light and is better placed to be creative.

Then employ rigorous thinking. Think like a general. Put away emotion, opinion, and perspective, and use only the conscious, targeted mind to do your thinking.

Rigorous thinking is popular in the military. As a child, I would listen to generals planning an ambush. At no point was there room for assumption. The only thing that mattered was logic, reason, and accumulation of fact.

Visualize your desired outcome. Plan and strategise a route to your chosen goal—better health, independence, success, or whatever it might be. Then do two or more things every day to confront your situation. Have faith and persistence to solve your problem.

The beauty of gratitude is that it takes us from a state of complaint to a state of appreciation… where we can identify opportunities.

Practising gratitude is also a powerful theme in your book. How has that and practicing love for others played a role in your personal growth and success?

I was given another chance in life and now I listen to my heart and do what gives me joy. When I participate in any experience, I do it without expecting anything in return.

Gratitude is a positive attitude toward life that sparks a positive reaction in the soul, body, spirit, and mind. It takes us from a state of complaining to a state of appreciation. It helps us to identify opportunities. That has become something of a purpose for me in my life. To feel and express gratitude for what I have. For all that gives me joy.

At times in my life, I’ve been a taker, putting my needs and wants before those of others. That attitude made me full of myself. It made me believe my pain and vision was bigger than everyone else’s.

The beauty of gratitude is that it takes us from a state of complaint to a state of appreciation; to one where we can, with crystal-clear vision, unblemished by negativity, identify opportunities.

People who are not grateful face many challenges that overwhelm them, whereas those who carry gratitude with them as surely as they carry their heart recognise defeats as learning experiences that will make them stronger, smarter, and wiser.

You also cover leadership in your book, what does leadership look like to you?

Every leader has a set of beliefs and habits that gives them a unique character. Some are lucky because of the environment they grew up in and the people that surrounded them.

A true leader is a person willing to die so others may live. A soldier in the battlefield is a leader, but so is a street cleaner sweeping away a mountain of bacteria-riddled rubbish in a street in Ghana.

You list “five stages of leadership”. What do these stages entail?

I use the acronym PARGO for the five stages of leadership.

Position: When a person is first given a leadership role, they face many challenges. They lack self-knowledge, so the jury is still out on whether they will become a dictator, or an honest and humble leader. Those working with the leader, meanwhile, may lack direction and passion. They are still digesting the new leadership and may feel fearful of losing their jobs and security.

Acceptance: If people connect with a leader, they are willing to invest in their vision and, therefore, cooperate. An unconnected leader, meanwhile, will struggle to motivate those below them.

Reverence: At this stage of leadership motivation comes through devotion to the work and the love of the job. The negative comes if, having reached this stage, a leader turns their back on taking a company, community, country, or organisation forward, preferring instead to make history and glory for themselves. If you’re self-centered, often this kind of leader can become authoritarian.

Grant-masters: Having mastered their skills and talents, a leader identifies key talent in the organization whom they can train and prepare to fill their role.

Optimising: When a leader reaches the position of optimum leader, they can spend time developing other talents outside their organisation and contributing their vast experience and skills to serving humanity. Such leaders often enjoy serving people for free.

Music allowed Emmanuel Jal to get to a place where he’s able to share his experiences with the world and spotlight humanitarian disasters around the world to shine a light on evil

You lead the way as a peace activist these days, how do you combine that with your music career?

I always want to be a part of a solution. I always believe when you put a spotlight in a dark place that evil will perform less.

Music was the platform that I was using to express myself and to share my experiences. The music has bought me to a place where I’m able to speak to the world and share my experiences.

But I never dreamt I’d be a musician. When I first used to go to the (music) studio, I’d get kicked out because I could not rap, I could not flow, I could not write music properly.

I just had a burning desire to sing. I worked hard at it and it became a platform from which I could put a spotlight on my country. Because I had imagined myself doing it and then believed I could do it, I went and researched how to do it.

The activism was a response to the things that I cared about – the situation that was happening in my country. I wanted change. I didn’t know I was calling for activism then, I was just reacting to what was happening, and how [I thought] a better life can be brought about.

Many artists want their music or art to help bring about change, what is it about your approach that has made that happen?

One thing I know is when you do what you love, and you engage with it with authenticity, other people will observe you and will say ‘I can do the same.’ I do my best to be as authentic as I can in everything I do. I need to be presenting myself in a purpose-driven way. From there people can see that I am genuine and what I am speaking about is authentic.

Also we make things happen through a charity we formed, Gua Africa. It works with families and individuals to help them overcome the effects of war and poverty. We’re able to impact communities and individuals in a positive way with fundraising and sponsorship for education opportunities.

I am constantly doing music and continuing to put myself out into the world. I use my platform and social media profile to raise awareness.

I just did a collaboration – Gorah with the producer Nitefreak and it became a global phenomenon. It helps to raise awareness of what I’m doing and how I’m trying to bring about change.  

My life has always been art, but for years I never knew it. In many ways, if it hadn’t been for the darkness, the rough seas under a moonless sky, I might never have seen the light.

Now I want the people to see with “My Life is Art” that each one of us needs to recognise our life as a work of art. We can all design and create our lives like works of art so that when we leave this planet, the people we leave behind will be the ones to see what we have created.

My Life Is Art: 11 Pillars for a Positive and Purposeful Life by Emmanuel Jal (£18.99, Watkins Publishing), is out on 5th December.

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