- The Washington Times - Monday, November 16, 2009

It has been 341 days since Emmanuel Jal has eaten breakfast or lunch, but this time it is voluntary.

As a former Sudanese child soldier, most of Mr. Jal’s life has been defined by hunger. He now is fasting to raise funds for a school in Sudan dedicated to Emma McCune, the British aid worker who saved his life.

Mr. Jal doesn’t know his birthday, but it was sometime around 1980, the beginning of Sudan’s civil war between the Muslim North and Christian South. At about age 6, he was captured as a child soldier for the rebel force, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army. For almost a decade, he fought with 10,000 other child soldiers through two gruesome civil wars.

He escaped the gunfire to walk across Africa as one of the 400 “Lost Boys.” In starvation, he was tempted to eat his best friend. Only 16 of the original 400 survived the trek to a refugee camp in Waat. It was there he would be hungry again, waiting for aid food to drop from the sky.

His life eventually changed in the refugee camp when he met aid worker Ms. McCune. She adopted him and took the enormous risk of sneaking him onto a plane to Nairobi, Kenya. Mr. Jal received a second chance and a formal education, paid for as Ms. McCune persuaded her expatriate friends to make donations.

Ms. McCune died in a traffic accident a few months later, but is credited for saving more than 150 child soldiers. “I was too young then to really understand how this woman saved my life. I want to build this school and properly thank her,” Mr. Jal said.

After just five years of education, Mr. Jal went on to be accepted into an engineering program at the University of Westminster in England, but he was forced to drop out after his visa was denied. Soon after, he experienced a religious vision and felt called to tell his story through music.

“And I heard Puff Daddy and wanted to rap,” he said in an interview from London with The Washington Times.

Despite having no musical training, Mr. Jal’s first album “Gua” was a surprise hit. The title track reached No. 1 in Kenya. He has since produced three albums, chronicling his story with African rhythms and hip-hop flair.

“Music is therapy for me. I’ve seen houses burn down and people dying. I pass that pain through music. When I dance and sing, I get to have a childhood again,” he said.

Through his international musical success, Mr. Jal established the nonprofit Gua Africa in London, focused on educating impoverished refugees and former child soldiers in sub-Saharan Africa. Last year he had the idea to build Emma Academy and launched the “Lose to Win” campaign, denying himself breakfast and lunch until the money for the school is raised. The original fundraising vision was for 1 million people to donate $1. He predicted Gua Africa would raise the money in a month.

“Well, I’ve been humbled,” he said.

He primarily has used social media for fundraising, with the majority of donations coming in from YouTube links, Facebook and Myspace. Some donations have been as little as 20 cents.

Mr. Jal has lost more than 15 pounds. “I do grow fat in the evening sometimes,” he said with a laugh. He remains optimistic. “We are so grateful. The 20 cents was from a man in Kenya. People are giving what they can.”

He credits his own education as the life-changing road from bitterness to forgiveness.

“Before, I hated Muslims and wanted to kill as many I could. Without education, I would be bitter. Instead, I was able to read about Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr. It helped me discover truth and faith,” he said.

Mr. Jal has used his education and writing skills for his autobiography “War Child,” due out in paperback Dec. 11. He also will release a new single, “We Fall,” for free on his MySpace page Dec. 2 as a thank you to those who have donated to Gua Africa.

“If people like it, they can donate more. The future of my music is going to be about entertaining, too; I can’t just focus on the sadness of my past. There is much to sing about. I will cook up some more music because we all must grow,” he said.

People from across the country are beginning to follow suit and get creative for Emma Academy. Marianne Schwerdtfeger, a yoga instructor in California, is donating 10 percent of profits from a yoga class she teaches. Newlyweds “Kate and Neil” from London asked their wedding guests to donate to Gua Africa instead of giving wedding presents.

Currently, Emma Academy consists of a crumbling school building with four classrooms for 2,000 students. Thanks to donations, workers have fixed the caved-in roof and refurbished the infrastructure. They aim to add additional space and set up the building’s first-ever toilet facilities.

Until the project is complete, many students will continue to sit under trees without desks. A new fence has been constructed to keep wayward livestock from attempting class participation.

As poverty and bloodshed persist in Sudan, Mr. Jal is still a refugee in London and Nairobi, but he tries not to think of it that way. “Home is where you are loved, so I am home,” he said.

He added after a pause: “But it is my dream to someday return to Sudan.”

The project is about halfway to the goal, with about $500,000 raised.

Mr. Jal remains rail-thin and determined. “I’ll keep fasting and waiting. I’m willing to die for this cause. This is how to help the people of Africa learn to help themselves. We don’t need aid, we need education.”

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