“When you are in a poor environment, you go into survival mode. Like me, you’ve all been to hell. But you came back!”
Emmanuel Jal, a former child soldier of the Sudanese civil war and now an internationally celebrated rapper and peace activist, stood before 14 members of Free Minds’ Reentry Book Club. The men, ages 18-56 had all returned to the community after serving time in federal prison. For the previous two weeks, they had read and discussed Jal’s memoir, War Child. Now they were getting the opportunity to meet Jal in person, and learn firsthand from the author, rapper, and activist how he transformed his own life after experiencing horrific trauma as a child.
At the age of 7, Jal was was one of 10,000 children conscripted into the Christian Sudanese Liberation Army. The AK-47 that soldiers gave him was taller than he was. He fought in the war for nearly five years before escaping and walking nearly 300 miles across the country to a refugee camp. There, he was adopted by Emma McCune, a British aid worker who took him to safety in Kenya, where she enrolled him in school. Ultimately, it was through music and sharing his story with others that Jal found a way to heal. His enormous global success as a rapper has allowed him to spread his message of peace.
On this unseasonably mild February night in Washington, DC, Jal explained to Free Minds members how the trauma we experience in our lives creates habits in our subconscious that can affect most of our decisions. This means that if you grow up surrounded by violence, then violence becomes a habit to you. He told the men that even after he was rescued, he carried war with him in his subconscious. Many nodded their heads in recognition.
Jal introduced the idea of “re-programming,” as:
Creating self worth and values by hacking into your subconscious to define or redefine who you are, by shifting your paradigm to create new habits that can manage your thoughts, ideas, thinking process, imagination, plans, skills, and talents and using them to achieve your goals and dreams.
For the next hour, Jal broke this for the group, telling them that despite a life-time of doubting their self worth, they can do anything.
“When I was fighting in the war, and suffering nightmares about what I was seeing, I used to tell myself ‘When I get out, I’m going to be part of the solution to war,’” he said. Then he challenged the men to discover their purpose and become the change they want to see in the world.
“What is the problem that you want to change?” he asked them. “Fall in love with a problem so you can fix it. Be a part of the solution. It’s not about you—it’s about standing up for something or someone else, that will add value to your life. You have to have the dream. Dreams have the power to re-program you,” he said.
Jal pushed them. “Each one of you is as valuable as the problem you are going to solve,” he said. “You don’t believe me that you can do it? Look at how creative you are in prison! Making alcohol out of potatoes, hiding it in the shower.” The men all laughed, but Jal persisted. “You are thinkers! You know how to hustle. Now you just have to use that same knowledge and drive, but bring it into the legal world!”
The enormous positive energy in the room was palpable. The men were inspired. Roderick, 56, raised his hand and described how he had spent the last 26 years in and out of prison. He described being arrested last summer, and recalled sitting in the police car and thinking “I can’t do this anymore.” Roderick said he felt a shift in his mindset. During his most recent “installment” in prison, as he called it, he met Free Minds staff members who were visiting Petersburg Federal Correctional institution in Virginia, and he began writing. As soon as he was released, Roderick called the Free Minds office and asked how he could be involved. “And now look at me!” he said to Jal. “What are the chances I’d be sitting here listening to you, and hearing your story! I feel so blessed! This is a night I will never forget!” Everyone in the room burst into applause.
Jal told the men that every time someone says something bad about them, they should tell themselves 10 good things about themselves. “If you keep saying it, you will come to believe it,” he said. The group brainstormed together and then recited them loudly in unison:
- I am a thinker
- I solve problems
- I am light
- I am a kind person
- I will always help people
- I am a friend
- I am peace
- I am a force to be reckoned with (I am powerful)
- I am one of a kind
- I am grateful!
Jal closed out the session by assembling everyone in a circle and teaching the men a song in his indigenous language. Jal sang the verses and danced while everyone else clapped in rhythm and shouted out the chorus with him.
Free Minds member Hosea, 25, was touched by the visit. “It is a gift from God that he would come here after what he’s been through, and then share his wisdom and talent with me and my brothers. I’m still fighting through a lot of struggles, but what Jal said is true, I just need to work to own my own mind! He helped me see that anybody can make it if they put their mind to it.”
Nick, 27, recently returned home after serving 10 years in prison. Jal’s visit inspired him to write this poem:
Oh War Child,
look at what you have become
Oppressed by a system that forced you to become wild
In the merge of guns and a mind that has no conscious
you have become a war child
Seeing blood flow from out the flesh of another has no case in your file
it’s just another memory that been shot
Oh War Child
Yes, you, African boy
You’ve been dredged from the hands of your sweet mother
and now look at you
angry by the fault of your circumstances
so you have no care in this world because you feel that you are on your own
but you are not alone.
Yes I feel the pain that trickles my soul
the war that replays in my mind is long lasting it never seem to get old.
Watching the bloodbath of my brothers drown them to death has triggered me
to become cold.
Oh War Child
look at what I have become
guns was my expression of the g code
and the fault of me being away from my sweet mother
has put me in depression of the survivor mode
Frustration has ruled my thoughts
all my effort to find a way out had seem to led to naught
There was no place for freedom
I was caught up in the system of oppression but
Oh War Child
you are not alone
I too am looking to find a way out
Special thanks go out to Anne Manuel, a teacher at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, Maryland, Gillian Huebner, and the PEN/Faulkner Foundation who helped coordinate and sponsor Emmanuel Jal’s visit to Free Minds.