Reviewed by Sally Cervenak
War child is a story of a child who went to war, not a child born with the war within him. Emmanuel Jal was seven years old when he leapt at the opportunity to go to school in Ethiopia; after losing his mother, being sent to war by his father, surviving a boat capsize in the River Nile and march across the Sahara desert, Emmanuel finally begins the education he has watched his comrades die seeking. He could have written a terrifyingly dramatic book based on these events alone, but instead Emmanuel Jal chose to tell us his whole story, of which this was only the beginning.
If you’ve read Lance Armstrong’s autobiography, you’ll know just how one individual’s battle for survival can convince you that the mind is capable of overcoming absolutely anything. Emmanuel Jal spends his childhood and adolescent years growing up in the refugee camps of Ethiopia, a military prison, the bush, the desert and the slums of Nairobi believing that if he just keeps on trooping and ‘taking every opportunity that came may way’ he will eventually be in the position to take revenge on Jallabas, his ‘Arab enemy’. He is a bright kid, learning that by making his seniors laugh he can gain favours and that by obeying commands he can forget his past, his home, his family and fight for a future.
The irony of this attitude is that it is not until he meets Emma McClune, a British aid worker who plays life by morals, not rules, that he learns the only way to achieve anything for his home country is to re-learn how to love and to forgive and to lay down his gun forever. From dreams of flying a Nyanking, the aeroplane whose name meant ‘daughter of the king’, on behalf of Sudan in the war between North and South, he begins to dream of a peaceful land, in which families, torn apart by the war, meet once more, and in which every child is blessed by his ‘guardian angel’ Emma McClune with the chance to go to school.
What is so amazing about this book is that we do not need to finish it to know that his dream came true; that is to say, his dream was real and what he envisioned is today part of the reality. This is not just an autobiography; it is a socio-political account of the situation in South Sudan over the past thirty-two years; an illustration of the psychology of the human mind; a story of rags to riches; and testimony to the saying that ‘if you can believe it, the mind can achieve it’.
It would go against the faith in which this book was written to recommend it for anybody in particular, because this it is a book about life in all its completeness and anybody who reads it with an open heart will learn to love Jal, to love everyone and everything that he meets and to believe in the magic of life.