Future Thinkers Podcast guest Emmanuel Jal, former child soldier from South Sudan turned musician and activist, talks to Mike Gilliland and Euvie Ivanova about mental resilience, sovereignty, and importance of storytelling.
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Emmanuel: [00:02:30] My name is Emmanuel Jal and I’m a recording artist, I’m a storyteller. I come from South Sudan and now I’m based in Toronto. Basically, what I do is I travel around the world, where I share my experiences for social emotional learning to create conscious global awareness. The story I share is about my childhood experiences and any other experiences I encounter now. [00:03:00] I was born when my country was at war with itself. That war raped everything – that war took the soul of my family, that war took the soul of the village. All my aunties died during the war, all my uncles except two by the age of seven. My father told me I’m going to go to school in Ethiopia, where I ended up becoming a child soldier. My mum was claimed by that war, which was also [00:03:30] a big hit.

It’s a tough journey to share – remembering walking in hell. The first time I witness war I thought the world was ending. It was heaven raining fire, bombs dropping, ground shaking, people running in different directions. I didn’t understand what death is at that time. You would walk as kids – your parents can no longer cover your eyes, it’s too much. [00:04:00] You see dead bodies rotten, fresh bodies dead, and you just keep going. Those are the images, some of them are stuck into my head.

Mike: That must be extremely challenging to have to share over and over again in these events that you go to and these forums and conferences. How have you managed to keep hold of sanity with those images still in your head?

Emmanuel: Actually, the more you tell, the less harm it is. Because you have taken the courage, it becomes more like a testament. [00:04:30] What I always say – a resilient child is not afraid to show their internal scars, internal injuries. The more you cover them, the harder they heal. I was free as I told the stories, it gave me my freedom, created more space, made my life significant. A lot of people don’t want to share because they are afraid. The first time I share my story really publicly – because we don’t cry – [00:05:00] tears were rolling out my eyes. I didn’t control them, they were just coming out by themselves. It was the first time.

I think I was around 20 something. It would be an embarrassment in my village if you see a young man cry. But those tears, because I was telling my story in front of every person who had that same story, [inaudible [0:05:22]. I could see kids come, I could see mothers, I could see ex-child-soldiers next to me. [00:05:30] It was really a tough time. After that, there was a release. Also, as a young person I was telling the stories. For every village when I have an experience I get to the next village, I tell them in detail what I saw. When old people, sometimes they will tell me, “Keep quiet.”

They came this way, I saw a number of people die, I saw people running that way. I explained it in detail without crying. [00:06:00] Also, because I believe when we share our experiences for social emotional learning, we’re able to put a spotlight in a dark place, make evil formless. I share my experiences for social emotional learning that raise that conscious awakening, to connect with people, to connect with people’s heart and their mind so they could do something.

Mike: How old were you when you first left?

Emmanuel: I left my village [00:06:30] when I was seven. At eight, I was trained and I became a child soldier.

Mike: Then when you escaped?

Emmanuel: I escaped when I was I think 11, 12 or 13. I can’t remember exactly. Sometime in 1992 to 1993, that’s when.

Mike: Where did you go after that?

Emmanuel: We were trying to go to our home villages. We left to a place called Juba, which was a very difficult journey. There was no water, [00:07:00] we were drinking our own urine. Other places, it was a real challenge when there was no food, we would eat snails, vultures, anything we could find. Somebody died, the vultures tried to eat the dead bodies, we shoot the vultures. We eat the vultures. The situation became intense. Cannibalism started, we were eating dead bodies. My senses change and I wanted to eat my friend. My friend was [00:07:30] dying and I told him, “I’m going to eat you tomorrow.” That became hard for me.

Imagine looking at your fellow comrade, into their eyes, that you’re going to eat them. I remember we put bombs around dead bodies, hoping a hyena would come and eat that dead body. If the bombs explode, we would come and probably eat that hyena but nothing was there. I crawl under that tree hoping I could [00:08:00] find a piece of dead body, I could eat. There was nothing, just flies who were on the floor. Because I didn’t want anyone to see me eating any human being, because of our culture. I came back under the tree that I was in with my friend and I look at him. That night, I battled with my head. I remember talking to my mother’s God.

I said, “Mum God, if you’re there, give me something to eat. [00:08:30] If I survive someday, I’m going to give the [inaudible [0:08:35], I’ll tell the story everywhere.” Part of telling this story is also commitment, it’s part of my journey to that supreme being that gave me food in this journey. As I waited the whole night, food didn’t come immediately. I was waiting for a miracle, something to happen. I didn’t want to sleep. 11 am, when I was about to lose hope, and my friend just died and I was going to eat my friend, [00:09:00] a crow came on top of a tree and that crow – I tried to cock my gun to shoot it. I didn’t have the energy. A child soldier that I thought died walked up to the tree that it was in and fired at the bird. It fell between my leg and then he collapsed. He did not even wait to eat that bird.

Sometime, I feel how could that happen, [00:09:30] somebody who you know is completely dead, who’s weak – where did he get energy, how did he know that I’m struggling to eat a bird? Sometimes, that [inaudible [0:09:42] shocked me. Did the soul come out of the body and the soul saw me, I’m struggling with a bird and struggle to get inside, get himself up and shoot it for me? That, to me now as I remember, actually inspires me. It’s [00:10:00] left a lot of questions and mysteries in my head. I ate that bird, the intestines to the feathers to the claws to the brain – nothing of that bird was thrown away. It became the [inaudible [0:10:15]. That was one of the toughest journeys where I arrived in a place called [inaudible [0:10:20] and I met a British aid worker, Collin [inaudible [0:10:23], who then smuggled me to Kenya and I went to school.

Mike: What is it like for you [00:10:30] telling these stories now to people like us who have no concept of this experience? What is it like seeing the reaction in their eyes for you?

Emmanuel: I believe in stories. I believe stories provide healing, stories take us ahead. The interviews that you’re doing, it’s because you believe in stories. You’ve heard people’s stories and those stories made a difference in your life. Before we were able to read and write, it was all [00:11:00] stories. People would tell us, grandmothers. Also, my country’s still at war now, people are still dying. There are kids in refugee camps, government hunting children. They have situations where baby’s heads are smashed on walls or on trees or thrown on pots. Women are getting raped, young boys getting amputated.

Nobody talks about these things but now I have an opportunity [00:11:30] that I can talk about this horrific situation that South Sudan’s government is doing to its own people and the world is turning a blind eye. Recently, the US is working to sanction the warlords or any person that benefits in the war and put their money in east Africa. They want to find their properties and confiscate them. This is, I think, one of the greatest moves made in the century – as long as people are benefiting financially [00:12:00] from the suffering of others, they will not stop. I tell these stories because it does something.

[inaudible [0:12:11] rescued 150 child soldiers, I was the only one she took in. Somebody hears that, that somebody rescued me, she had no finances, she had not much resources. She was the resource, [00:12:30] all she had was her heart and her mind and used it to impact me now. I’ll say you never the potential of any child or any human being until you give them an opportunity. Now you guys have provided this platform to tell the story someone is going to listen to. Maybe they’re struggling about something, they’re struggling about their financial situation and they think maybe the world is going to end.

They probably hear this story and say, “If this guy can stay alive, then I can.” It’s all about that. [00:13:00] Your story – you have a story, she has a story. Each and every human being has a story. All stories are the same – the universe gives us grace to overcome the challenges we have. Now I’m in Canada. Canadian stories will give me energy. My stories will help me to connect with people but the Canadian story will make me survive here. There’s winter, there is summer, [00:13:30] there is people who have experiences. How do you survive in a country of credit cards? How do you survive here? These people have stories, they tell their story.

We forget our brains are built for survival. They look for negativity every day. It’s our opportunity, it’s also our responsibility to look for positivity. You wake up in the morning, your brain has already found so many negative things [00:14:00] for you. If you don’t have a nice story, you don’t have soul food, you’re going to be stressed, you’re going to have anxiety. That’s why you find, “Who do I call now? Who do I talk with?” Someone will tell you a word or tell you a story and that’s it.

Mike: How has your experience affected how you live life in Canada now? How has it changed your outlook on the western style of living and how has it helped you live a better life in Canada?

Emmanuel: To live here, to make it here [00:14:30] you require mental power. If you don’t have mental power, that’s it. People here advance human being. With all the survival skills you could ever think of. The western civilization is all about mental power. What problem can you solve? How big are they? What value can you add on my life? When I came here, it’s not just a story, I start saying, “Hey, what are the [inaudible [0:14:57] of my mind? How can I develop each on of them?” [00:15:00] That is your memory, imagination, your intuition, your conscious mind, and your subconscious mind. I did a self-analysis, I came to realize my conscious mind is weak. How can I empower it?

A traumatized brain or a poor mindset does not like logic, doesn’t use reason, doesn’t like plan, doesn’t like strategy. It acts basically on intuition and instinct. I cannot just act on intuition all the time, [00:15:30] you need logic and reason. That’s what I’ve been developing. To make it heal, if you haven’t developed your mind, you complain. Complain. Complain. That’s when you need a purpose. When you have a purpose, you will be grateful for the opportunities, for the time you have. You’ll be a human being. Every person’s unique – you develop those relationships. To step when you have a brain power, you have a vision. For your vision is [00:16:00] for your mind and your purpose is for your heart.

Those are the tools I have now. They’ve made me. When I tell my story, my story gives me energy. It reminds me of the past. You can’t go forward if you don’t know the past – you forget your past, you’re done. My past is fuelling me to be able to drive to that promise land – because I can see it and I know my past and I have the map. All I have to do is get up every day [00:16:30] and walk there. It’s a challenge to live here. When you come from a situation where everybody’s poor – I come from an area that everybody’s poor. A refugee camp. Even if you make a million, 10 million, 50 million, it’s a drop in an ocean. Where everybody’s poor, your brothers and sisters and your community, everybody has nothing.

They’re being fed on aid, that’s how they survive in their lives. [00:17:00] That is history. That’s what drives me. That’s what makes me wake up in the morning. That’s what allows me to have gratitude. That’s what gave me voice to tell this story. That’s what made me appreciate every moment. That’s what gave me a sense of purpose. That’s what drives my vision and motivates me to do things. If it is just for myself alone, I will not wake up in the morning, I will sleep. If it’s for the kids who want to go to school, I’ll do that. [00:17:30] Now, one of the other things that I do is I actually do leadership workshops where I help leaders on their mind, find their purpose, discover what they’re created for, and work with them to create habits they can use to create success or also work with them to create their mental art, so they can be able to manifest the things they want to create here.

Euvie: When you were doing the talk in Oslo, you were talking about sovereignty [00:18:00] of mind. That’s something that we are very interested in, as well, and I think that’s a really important skill that people need to learn – especially in the age of mass media where we’re constantly being fed other people’s ideas about how things work or what the world is like, instead of having our own sovereignty.

Emmanuel: If you don’t own your mind… [inaudible [0:18:23] the creator gave [00:18:30] every person their own mind, the creator warned each and every human being to connect and have relationships so he could have a [inaudible [0:18:37] relationships properly. The mind is yours, nobody has the right to own your mind. Your mind is yours because it’s what you can use to create things. We can create things. Each one of us can be a leader in their own field. Both of you have your own minds. Our brains are wired differently, we grow in different areas depending. [00:19:00] The brain is the wish maker, it [inaudible [0:19:02] itself according to how you want it.

There are things called dendrites in the brain, they grow. If your brain size, the part that deals with all the stuff that you need, if you don’t have the necessary dendrite to be able to create that frequency to connect with your mind, then you’re done. If you want to be a great listener, you have to create the dendrites responsible for listening in your brain. You have to practice, [00:19:30] because the brain is the [inaudible [0:19:31] between your mind. When you create that habit, it’s there. If you’re a great listener, if you don’t have it, you got to create it. These are the things I find really interesting.

For everything I want to create, I look at myself and say, “What’s my mental power here, what’s the capacity of my mind to be able for me to handle this vision?” You want to fly a plane? What does it take to fly a plane? You have a big house, you want to light it up? How many volts do you need? Let’s say you have 200 [00:20:00] volts and require 10,000 volts. You check your mind, “What’s the capacity of my mind to drive this vision?” You ask yourself that question then you do an analysis, you develop your mind. Sometimes the decision-making process, how you relate to people, how you question, how you listen. Simple stuff. How to learn a strategy acting on instinct and then acting on a strategy, thinking long-term. Simple stuff. You don’t have them, it just could be little decisions that take you away [00:20:30] from just pushing it. You train yourself. Give yourself 20 years and prepare. Prepare. Prepare. You get there.

A poor mindset is on a hurry, it’s on a survival situation. A wealthy mindset is patient and waiting and planning and strategizing and asking questions and curious and seeking out. “How could I do this? Who could I call? [00:21:00] What book do I need to read? Yeah, probably I need to meditate. Okay, that doesn’t work, let me dance. Okay, let me jog.” Just to free the space, because in order to create, you have to allow the vision to set in your head and you hold it, you don’t let anything else stay in that space. Anything else? Leave it. That’s it. I learned that, I visualizes [00:21:30] how I’m going to be part of a solution. It gives me joy because you see it, “I want to be that.” Just like kids.

For you, to drive whatever that it is – if you want to extend your mental power easily, you’ve got to be like a child. You can’t know everything. I’m training myself now. You want to be a great strategist? You’ve got to be like a child. You’ve got to ask questions. “How is that? What about that? Why is this building tall? [00:22:00] How come this movie’s like this? How come this girl is beautiful? Why is this one round? Why is she wearing this dress?” Just asking, asking questions. You understand what I mean? Then it becomes a habit and then we’re people. I learned that from generals in the battlefield. They fight better wars if they ask questions.

“What tanks did they have? How many blew up? Is there any way in, can we dig the ground? Okay, what can we do? Anybody have an idea? What can we do to [00:22:30] be able to manoeuvre them? Okay, should we retreat? No. Okay, what can we do?” People talk. They just ask questions, just ask questions. Question. Question. Question. Question. Question after question. Then they’ll sit for a while and then they ask more questions. They say, “Fuck it, let’s just fight.” They say, “Okay, wait.” Because they ask questions, they want to [00:23:00] see everything. It’s like playing chess.

The great generals do that and then they give you a decision, “Okay, let’s do that. Let’s do that. Let’s do that. What do you think if we do that?” Even when they’re saying, “Let’s do that. What do you think if we do that?” After they’re clear, they give orders, “Attack. No, retreat.” Everybody’s got their stuff to do, so there’s a whole team. It’s amazing. I’m trying to bring that back, [00:23:30] I’m trying to meditate and bring those generals into my head.

Euvie: That’s the amazing thing about humans is that we can reprogram ourselves, we can develop ourselves, we can change how we think and we can acquire new skills. For anybody who’s listening who is stuck and feels like, “I can’t do that,” that’s the wrong attitude.

Emmanuel: Even animals have conscious. My sister ran away some time and [00:24:00] what happened is she told me a story one time that shocked me. Her and her friends, they were attacked by soldiers and those friends of hers were raped. She managed to run. As she was running, she entered a bush. In this bush, there was a lion. She was face to face with a lion. The lion did not run, the lion was not angry. They were just face to face. “Okay, look, you cannot [00:24:30] eat me. I’m running away from people who want to kill me and they’re doing terrible things to my friends. You have to go there, not me. You cannot eat me. I want to go and meet my brother. I’m running away.” What the lion did, the lion turned around and went and chased the other people.

How would a lion know that this person is in trouble and asking for his help? We say, “These are animals. How did the animal know that [00:25:00] she’s running away from something and is asking for his help? How would you ask help from a lion?” I’ve seen situations where dogs rescued a baby almost being eaten by a snake. The baby wanted to move, there’s a snake on their bike. The dog was barking. Every time the baby wanted to move there, he’s trying to stop the baby from moving until an adult came and they realized the dog was barking crazily and freaking the kid out [00:25:30] because the kid wanted to go to the bike but the bike has a snake. If you look at that, what is that? Why would this dog try to tell this baby, “Hey, don’t got to that, don’t go.”

Every time the kid want to go the kid gets scared. The parents are watching. The kids stopped. When the kid wanted to move to the bike, the dog barked so badly until they came later on and then they helped. [00:26:00] I think things are out there. We have the conscious mind, as you can see. It’s amazing how we can reprogram ourselves. For myself, I reprogram myself every day. I haven’t stopped. Because you grow in violence, the violence is put in you, the trauma lives in you. Only your mind is a battle – you have to capture space by space, capture space by space, [00:26:30] capture space by space.

Mike: It seems like your experiences have really taught you the flexibility of your mind. When we meet people in the west, there’s definitely a higher amount of rigidity, like they’re stick in a certain way of thinking quite a lot more. That way of thinking might accommodate for a lot of brilliant thought but to try and shift it to a different way of thinking of what you believe is impossible is quite hard for most people I think. That could be one of the most [00:27:00] inspiring things about your story is that you’re demonstrating the ability to take all of this traumatic experience, take lessons from it, improve yourself, adjust to a completely different world and keep building yourself. That’s pretty amazing.

Emmanuel: That’s what I do now. I travel. I took a leadership retreat to Kenya where I took people there. I’m doing the next one on the third of August to the sixth in Canada, a place called Muskoka. [00:27:30] If you guys are free, you’re welcome. You can come and have an experience, get some tools to help you in your journalism world.

Mike: Cool. How can people get a hold of you if they want to reach you?

Emmanuel: They can go to mylifeisart.org.

Mike: Great.

Emmanuel: www.mylifeisart.org.

Mike: Great. Thank you for joining us on this. Thank you for [00:28:00] telling that story again. I can’t know how difficult it is but it must be incredible difficult, so thanks for your generosity in sharing that story with us.

Emmanuel: Thank you. Also, I have this new song with Xavier Rod called Be the Love, which now we’re asking people to be the love, to be the solution.

Euvie: Amazing. Thank you so much.

Mike: Nice talking to you. Take care.

Emmanuel: Bye.

Emmanuel Jal

In this episode our guest is Emmanuel Jal, a former child soldier from South Sudan, turned international recording artist, activist, and life educator. We met Emmanuel at the Oslo Freedom Forum in Norway, a great human rights event we recently attended and spoke at.

In this episode, we talk to about resilience, sovereignty, social emotional learning, and the importance of storytelling to human development.

Stories of Resilience

Emmanuel Jal tells his stories of growing up in a war-torn Sudan, and the struggles he encountered after escaping the rebel army he joined when he was only 7 years old. At one point, he and his fellow child soldiers trekked through the desert for three months without food and water. Emmanuel recalls one particular dark moment when his will was tested, and the miracle and salvation that followed.

Sharing his stories repeatedly, as difficult as it has been, has become a valuable testimony for Emmanuel and has given him a purpose in life.

The resilient child is not afraid to show the internal scars - the more you cover them, the harder they heal. -@EmmanuelJAL Click To Tweet

The Power of Storytelling

Ever since Emmanuel was a child, he believed in the power of storytelling. He believes that storytelling provides healing. Each human being has a story, and each story is different. Now living and working in Canada, he explains the Canadian stories gave him energy to survive, while his story helped him connect with people.

While living in Canada, Emmanuel had the opportunity to develop his mind – his memory, imagination, intuition, logic and reason, conscious and subconscious mind. He says that he is driven by a vision in his mind, a purpose in his heart, and the memory of his past. These things give him gratitude for every moment.

You never know a potential of a child, a human being, until you give him an opportunity. -@EmmanuelJAL Click To Tweet

Sovereignty of Mind

Emmanuel talks about the importance of owing one’s mind, of having sovereignty. He describes the brain as a “wish maker”. which adjusts itself according to our needs. To be able to achieve our goals and vision, we have to expand our mental power and develop our abilities, and reprogram ourselves.

As opposed to the traumatized mind, a healthy mind is characterized by patience, planning, strategizing and being curious. He talks about the importance of continuously asking questions.

Today, Emmanuel travels the world, sharing his stories. He is the founder of My Life is Art, an organization helping others to spark conscious awakening through workshops.

In order to create, you have to allow the vision to set in your head. And you hold it and not let anything else stay in that space. -@EmmanuelJAL Click To Tweet

In This Episode of Future Thinkers:

  •  The story of a former child soldier from South Sudan, turned musician and activist
  •  The power of storytelling
  • The importance of having a vision and a purpose
  • How to reprogram our brains and develop new habits throughout life
  • The difference between a traumatized mind and a healthy mind
  • Sovereignty of mind

Mentions and Resources:

Book Recommendations:

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