Child of war to preach peace

Every year, Saint Louis University sponsors Atlas Week, a line-up of events highlighting voices, cultures and traditions from around the world.

The zenith of this celebration is the keynote speaker. Past keynotes include human rights activist Jehan Sadat in 2008, Nobel Prize winner Shirin Ebadi in 2007 and Nobel Peace Laureate Jody Williams in 2006.

Each speaker is a big name with an even bigger mission. These keynotes don’t just dream about changing the world. They do it.

This year’s celebration, to be held from March 30 through April 6, introduces a new era in keynote speakers with Emmanuel Jal. Once a child soldier in turbulent, war-ravaged Sudan, 28-year-old Jal is an activist and one of Africa’s foremost hip-hop artists, whose music preaches peace, social justice and human rights.

His speech, titled “From a Child of War to a Voice for Peace,” will be held on Wednesday, April 1 in the Bush Student Center.

Jal hasn’t earned a Nobel Prize yet. This fact may make him less prestigious in the eyes of the critical Atlas Week-goer, but his experiences more than make up for his lack of decoration.

Though he is only six to 10 years older than the average SLU undergraduate, Jal has personally experienced some of the most tragic human rights violations committed in recent history. He was a young child when the Sudanese Civil War broke out. At age 7, his mother was killed by government-sympathetic soldiers. Shortly after, he was forced into the life of a child soldier. “I didn’t have a life as a child. In five years as a fighting boy, what was in my heart was to kill as many Muslims as possible,” Jal says.

By age 11, Jal was rescued by a British aid worker, who adopted him and smuggled him into Kenya, where he studied music. Hip-hop, especially, captured Jal’s attention-he liked how words over a stirring background kept attention on the stories about his past and his hopes for future children in conflict zones. Since then, Jal has tirelessly publicized his story and lobbied for political change across the globe.

Jal is young, yet his presentation promises wisdom and activism beyond his years. He just might be the most inspiring Atlas Week keynote in years.

Check out his speech on April 1 to see how even atrocities may be powerfully converted into good.