Lam Tungwar: from child soldier to rapper

January 2007 -

"Drop your gun and go to school", Youssou N'Dour once sang to the child soldiers of his continent. But what can you do if you are enticed by the promise of an education and the promise proves to be false?

This is what happened to Lam Tungwar, born 23 years ago in a village in South Sudan. He was herding his cows when a group of adult men passed by. They asked Lam and his friends: "do you want to go to school?" Of course they did. They left on a whim, without even telling their families. It seems amazing, and it can be assumed that Lam hoped to soften the story of what was actually his abduction. Because the school proved to be a military camp in Ethiopia run by the Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA).

When Ethiopia's dictator and SPLA ally Mengistu Haile Mariam was dethroned in 1991, the camp had to be speedily evacuated. Lam and his friends, varying in age from eight to eleven, walked right into their first field battle. The following drama visibly made the greatest impression on Lam: "A family came stumbling by. In his desperation, the father understood that he would never be able to cross the river with his family. That meant that they would be slaughtered by the armed thugs. He would not let it come to that. First he shot and killed his wife and children, and then himself."

These and other atrocities are reflected in a book that Lam had written by the South Sudanese journalist Evans Maendeh, in a kind of broken English that is sometimes reminiscent of Amos Tutuolas' My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. That took place in Nairobi, where Lam finally made good on the promise made by his abductors in that field near his home village. School! Diplomas! He also discovered his talent for rap. His debut CD was presented earlier this year under the title Child Soldier. That is also the title of the book.

Lam performs in Kenya and Sudan and preaches peace and tolerance in four languages: his own, English, Kiswahili and Arabic. Together with Maendeh he is the driving force behind the South Sudan Artists Association. This association strives to sustain the peace in South Sudan by developing the artistic talents of young Sudanese the same way Lam developed his. His own view is as follows: "Naturally I had a desire for revenge on those who hurt us. But when it comes to the liberation and development of South Sudan, I have come to understand that I can be more effective with music and texts than with a rifle."

Bram Posthumus interviewed Lam Tungwar in Nairobi