I was born lucky. Being born at the bank of the Nile is lucky. Surviving being conscripted into the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army [as a six-year-old] is lucky. Coming to Australia and actually being sponsored by an Australian is lucky. Being able to come here and study, do something I could have never achieved, is being lucky. Being able to finish a law degree is lucky, and not only that, three law degrees, is lucky.
My mum is my galaxy. Her name is Athieu Akau, but I call her youhyouh which means galaxy, and she’s my galaxy, the shining star. She is a strong, strong survivor of three major genocides in South Sudan, and she never gives up on life. She is the reason why I forgive myself, and why I forgive life. My mum is the last elder in my village who is still alive. She was one of six wives to my father. All the other women are dead. She is still alive, she is a great-grandmother. That’s a bloody achievement! She has lost so much, and if she can still be alive and do great things, then I will be alongside her and try to do more.
I learned a lot of lessons from my brother John. Hard work, never taking things for granted, suffering… I’ve learned that I will never give up and, most importantly, I will never ever take my own life. I will never do that.
I attempted to do that when I was a kid in the Army. In my mind, if I ever got shot or lost my leg, I was going to do it. There is no mobility, no wheelchair, no nothing. No-one is going to help you when you are in the People’s Liberation Army.
The biggest turning point in my life was being reborn Australian. I was born in South Sudan, died in South Sudan and was reborn Australian when I was 14. I feel more Australian than Sudanese. There is no greater country than Australia. Here, people can speak their minds; freedom of speech is something so dear, so beautiful, that we don’t acknowledge that’s a wonderful thing… I can speak my mind and not be worried about being shot in the street. That’s vital. I’m not going to speak my mind in a negative way, I’m going to speak it in a positive way.
My first impression of Australia was that it was a concrete jungle, a glass jungle. It was so different from the real jungle where lions roam. Everything was confusing, everything was magical. It’s still magical today. How we function, how we interact, how we communicate with one another by television, by phone… Being in this environment consumes you like a burning bush; it’s a bushfire. It’s hard to absorb all this, it’s a shock.
When I was 14, 15, soccer was my life. Personal enlightenment is what’s beautiful about sport; there are no boundaries. You don’t need language to understand the language of soccer. It’s about teamwork...being able to work on your skills, build friendship, score goals. It is vital to yourself to say I have achieved. I could argue that soccer has a positive impact on a lot of refugees who come here, because it’s a game they know and it helps them to quickly integrate into this society.
I would tell my 14-year-old self there is nothing that is impossible. And education is critical. My life was screwed up, and I didn’t have any plan. My good friend Geoff Hicherson was being like a father at the time, looking after me. He found me soccer, he found me a job. Because this was all set out for me, I was able to achieve those goals. I was working mowing lawns at Minchinbury, and at a peanut butter factory during the night. I also had school I was engaged in. I was going to church because it was important to be part of the group. All of these things were quite important to me as a young person to navigate my way, to find meaning in life.
In Dinka culture, manhood is quite defined. It’s important to be initiated; it separates you from boyhood. I never went through the process, and I was struggling with that and I’m still struggling with that, because it’s important that you identify as a man. There’s special meaning, a strict sense of being responsible, of being able to conduct yourself in a different way and that is crucial in every aspect of life. We don’t have that process in Australia – just because you reach puberty in Australia, you become a man.
There are only two things to do in life – find things you believe in and dedicate yourself to them. Law is that for me. My Uncle Philip and my brother John were the ones who actually told me to study law. Things that come to you, you don’t take them for granted. I treat my legal career as a treasure that came to me. And I don’t want to compromise it by any means. You’re making a decision about another person’s life, and those decisions that you’re making will stick with you for the rest of your life.
The TV ad for Western Sydney University gave me a voice. It’s a university where people who are considered underdogs will continue to rise and be embraced.
I’m happiest when I see other people being treated right. Every time I see someone being treated poorly, I get a flashback to what happened to me. It’s a nightmare that is always in the back of my mind – the distortion of being proud of going to war, and shooting people. We are not enemies with one another. We all have to find a way of stopping the madness of being trigger happy, or making the weapon and demeaning human life.
by Amy Hetherington
» Songs of a War Boy by Deng Adut & Ben Mckelvey (Hachette Australia) is out now. The Archibald Prize is touring Cowra. In 2017 it will visit Wagga Wagga, Bega, the Hawkesbury and Western Plains.
This article first appeared in Ed#526 of The Big Issue.