Johannesburg, South Africa - By age 13, Emmanuel Jal was already a veteran of two civil wars and a soldier on the frontlines of a conflict born before he was.
Two decades on, the Sudanese-born child-soldier turned hip-hop star calls himself a "peace soldier", using music and activism to spread a different message. He credits his emancipation to two things: A woman who took an interest in his future and smuggled him to safety, and an education that changed his life.
"Education helped me on a very personal level," Jal told Al Jazeera, recalling the ethno-religious tensions that often fuelled conflict between the north and south in Sudan.
"Back then I hated Muslims and Arabs and I wanted to kill as many Muslims and Arabs as possible," saying he had been led to believe they were the cause of the conflict in southern Sudan.
"Education helped me understand the political situations and how economics affects the world, and I realised what was killing us are not Muslims and Arabs, it's actually the resources," he said at the annual One Young World Summit, which represents a global network of socially committed individuals working to achieve change.
"I realised that human beings are the same. What happens is people extend their empathies to people of the same faith and same colour and they exploit the vulnerable and people who are not aware," he said. "When I learned that truth, I was able to forgive."
Jal was born in the early 1980s during the conflict between the largely Muslim central Sudanese government in the north and the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) in the south.
Life as a child soldier
"To experience the war for the first time, I felt this is it, the world is ending," he said about the conflict that claimed more than two million lives, including that of his mother. After her death, Jal was smuggled across the border into Ethiopia where there was the promise of school and safety.
If the young people and the women are given an opportunity to go to school, in the future they will come up with the solutions.
Instead, young Jal ended up in a military training camp run by the SPLA. From age eight, he was immersed in a world of AK-47s and civil war as a child soldier until British aid worker Emma McCune found him five years later in eastern Sudan.
"Emma took an interest in me and that's why she risked her life for me," he says. McCune smuggled Jal from a town called Waat onto an aid flight headed across the border to Kenya in 1993. With her help, he finally found the education he had left home in search of.
"Emma always said south Sudan is very complicated and the conflict there is very complex. But if the young people and the women are given an opportunity to go to school, in the future they will come up with the solutions," he said.
Jal, who is today internationally recognised for his musical and humanitarian contributions, says he believes in the vision of education, dialogue and youth mentorship as a path towards fostering peace and empowerment, especially in situations of poverty and war across Africa.
"Africa is the way it is because of most African people not taking the steps to move forward ... At One Young World I have seen a lot of young African leaders taking the lead from the grassroots up, and that is the light, that is the hope."
From slums to schools
Education is a key concern for the more than 1,000 youth delegates from 190 countries who descended on Johannesburg to discuss and tackle some of the world's most pressing issues.
In Nigeria, an estimated 10.5 million children have never been to school, said One Young World youth delegate Mohamed Camara, 22, whose organisation Slum2School - a non-profit set up in 2012 - promotes education among the least privileged and most at-risk youngsters in Lagos.
The organisation began its work in Makoko, a sprawling, floating slum where more than 80,000 people live in cramped houses built primarily on stilts. Families often have large numbers of children, and as many as 80 to 90 percent of youth do not attend school, Camara said.
Slum2School already provides scholarships to some 600 slum-dwellers between the ages of 3 and 15. A steady influx of volunteer teachers and healthcare workers has helped the organisation double the number of children being helped since last year, and there are now plans to build a floating school in Makoko itself.
"We are now in the process of building an ark school on the water," said Camara. "The children will be comfortable and they will be in their own environment. And they will have a sense of responsibility because it is in their community."
|Bob Geldof attended One Young World [Getty Images]
One Young World's annual summit is the second-largest global youth gathering next to the Olympic Games.
A selection of global leaders from the world of business, finance, arts and society engage with youth delegates, acting as mentors.
This year's leaders - among them former United Nations chief Kofi Annan and musician and philanthropist Bob Geldof - hosted speaking sessions and fielded questions on matters including gender discrimination, human rights, sustainable development, and global heath.
The summit also saw delegates networking to share knowledge and build their own projects across borders.
Bintou Soumaoro, 23, founded Les Filles Unies pour l'Education, an organisation for women's education and empowerment in Bamako, Mali five years ago.
"We believe education is the route to freedom and happiness," Soumaoro said. "But it is a national tragedy that only two women in every 100 can attend university. In Mali, it is seen that the role of the woman is to stay at home. Women are considered the weaker sex, and there is discrimination."
Soumaoro's work has now grown to include a programme for women in the IT sector, as well as a link-up initiative with School Girls Unite in the US, which helps raise money for school fees, supplies and tutors for Malian schoolgirls.
Soumaoro credits One Young World for having helped her share experiences and learn from others. "I have been able to meet different partners who may be able to invest in Mali's education," she said.
"This is a conference that is part of a movement," One Young World co-founder David Jones told Al Jazeera. "The world doesn't need another youth conference, but it does need tangible action. So the way we will measure One Young World is how many tangible and concrete actions have happened."
Jones said the decision to bring the summit to South Africa in 2013 was also partly "to show the world the opportunity of Africa".
"Of course there are some big problems and issues here, but if the world only ever sees the problems, we'll only ever get charity. And if the world sees the opportunity, Africa will get investment."
Jal says he has confidence these youth leaders can one day bring about change.
"When you are passionate, it doesn't matter who you are and where you are from," he said. "These are peace soldiers, like me, people who want to make the world better."
Follow Sumayya Ismail on Twitter: @SumayyaIsmail
Source: Al Jazeera