Books, Non-Fiction

‘Songs of a War Boy’ book extract by Deng Adut with Ben McKelvey

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At an awards ceremony in Sydney this month Deng Adut, a Sudanese child soldier, a refugee and now a lawyer in western Sydney was announced as the 2017 NSW Australian of the Year.  His story is told in his book with Ben Mckelvey, Songs of a War Boy.

Deng’s story is of a boy, and now man, who has overcome extraordinary adversity to become a lawyer helping refugees in western Sydney where he now has his own law practice with legal partner Joe Correy, the AC Law Group.

The following is the prologue from Songs of a War Boy by Deng Adut & Ben Mckelvey, published by Hachette Australia.


Songs are of great importance to my people, the Dinka. They’re our avatars, and our biographies. They precede us, introduce us and live on after we die. They are also how our deeds escape our villages, and they pass on our code of morality, culture and law.

When I was a boy I dreamed of having my own songs, but now I am a man, and I have no songs. It’s likely I never will, in the traditional sense. For the Dinka, these songs are only for men. In the eyes of my culture, I am still a boy.

When I should have been going through the rituals of manhood, I was caught in a vicious war. By the time I was returned to my people, I was very much a westerner.

My feet straddle the continents, and also the threshold of manhood.

I never completed the rites of passage that are required to become a Dinka man, and so in the eyes of some of my people I am half made. I am also half made in the estimation of some Australians too – those who cannot accept me as their countryman because of the darkness of my skin, where I started my life, and my accented English.

I know I am whole, though. Yes, I’ve had a difficult life. I’m proud of some of the things I have done, and ashamed of others, but I own all of it, and I’ve reconciled with all of it. That’s why I am whole.

Perhaps this book could be my songs.

I came to this country with almost no English, fresh physical and mental scars, and an education that didn’t extend much farther than the ability to strip and clean an AK-47 rifle. About a decade and a half later, I have my own law firm.

I’m still a relatively young man, but I think perhaps I have done a few things that deserve song. In Africa, I’ve hunted and killed, and survived bombardment and disease. I’ve charged headlong at machine-gun posts. I’ve been taken to the mouth of death many times, and have always been lucky enough to be able to pull myself out.


In Australia, I became educated, and also became a man of standing in my community. I once thought that finishing my law degree, and my master’s, would be the greatest achievements of my life, but I’ve found a much-needed home in law and I’ve gone on to accomplishments that have benefited not just myself, but others. I’m especially proud of the work I’ve done with my dispossessed African brothers and sisters. Would any of it be worthy of song? I think so.

I’ve been able to adorn myself with fine things too, which is an important rite for the Dinka. I have my suits made for me so they fit perfectly, and I have European watches and fine-smelling leather boots and bags.

To go to South Sudan and look at us, the Dinka, with western eyes, you may assume that we are a people who do not value finery, but that’s not the case. Though we have no need for diamonds or designer clothes in Africa, the acquisition of a fine looking cow, or a hand-hammered cowbell, or handmade spear, or of a leopard-skin to wear when wrestling is very important to a Dinka man. If we own luxury items that are honestly earned, then they must be represented in our songs, too. My suits would not have their own songs, but they could certainly bring flavour to some of my verses.

Perhaps my songs could also be songs for the other boys who were taken from their villages and mothers, and for those scarred, confused black men that you see in the outer suburbs of western cities; their looks of fear often mistaken for anger.

Ideally every war boy should be able to sing their own songs, but so many are dead, and so many who have survived have no voice. Even though I hesitate to collectively recognise my brothers, I feel that any one of them who wants to share my verses should be able to do so because there should be songs for everybody, even the war boys.

The chapters in this book are the verses of my songs. The songs of Deng Thiak Adut, the songs of a war boy.

[box]Main image of Deng Adut is the painting by Nick Stathopoulos which was a finalist in this year’s Archibald Portrait Prize and was awarded the People’s Choice Award. [/box]

9 responses to “‘Songs of a War Boy’ book extract by Deng Adut with Ben McKelvey

  1. How wonderful that someone who has experienced the worst of war and cruelty can rise above it and be so dignified. His story is testament to the human spirit. How wonderful it would be too if his stgory were to touch the hearts of stone of those who vilify migrants, refugees and especially those of dark skin. His is the song of hope and a call for us all to embrace all who come to our shores. Tony

  2. When I read such beautiful words – written in the cadences of song – I begin to feel my own heart quiver in tune. I gazed upon your portrait in the Archibald exhibition and thought to myself: This IS a man – and an AUSTRALIAN man at that – and like so many of us – from other places – coming here with stories that are dissimilar – yet all bearing challenges – to maintain something of who we were before – while becoming something of where we are now.

    Of course you are famous – I believe I would recognise you anywhere – but that’s not the case with me. Challenges – yes, I’ve had them – and successes, too – of sorts. When I look at you or read your words I am measuring myself against your remarkable life. I am not measuring in any unkind fashion – more reading to find how I have been a good citizen here – and a good resident when living in other parts of the world.

    In fact I was nearly two decades in a northern hemisphere land when refugees from eastern Africa began to be brought here to Australia. I would return home for brief visits – and in big cities and in rural centres find people from Africa. It was amazing – and further proof I thought that old racist assumptions in this society had gone.

    Were you to look at me looking at you you might see me smile. A kindly-intentioned smile – of course. But what you can’t see in my head is that I am thinking of cousins who lived in Nigeria or who were in South Africa or the old Rhodesia. Friends from South Africa – or others serving diplomatically in Ethiopia or who were in North Africa – or planned visits myself to north-west Africa. Sure – not your specific parts – but we have been conditioned (even if wrongly) to think of Africa as a whole unit – before breaking it up into its (mainly) colonised/ordered parts. I am smiling because I would like to know you – or your fellow countrymen – and smiling shows (I hope) I intend no harm…

    Your book – while being filled with your songs – those that help us to understand more fully that you are a man – the best of men – is also you smiling at us! You are an amazing Australian – how proud I am that you have become one of us!

    1. he would have had the kind of ‘hand up’ many young people only dream of . . .good luck to him, but he faced few obstacles here, including made-up ‘racism’ . . .

  3. A book I won’t be reading..I’ll give him kudos if he goes to Melbourne and ‘fixes’ the problem we have with marauding Sudanese young males committing outlandish crimes,with no respect for Australian law and culture.

    1. I feel the same way and never read books by white men unless they have personally solved the problem of young white men who maraud around my suburb, committing the majority of rapes, break-ins and violence within families. I find that maintaining a strict refusal to understand the perspective and experiences of people different from me is extremely constructive.

  4. i need to read this book, Australia is made from extraordinary humans and their survival stories.
    This just adds to the landscape.
    I really enjoy reading the comments , especially , go and fix the apex gang etc, and I wont read this book
    cause , blah ,blah
    great[not] to see racism and ignorance are still trending .

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