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.