Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 21, 2018

Songs of a War Boy (2016), by Deng Thiak Adut with Ben McKelvey

It’s not a coincidence that my library had Songs of a War Boy on prominent display this week: the African community in Melbourne has been in the news lately for all the wrong reasons.  Scurrilous politicians attempting to whip up law-and-order issues in time for the next election have used the criminal behaviour of a very small teenage minority to besmirch an entire community – and I’m happy to join my library in promoting a book by an author who is – no disrespect intended – a bit of a poster boy for the African refugee community.  (Though if you followed the uplifting and often humorous #AfricanGangs Twitter thread, you will have seen that there are numerous examples of Africans studying and working hard, achieving great things, and bringing up their families to be everyday Australians to be proud of).

(BTW I am using the term ‘African’ in the same way that I would use ‘European’.  There are 54 countries recognised by the United Nations on the continent of Africa.  I found the map at the front of the book very helpful for tracing Deng’s journey to freedom because my knowledge of African geography is a bit hazy, as it is for parts of post-Soviet Europe).

Deng, however, has gained a place in Australia’s heart as a spokesman for people of African origin.  From the age of six Deng Thiak Adut was a child conscipt in southern Sudan, and was rescued and brought to Australian when he was fourteen.  Through sheer grit and determination this illiterate teenager with no formal education mastered English, and went on to complete not just an undergraduate degree in law, but also a Master’s.  He now has his own practice, the AC Law Group, in partnership with Joseph Correy, was awarded the New South Wales Australian of the Year for 2017 and was featured in a promotional video for Western Sydney University which immediately went viral and has been viewed almost three million times.

I thought I knew Deng’s story from the extensive media coverage so I only brought the book home to browse through, but I ended up reading it cover-to-cover and couldn’t put it down.  There are so many things to think about and the word inspirational doesn’t just apply to Deng himself.  He makes a point of acknowledging all the people who helped him, from Christine Harrison, the Australian counsellor in the Kakuma Refugee Camp who sponsored him to Australia, and her husband Bob who eased their transition through the first overwhelming days, to Geoff Hicherson, a retired policeman who took on the duties of a parent when a parent could not fulfil those duties, including ferrying him around to soccer matches, helping him with English and giving him a bicycle so that he could get his first job, mowing lawns.   Then too, there is the story of Deng’s brother John Mac Acuek, who risked his life to rescue Deng from the SPLA (Sudan People’s Liberation Army), and encouraged Deng every step of the way, yet struggled to make a new life in Australia, not least because he could not get employment despite being well-qualified for the jobs he applied for.

However, the most informative chapter of the book, for me, was the chapter that explained the genesis of the civil war in Sudan.  Colonialism is often blamed for the seemingly endless conflicts in Africa, but from this book I learned that Islamisation (and the imposition of sharia law) has a lot to do with it too.  Under the British, (prior to WW2) Sudan was basically peaceful because it was recognised that Sudan was – in reality if not in lines on a map – two separate countries, and so there were two separate administrations in Sudan, predominantly culturally Arab and religiously Islamic in the north but tribal, traditional and either Christian or animist in the south.  With decolonisation impending, the British conflated these two administrations, so that when Sudan gained independence in 1956, the south (which had the oil fields) was unwillingly under the thumb of the north and guerrilla warfare had already begun.  There were other factors including internal tribal distrust and infighting at work too, but Deng says that this religious conflict is the root cause of the civil war that led eventually to South Sudan achieving independence.

Although the story of Deng’s time as a child soldier is grim, there are lighter moments when he comes to Australia.  On arrival they are dismayed to learn they are being taken to Blacktown because they think it’s a ghetto for black arrivals, and then there’s their first meal.  Bob Harrison takes them to

… McDonald’s, which was a palace of confusion.  There were tables of wood that weren’t made of wood, and people dressed up in uniforms who weren’t soldiers, and there were huge pictures of food pasted on the walls, only I couldn’t see where the food actually was.  (p.143)

Bob had also organised their first apartment, above the offices of Marist Youth Care, where he worked:

It was a small two-bedroom place, but for us it was a palace, filled with technological wonders and food the likes of which we hadn’t even known existed.  After the long journey to Australia, I laid my body down on the first real bed I’d ever seen, under my first duvet, and I slept in a country at peace.

I will, for the rest of my life, be grateful to the people and organisations of Western Sydney for welcoming me into their fold, and I am proud that, as you read this sentence, I am most likely at my desk at my office, reading depositions, just a short distance away from that apartment.  I especially appreciate everything the Marists did for us – from flying us over, to arranging a job for John as the caretaker of the grounds surrounding our apartment.  Things were not easy in those early days, though.

Everything from crossing the road to heating the oven (Elizabeth [John’s wife] tried to heat it with kindling and fire) was confusing to us, and the Marists were our only tether to sense. (p.144)

(BTW On that long-haul plane journey from Nairobi via Hong Kong, they’d had nothing to eat, because they couldn’t figure out how to eat the plastic-covered food … gosh, wouldn’t you think someone would have noticed, and helped a fourteen year old kid too embarrassed to ask for help?)

Then, oh dear, Centrelink…

I am not one of those with not a good word to say for Centrelink, because politicians of all stripes have inflicted endless changes of policies and programs and systems on its hapless staff, then compounded the difficulty with that facile mantra ‘work smarter not harder’ every time they have a purge of public servants.  On top of that they have also entangled everything in privacy legislation to prevent information sharing, even with its own agencies like Medibank.  It also isn’t easy having to deal with people from hundreds of different cultures and languages, especially those cultures which have only recently started arriving in Australia.  (I know this, I was a teacher.  I was reported once by an Arabic parent for making an ‘obscene’ gesture in the playground when I gestured for a child to come over to me.  Who knew?  Not me, not my principal, not any other member of staff!)

I found out about Centrelink when for the first time in my life I had to deal with them in order to get an aged care place for my father in Victoria.  It made no difference that he was fully self-funded, it’s not possible to get a bed unless you fill out multiple forms and register in the system.  But alas, the computer screens froze when I couldn’t prove his identity – because although he’d spent 55 years as a taxpayer in Australia (and had a nomination for an AO!), at 91 he had no driving licence, valid passport or other approved ID.  Deng had a similar problem with Centrelink’s inflexibility:

As a minor, I would need a legal guardian in Australia, which was a strange concept for me because the closest I’d had to a guardian since the age of seven were superior officers from the SPLA. For my brother to be my guardian, he and I had to have the same surname, or at least a good reason why we didn’t.  Dinka-Bor naming convention was apparently not a good reason.

John’s full name was John Mac Acuek, so for us to register with the refugee papers that we had been given in Kenya, I had to take on John’s surname.  When I was given my Centrelink accreditation, I found a name on the form that meant absolutely nothing to me and bore no similarity to the names my family gave me, nor any mention of my clan’s history.  (p.146)

Deng was outraged at being renamed Dave Machacuek, and who could blame him.  I do hope Centrelink have found a better way of solving problems like this by now…

Songs of a War Boy is excellent reading, and credit should also go to Deng’s co-writer and journalist Ben McKelvey who, I suspect (on the basis of knowing the writing style of a few lawyers), had a hand in making this a crisp, coherent and thoroughly readable text.

Author: Deng Thiak Adut
Title: Songs of a War Boy
Publisher: Hachette, 2016
ISBN: 9780733636523
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: Songs of a War Boy: The bestselling biography of Deng Adut – a child soldier, refugee and man of hope


  1. Great review Lisa.
    My continent Africa produces some of the worst horrors but also courageous nd brave people who tries to change their society for the better.
    I recently read and i hope one day you read
    A moonless starless sky;ordinary women and men fighting extremism in Africa by Alexis Okeowo


    • Thanks SB, have you reviewed that one on your blog?

      Liked by 1 person

      • still yet but i will write it down soon
        it even includes my country as still women are forbidden from public sports and women who defy that law and play basketball


        • It sounds interesting, I wait for your review!


  2. This book sounds fascinating, Lisa, and very important as well. Most of us know far too little about the African community in Australia. This year my U3A book group, Landmarks in Australian Literature, will be reading a selection of recent Australian memoirs and biographies. I only wish I had known about this one earlier, as I would certainly have put it on the reading list. Having read your excellent review, I have now ordered a copy – thank you so much for bringing it to my attention.


    • Oh, that’s always a dilemma with choosing a book group list! Choosing well in advance means more people have time to get the book and read it, but then something comes along that you want to read too!
      That’s why I like the Book Chats I occasionally attend at the Bayside Library – for an hour, reads just chat about whatever they’ve read, whatever it happens to be:)


  3. Wow, this sounds a tremendous story. As you say, this is an inspirational story but I also find it a sobering one because we know that for every boy like Deng there are thousands more who are just as intelligent but never get away from those solider camps or occupied villages. There was a story on BBC in UK last week about a boy who got out of Syria, travelling the breadth of continental Europe with his mother to reach freedom. Now he has gained a place to read maths at Oxford…


    • Yes, when you take a deep breath and consider all the people denied a chance, and the good their collective intelligence and courage could do for the world, it’s very sobering indeed.


      • It also makes me better appreciate the opportunities that have come to me in my own life


  4. I loved this book. So inspiring. Not only to survive but to succeed in the way he has. There are so many amazing refugee success stories. And what they contribute is always humbling.


    • Well, as someone learning French, I am just lost in admiration for someone who’d had such a bad start in life and yet can learn English well enough to get a law degree…

      Liked by 1 person

  5. What an incredible story and an important one. Great review which will hopefully encourage more people to seek out a copy.


    • Thanks Karenlee, lets hope you are right. I’d like some prominent politicians to do that!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I have had this book set aside to read for the longest time now, ever since I heard Deng in an interview on the Triple J morning show. Truly inspirational.


    • Hello Theresa, *chuckle* I hope I’ve provoked you to drop everything and read it:)

      Liked by 1 person

      • Close to it! The will is there, just need to find the time.


        • You know, I read the other day (though I don’t know how they know these things) that if we gave up social media we would have enough time to read 200 books a year.
          I think it’s easier to give up housework…

          Liked by 1 person

          • Goodness! 200 books…I’d believe it though. I use social media less on the weekends and I always read more.


  7. This is an uplifting story, and good on him. Not one I’d read though, I’d rather read his brother’s story. And as for Centrelink, they’re as the government intends them to be: intimidating and dysfunctional.


    • His brother was killed in South Sudan when he went back there….


  8. […] a story of courage from a Sudanese refugee, to a celebration of an entirely different kind of courage, I found reading this biography to be an […]


  9. […] Songs of a War Boy, by Deng Thiak Adut with Ben McKelvey #BookReview South Sudan […]


  10. […] a story of courage from a Sudanese refugee, to a celebration of an entirely different kind of courage, I found reading this biography to be an […]


  11. […] Songs of a War Boy, by Deng Thiak Adut with Ben McKelvey […]


  12. […] Songs of a War Boy […]


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