January 5, 2009 (WASHINGTON) – Sudanese-born musician Eliz Chol Lam reached the White House with a song of thanks when visiting Southern Sudanese dignitaries presented her latest CD album as a gift to outgoing President George W. Bush.
- Eliz Chol Lam
Lam’s music, sung in her native Nuer language with an upbeat and modern feel, expresses joy and gratitude to the Bush administration for its role in brokering a peace agreement for Sudan in 2005, ending a 22-year civil war.
"Thank you leaders, thank you George Bush, thank you for what you have done for the south Sudanese people," sings Lam in one track. "Now that our flag has arisen, there is really now a government" for South Sudan.
Bush received the CD during the visit of Salva Kiir Mayardit, the president of the autonomous Government of Southern Sudan (GOSS), who came to thank Bush on the fourth anniversary of the peace agreement and meet with aides of President-elect Barack Obama.
Born in the Upper Nile region on Sudan’s southeastern borderlands, Lam came from a family of singers and trained her young voice in her church choir. But the period of her upbringing was a harsh time for her people, she recalled in an interview. "I did not grow up in Sudan," she said, "because of war my father could find no food, no this, no that, so we moved to Ethiopia for the better conditions."
Her experiences strike a familiar chord with fellow southerners, some four million of whom were displaced during the war. "God help us, we are sick of wandering in the bush," she sings on the track We Thank You, from her 2007 album. "God help give us our country, we are sick of wandering everywhere, there is no place that we have not seen, because we don’t have a government."
Arriving in the United States in 2000, Lam marked the beginning of her singing career in 2002, when a ceasefire was signed in her home country. She has mostly lived in Omaha, Nebraska, home to the largest community of Sudanese in the United States.
The singer, who returned to perform in Sudan in 2007, cites diverse influences, from the popular Nuer musician Gordon Koang Duoth to American singer Mariah Carey. Other favorites include Ethiopian music, American country music and popular American R&B singers and rappers.
During her 2007 return trip, she performed in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, Southern Sudan’s capital of Juba and the towns Malakal and Nasir. "I cannot tell you how happy I was when I went, and even now," she said. "Too many people came to that performance" in Nasir, she said, "because they knew me before I went to Africa. They know my songs. When I went… it was crazy."
Though the singer traveled most recently for a performance in Alberta, Canada this September, she plans to continue working and performing in Omaha. Her songs voice optimism and praise for the leaders of Southern Sudan, including President Kiir and Vice-President Riek Machar: "Our country is good now, Salva Kiir and Riek Machar they brought us the peace agreement. God gave them the opportunity.”
"Let there not be any children or anyone carrying guns, or a spear or a knife, except those who work for the government or are military trained,” she sings. “Let the children all go to school, so we can have doctors to treat our sickness and we can have technology to develop the country."
Praise for the outgoing U.S. president is by no means universal among Sudanese, but it certainly can be effusive. "We love George Bush, because he brought peace to our country, and nobody did it before," said Lam.
"South Sudanese are naming their cows George Bush," said Head of GOSS Mission to the U.S. Ezekiel Lol Gathkuoth, "and even children."
Cows, the most prized possessions in most southern societies, might bear the president’s name for now, but Bush’s enduring legacy in the south likely will depend on whether the peace agreement is implemented—a matter of little certainty, admit senior officials in both governments.
But for now Lam is definitely singing of peace. "I like this song, it does touch me," said Tiach Jiech War, the personal assistant to the Head of Mission. "I listen to the CD and I agree with her in thanking George Bush."
"God bless George Bush and God bless America," entreated Lam.