April 27, 2011. South Africa’s Freedom Day. My good friend, Her Excellency Ms Mohau Pheko, South Africa’s High Commissioner to Canada, invites me to a modest ceremony to mark the day. Nothing ostentatious. No fanfare. Short speeches by select invitees, flag raising, singing Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika, poetry recitation, and a short freedom walk. The sort of austere investment in the nuance and deeper symbolism of national occasions that one always wishes our friends in Abuja, who spend billions celebrating such rituals, would learn from. The High Commissioner asks me to read from my poetry at the event. I accept the invitation.
The skies of Ottawa decide to shed tears in homage to Nelson Mandela. The rain ensures that we cannot do the freedom walk part of the ceremony. We converge in the reception wing of the High Commissioner’s residence for the speeches and poetry recitation part of the proceedings. “The Gift of an Error”, a poem from my unpublished collection, ruffles quietly in my pocket, awaiting my podium moment as the sole bard invited for the occasion. Deploying a popular creation motif in Yoruba mythology, I had written that poem years back in Johannesburg in celebration of South Africa’s post-apartheid self-fashioning as the rainbow nation.
However, before my moment comes the moment of ritual observance. The South Africans, perhaps in recognition of the transnational dimensions of their ideology of the rainbow, settle for a Native American (First Nations in Canada) welcoming and blessing ceremony. The freedom of Zulus Xhosas, Boers, Indians, Coloureds, and the many hues of Azania is going to be blessed in the Americas by the true owners of the American soil. And the man the South Africans invite to perform this most solemn ritual is story. Elder Commanda is history puslsatingly alive and in motion. Elder Commanda is legend. Elder Commanda is much more than this Facebook biography says he is:
“Elder William Commanda from Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg, Maniwaki, Quebec, was born on November 11, 1913 under the bright light of the Morning Star, so his mother named him Ojigkwanong; thus the larger universe figured in his personal story from the very beginning. Today, he is seen by many as the symbol of light emerging from the darkness of the first World War, illuminating a path to a new world with his vision for a Circle of All Nations, A Culture of Peace. He is a respected spokesman and spiritual leader at many conferences, participates in United Nations peace and spiritual vigils, and his work is acknowledged nationally and internationally. Fully trilingual, he shares his words and prayers in Algonquin, and translates them into English and French.
This is the great Native Canadian Elder in whose solemn presence we now gather to mark South Africa’s freedom day. In his elaborate introduction of Elder Commanda, the emcee ensures that we do not forget the man’s friendship with Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama. The emcee makes sure that we remember that Elder Commanda represents for Native Canadians what Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama represent for their respective peoples. The room gets smaller as Elder Commanda’s world figure status raced off the emcee’s tongue.
Elder Commanda takes the podium with all his ninety-eight years of history and graciousness. Before solemnizing the room with a ritual beckoning to his ancestors, he gives a short speech, part biographical, part spiritual, about this world; about his earth; about his people; about where and how the rain began to beat them; about love; about forgiveness. He spoke and spoke and spoke. That room, filled with South Africans, white Canadians, and this Nigerian, is silent, eerily silent. Everyone is swallowing his words, deep in thought.
I do not follow Elder Commanda’s speech beyond his very opening sentence. I cannot get beyond this man’s first sentence. That sentence traps me in its awesome power and I surrender myself to a revelry of analysis. From the podium, he takes one sweeping look at us, his audience, and declares with all the power of his love for humanity: “you are welcome to our land”. The student of history in me kicks in. The scholar in me kicks in. The quiet listener to nuance and meaning in me kicks in. I look around casually to see if anyone in the room hears Elder Commanda the way I hear him. Welcome to our land, he says. Not welcome to Canada. Hmmm.
I have been in North America since 1998. In that time, I have studied in Canada, gone on to teach in the United States for four years before returning to Canada in 2006. I have received many a welcome to Canada, welcome to the US, from airport immigration officials and Canadian and American friends. But this singular “welcome to our land”, uttered by Elder Commanda at the beginning of the blessing ceremony, acquires an immediate halo of authenticity, shorn of the whiff of imperium that always comes with welcomes uttered by Europeans who stole this land.
Thirteen years after my feet first kissed the earth of the Americas, I get my first real, official, and genuine welcome from a shon of the shoil, the real owner of the land, singularly authorized to utter that welcome. My mind wanders to another historic moment of enunciation of a welcome powered by authenticity:
The gate of reeds is flung open
There is silence
But only a moment’s silence-
A silence of assessment
The tall black king steps forward,
He towers over the thin bearded white man,
Then grabbing his lean white hand
Manages to whisper
“Mtu Mweupe Karibu”
White man you are welcome
The gate of polished reed closes
And the West is let in.
“White man you are welcome.” That’s Malawian poet, David Rubadiri, capturing history in one sentence in his famous poem, “Stanley Meets Mutesa”. And here we are in the Americas, being “let in” officially by Elder Commanda, a genuine owner of that patch of earth. Only this time, we shall not take the stool from the owner of the house and ask him to sit on the floor. As Elder Commanda speaks about forgiveness and how he used love to transcend hatred, I think of Wole Soyinka’s discussion of Senghor’s forgiveness of the slaving sins and colonial transgressions of France in his book, The Burden of Memory, the Muse of Forgiveness.
Love. Forgiveness. Transcending difference. The themes float in the room as I mount the podium to read my poem after Elder Commanda’s awe-inspiring speech. Then I think of the differences and faultlines that the nationalities in that room have overcome or are overcoming in the permanently unfinished business of nationhood: South Africans and Canadians with their bloody tales of racial and other differences. These South Africans and Canadians say in unison with Elder Commanda that forgiveness is the first condition of nationhood.
And I stand in the same room with my Nigeria of equally fractious and violent differences. Over there in Nigeria, tribe and tongue do not just differ, they kill. Is forgiveness also the antidote to the deadly invidiousness of our national condition in Nigeria? Could it be that forgiveness comes easier to South Africans and Canadians because no state or political elite is sufficiently arrogant to tell the people that statehood and nationhood are sacrosanct no-go areas that can neither be discussed nor re-negotiated? Could it be that forgiveness comes easy when there is no silly talk of a “corporate existence” cast in the stone of status quo, beyond dialogue? These thoughts crowd my mind but I’ve got a poem to read on the podium just sanctified by Elder Commanda.