I am barely awake when my wife, Isabel, gives me instructions for the afternoon. I should take Steph, our son to the theatre this afternoon. He should be dressed in his Sunday best and seated on his assigned seat. I should buy a ticket for myself and Marise, our daughter should sit next to me. Eight hours later, she would have been proud of me. I remembered and complied with military precision. Steph sits on his assigned seat and me and Marise on the ones I bought tickets for and chose. I am vaguely aware that I am at the prize giving function of the Oilsands Rotary Music Festival and that Steph will receive a prize for a piano recital he practiced for hours on end at home. In my own selfish inner world, I am not quite here. I am elsewhere and nowhere. I hate prize giving functions. I have every intention of playing around on my phone until this function ends. Prize giving functions are like kid’s parties-if you have been to one, you have been to all.
But then after the usual welcome, thank you to the sponsors and how-the evening will work breakdown, something beautiful happens. A black girl of about 14 years walks on stage. Her name is Kudukwashi Simbi. She is beautiful. She stands upright, she looks at the audience intently with pride and confidence. When you come from South Africa it is hard to not be mesmerised by a young black woman with the charisma and pride she displays. Kudukwashi captivates me even before she spoke one word.
When she finally does speak, she not only captivates me but takes me with her on a journey. She recites a peom entitled “On the Pulse of Morning” from Maya Angelou.
“History, despite its wrenching pain,
Cannot be unlived, and if faced with courage,
Need not be lived again.
Lift up your eyes upon
The day breaking for you.
Give birth again
To the dream.”
As she says these word, I get goosebumps all over. Sometimes words at the right time form the right person is like a spoon that stirs up flavours dormant in one’s soul and blends them into the aroma of hope. To me Kudukwashi becomes such a person as she continues and ends the poem with these words:
“Here on the pulse of this new day
You may have the grace to look up and out
And into your sister’s eyes,
Into your brother’s face, your country
And say simply
Somewhere deep inside me an “Encore!” cries out silently. I don’t want her to go but at least I am present now, so I allow her to bow out of the saviour role she just played in my life. Suddenly, I am here. Me and my soul. Being present like this opens my eyes to see many other beautiful things. Other children perform on the piano and violin and recite poetry and prose. Every one of them lifts my soul. I get to know Fort McMurray as a community brimming with young musical talent and great teachers.
A well dressed young man of barely nine with the last name Li plays a piece on the piano. It’s entitled “Water”. As you listen to him, it’s like your ears gets wetted softly and gently. The mayor’s daughter, Jeya Scott, plays a piece. Her mother is originally from China and I’ve been told she has a doctorate in music. When Jeya plays it sounds like she has one too! Had that piano had a tail, it would have wagged the whole time she was playing. Anirudh Shankar tells a funny story. Avery Rex sings a sad song about a waitress who gets pregnant and realizes that she will have to raise the baby all on her own. By the time she’s finished I need a handkerchief and feel ready to sign adoption papers.
One by one the children come to receive their awards and prize money. Raziela Odei, Victor Oganwemimo, Rita Pan, Nishka Rai, Soumannadip Sarkar, Alessandro Rizzuto, Brooke Tetreault, Krithka Venkataramadas, Vlad Stan and then my own, blonde Steph Snyman. There is not a peoples group on earth that is not represented here. Somebody recently told me that in most communities in Canada people speak 25 different languages apart from English but there are 52 different languages spoken in Fort McMurray. This must make Fort McMurray one of the most diverse places on earth. I take a look at the people around me. I see Sari’s and Burkas, tattoo’s and crosses, turbans and baseball caps.
I grew up in a racially segregated country. Somehow, I always believed what I experience tonight is possible. This is what I longed to see for many years. I often miss things and especially people of South Africa. But this tolerant, harmonious diversity is a treasure I cherish. It makes me rich.
Fort McMurray has become to me, the place where I can simply and with hope say: “Good Morning”. I am deeply grateful to be here. A wise theologian once taught me: A commitment to the God of Abraham can only be a commitment to the God of all people. To God and his people.
Faith Presbyterian Church, Fort McMurray