The story of a spirited aboriginal man and the wisdom he so passionately bestowed upon others.
Camilla Chance met Aboriginal Elder Banjo Clarke in 1975, and at his request wrote down his story and philosophy. This turned out to be a 27-year long labor of love, the book Wisdom Man, published by Penguin. It became an immediate bestseller in Australia, and in 2005 the second edition won the American USABookNews.com Award for best multicultural work. In that year Camilla was also the first non-Aboriginal to receive the prestigious Unsung Hero Award from Aboriginal people for her dedicated friendship and work for them “behind the scenes”.
Banjo was an Aboriginal from the bush and Camilla was from an educated, upper middle class in England. The two connected when both were in the Baha’i Church. Banjo said that the Baha’i Faith was the closest to the philosophy of his people. At that time, his people had almost been totally wiped out.
Banjo (Henry) Clarke was born around 1922 on Framlingham Aboriginal mission, located near Warrnambool in South-Western Victoria, Australia.
During the Depression, Banjo moved to Melbourne with his family to look for work.
Having very little formal education, Banjo learned about life from the Elders at Framlingham and from other Aboriginal people he befriended around Fitzroy in Melbourne. At fourteen he got work at a sawmill in Tynong North where the proprietor’s daughter taught him how to read and write.
Banjo said this about the discrimination he experienced:
Many times I went to country towns and people looked at me like they didn’t want me there. I used to go into the hotel, ’cause I thought, ‘That’s where you find where a job is.’ They’d all look and snigger at me. I’d walk out, pick me swag up and walk away, and they’d be there laughing at me walking away. Them people would have a go at you all the time, call you black this and black that. They are the unhappy ones because they’ve got unhappy homes. If they call you that, you still be their friend. Maybe one day you’ll help them.
Banjo became a boxer at age 15, because he would hang out at the gyms in Melbourne. He traveled extensively throughout Australia, boxing for over 40 years. Back at Framlingham Mission, he met and married his wife of 40 years and they had 11 children.
Banjo embraced the Baha’i Faith, because he felt that Faith was the closest philosophy to his Aboriginal people. He constantly points to those aspects which he sees as relevant to all humanity, particularly in terms of our relationship with the land. Banjo Clarke embodied the spirit of reconciliation in its most generous and forgiving form, espousing and living it long before it was given a name, long before it became fashionable.
Banjo died at age 77 in 2000. At his funeral there were many notables, one of which was the State Minister of Aboriginal Affairs who said of Banjo after speaking to him:
One didn’t talk to Uncle Banjo; such was his presence that one listened, because if you didn’t listen you could not absorb the wisdom and the spirit of this great man.
Camilla Chance, author of Wisdom Man, the book about Banjo’s life, said:
I used to drive him to the shops twice a week, and we would stop near the Hopkins Falls, and we would discuss a lot and I would record him. We were doing that for 27 years. I first met Banjo when Baha’is were staying at my house – the Baha’i Faith being a religion that believes all humankind is one family. And Banjo said of that first meeting, ‘We was drawn to each other.’ They could see straight into our hearts. Banjo felt that the world was lost, and that he could make a contribution to the world finding its spirit again by telling the world about Aboriginal principles. And he actually saw the Baha’i Faith as Aboriginality for the modern world – he found the principles so very similar.
In February, 2008, an official apology was issued to the Aboriginal people from the Australian Government through Prime Minister Rudd saying:
We apologize for the laws and policies of successive parliaments and governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians.
When Banjo was small, he would say:
On cold winter’s days we’d be running around the street trying to do messages for old folks, to get a penny so we could buy something. Pennies was good in them days. Often we wouldn’t have much, and we’d be running home through all the water in the gutter – little kids going their way and the street ladies standing at their door with Bessie. And they’d see us little Aboriginal children running to our house in their street and Bessie would call us over.
They’d have a big list for us of things to buy. They’d tell us to take it to the grocer, the greengrocer, the baker and the butcher – all sorts of things. And they’d say, ‘Now, you run back and get us all these things and fetch it back here. You’ll be doing a favour for us ladies. That’ll be all.’ And we’d be happy, thinking, ‘We’ll get a penny out of this.’
We’d go to these shops and tell the man to read the list. Then me and my brother and sisters would run back with all these big parcels for the ladies. All the while we’d be out in the cold rain and the wind would be blowing.
We’d hand all the parcels over to the ladies, and they’d say, ‘Oh, good, you’ve got everything. Have you got change?’
‘Yeah, we’ve got change.’
Bessie would then say, ‘Now, you put that change in your pocket and divide it up between your brothers and sisters. And you take everything, all this food, home and give it to your mum to cook.’
That’s the sort of thing they’d do. A lot of times we would’ve gone to bed starving if not for those ladies.
And when I grew up and understood what they was doing, I always had great respect for them. As I got older and got jobs and all, I always thought about them and what they done for us little black kids in the city. Although it was cold stormy nights in the big city, and although we had nothing to eat, those ladies were like angels to us that came in the storm and gave us food.
I still think about it and I often wonder what happened to those poor women. Because things was that tough, a lot of young girls from good new homes went on the street and used themselves as prostitutes and everything else. They might have had a bad name, but to us they were angels, and they was our friends.
When Banjo was working as an adult, he said:
When I worked there, or in any big groups of white people, lunchtime would come and I’d sit down with them and eat. Some of the blokes would be talking about women, saying nasty, demoralizing things about them, sexually and every other way. I couldn’t understand that. Why were they talking like that about their own people?
One day I went away on my own and they all called out, ‘Why don’t you come and have dinner with us? Aren’t we good enough for you?’
‘Ah yeah,’ I said. ‘You’re good enough, but I don’t like the way you speak about women.’
‘What about the women?’
‘You talk about women as if they’re nothing. Yet they’re your own color. I wouldn’t like anyone to talk in that demoralizing way about my womenfolk. Most of you have wives, and daughters too. Why do you say things like that about other people’s daughters? That’s the sort of thing I don’t like. That’s why I don’t sit down with you at lunchtime.’
And after that, they stopped talking that way when I was with them. I think they realized that they’d been saying the wrong thing. Before that, they thought they’d been saying the right things what everyone liked hearing. It was sad that they thought like that. To me, they were talking about their own mothers, their daughters, their sisters, and every other female in their family. They couldn’t talk nastily about women outside without doubting the ones they loved too.
Banjo said about people’s spirits:
We feel very close to people’s spirits, and people from the spirit world let us know things. That’s the Aboriginal tradition. Speak that way to any Aboriginal, and he’ll understand exactly what you’re talking about. I would tell my children that often the spirit of someone what has passed on will come to you in a dream, or you’ll get a warning that a friend or relation is sick. Something strange happens, and you know it’s a message from the spirit world.
Aboriginals live alert to these things all their lives, but we don’t tell people about them. We are afraid of being laughed at over things which are absolutely true. There’s something there. I don’t understand it myself, but we know it’s there. We’re not academics or scientists to work these things out, but the main thing is that we believe these things happen.
I have heard white people say who have spent time with Aboriginals, like here at the mission with us, that nothing happened to them in the white world the way things happen to them since they entered the Aboriginal world. They get feelings, as if someone’s telling them an important message. And they might get signs from outside, like a dream or a bird. But if you heard Aboriginals talking about these things around a campfire, you would think we were talking a foreign language.
Banjo is a symbol of kindness and compassion and how not to give up on humanity. He would always teach how to be kind to one another and accept people for who they are, no matter what color they are.