Serge Goyette: Paying Back his Debt to Mali

A lifetime of supporting Crossroads and of giving back to the continent that gave him so much.

Serge Goyette remembers watching an old man in Mopti, Mali slowly making his way to the mosque to pray. He recognized him: that same man lived in his hometown of Magog, Quebec and ambled down the street every Sunday morning to pray at the local church.

“I could see the links between those two men. Their prayers were different, but their aim was the same. That’s what I learned at Carrefour – we’re not so different, because inside, we are very much the same. And it’s around that time that I learned an important phrase: just because it’s different doesn’t mean it’s not ok.”

It’s a line that has stayed with Serge ever since.

In 1974, he set off with a group of eight fellow Canadians led by Diane Prescott, an Operation Crossroads Africa veteran who was heading up the Carrefour office in Montreal at the time.

“I went far, far away to realize that, in the end, human beings are what really interest me,” says Goyette. “I headed off to Africa to try and understand Africans, since they were supposedly so different from us. But I came to the conclusion that we are all the same.”

In 1975, Goyette returned to Africa as a team leader, this time in Togo. The group worked on building a community centre, digging a septic tank, building a volleyball court and completing other similar tasks.

“At that time, the projects were excuses to get close to Africa, and our objective was to go and live there and try to understand what was going on,” says Goyette. “We arrived with a mandate to change nothing and if we were asked, for example, to move a pile of dirt, we would do it. The projects were usually already in progress and we simply added ourselves on to them.”

Being in close contact with locals and engaging in physical labour alongside them gave Crossroaders a certain cachet in the communities they worked in. While they certainly looked like Westerners, they did not act like them.

“They would see us and say: ‘it’s funny – you’re whites with blisters on your hands. You work hard. You’re on all fours in the fields with us!’” remembers Goyette. “It would open doors and we would get invited to events that whites were generally not invited to. And the relationships we formed were extraordinary. In my team, we are still in touch with a [Malian] student we met in 1974!”

Following his experiences overseas, Goyette would take over as head of the Carrefour office in Montreal, taking on the responsibility of coordinating the group placements which were run out of Quebec. It was a position he took on in part because of the untimely passing of his mentor, Diane Prescott, in 1976.

“Diane Prescott died in a car accident and as a result, Carrefour lost a piece of its soul,” says Goyette. “Diane was an extraordinary woman – she had the ability to bring people together and had a great deal of willpower. Everyone was quite disturbed by Diane’s passing, and it’s at that point that I decided to involve myself more with Carrefour and take on the job.”

Goyette remained as head of the Quebec office for several years. Even now, Goyette continues to dedicate his time to supporting the new Crossroaders preparing to head overseas every year.

“I’ve been asked for years to come explain the history of Carrefour and to explain the values I learned at Carrefour,” says Goyette. “This year, I went and I put down this sort of rug which I brought back in front of me and I explain to the Crossroaders that when I travel, I travel with my four children. I go on to explain that in Africa, children are like treasure, so you must respect the children and you must interact with them. Then I take out a goat-skin bag, and from it I remove four pairs of sandals. And I say: this is Marie-Ève, this is Anne-Sophie, here is Dominique-Andrée and here is François-Olivier. My children are here, so now I can begin the presentation. Then I begin by explaining that I first learned about Carrefour in 1974 and that I knew Diane Prescott and Diane knew James Robinson. Then I explain how I owe a debt to Africa and every year, when I’m asked to talk about Mali, to talk about the values I learned there, I am being allowed to repay my debt. You should see it: everyone is completely silent!”

 

Crossroads International gratefully acknowledges the support of: