Daniel J. Carrière

Daniel J. Carrière was in Niger in 1980. The text below reflects upon the meaning of the Crossroader experience.

The Sahara, its colours and its near-mystic dimension hold a special attraction for anyone who has ever read St-Exupéry’s Citadelle or The Little Prince.

It was 1980. Our group, newly formed, had had time to blossom and our spirits ran high. We were a team in the happiest sense of the word. The experience that followed — trials and tribulations, illness, sharing — would prove our bond to be strong.

Well prepared and in solidarity, we headed for our destination. Today it is nearly 30 years since I first set foot in Africa. Exceptionally that year, three teams would converge on the same village and project, due to a number of cancellations.

We were a group of North Americans imbued with the culture of our native land — a culture where goodwill, individualism, surpassing limitations and punctuality set the tone for individual and group relations.

My friend Abukbuk Bwen served tea each afternoon. I, who (like any 23-year-old North American) was weaned on schedules, deadlines and ‘tardiness,’ had yet to discover that time was not necessarily something to be lost, gained or weighed. Through Abukbuk, I learned how to take, taste and savour time slowly. Naturally, when I returned to Canada, I had a few choices to make. You can’t really live like an African in North America. Still, I learned a thing or two.

We had landed a culture diametrically opposed to the one we had known — a place where the group took precedence over the individual and life depended on a web of complex relations, determined in part by one’s position within the family (son, brother, sister, cousin and degrees thereof). A place where time was indefinite and elastic.

Our stay in Niger, working on a community project centred on trees and their importance, gave us just the barest inkling of the complexity of this society that had taken us in with such warmth and patience. We come in peace with a message of sharing and openness. Of course, our gesture owed much to a certain James Robinson and the many other ambassadors who had preceded us. It wasn’t a matter of providing ‘aid,’ and no-one was expected to thank us when we left.

What did the experience leave us with?

It’s difficult to say. Each person’s perception is unique, and the gains aren’t quantifiable. However, I can say with some confidence that our experience was fairly typical for a Crossroader. To identify the benefits, one must look to culture and society. If we define culture as the anthropologists do — the sum of the facts in a given context — what did we really know of African society at the end of our stay? Of village life, of the concerns of these fathers and mothers or of the destinies that awaited them?

In all honesty, very little.

I remember the horror I felt when I first saw the dunes advancing on the green savannah. It seemed to me that no human intervention could stop the progress of these monsters. From the top of the dunes, one sees a desert stretching to infinity . . . I imagined the plight of a farmer who had lost his land to the sands and could no longer feed his family. This glimpse of the Tal desert (as it is known) taught me that Africans face problems considerably more complex than our own.

In the years that followed this far-too-short stay, some of us would look into the question in more depth, perhaps through personal interest. Others went back to what they were doing before, satisfied with having had the encounter. However, we all acknowledged the importance of the experience to our lives. The benefits of being a Crossroader aren’t directly related to becoming an expert on African culture. We were all aware that the overall experience was less about Africa than it was (and continues to be) about spending time in a culture far from the trappings of Western civilization. The glimpse of contrasting values we gain allows us to put into perspective all that we take for granted. The culture shock we experience lets us see Western society as just another form of human social organization, no better or worse than any other.

It took me fully two years to ‘return’ from Africa: the images of my African friends were so strong in me that I felt them right there beside me, alive and vibrant. Their names echoed in my head: Soulé, Abukbuk, Shérif . . . and Khalifa. Sometimes a random odour encountered by chance would evoke a vivid flashback, hurtling me into a past that was still so present. Other times, it would be a figure in a crowd, the intonation of a voice or something in the landscape. The images and impressions evoked by such triggers created ‘absences’ in me. Culture shock had set in. With me as with my colleagues, it would give rise to reflection that went deeper than a series of flashbacks, a thought process more involved than the type of uninspired commentary one hears during a soporific slide show, the type we’re supposed to enthusiastically applaud when someone comes home from a trip.

For me, it was to become a lifelong process.

So as not to be left behind and to round out my experience, I joined what was known at the time as the "board of directors." It was a matter of substantiating one simple order: Crossroading must continue. I am proud to say that I was part of this decision-making body when, in a spirit of sharing and equity, we unanimously approved the creation of a program to bring Africans to Québec — a program based on the same objectives, but aimed at our cherished partners. After all, comparing values is an enriching process for everyone!

The Crossroader experience is never about trying to understand it all. It’s simply a matter of showing up with sincerity and good intentions, and being willing to straddle the gap that can separate two modes of social organization.

Simply put, it means living like the Africans in Africa and giving yourself over to the daily realities you encounter.

It’s not until later in life that the deeper benefits appear. Being a Crossroader gives you a more comprehensive understanding of how, for better or worse, cultural differences affect a person’s feeling of what constitutes ‘fairness’ in terms of interpersonal exchanges, timeframe demands, holidays or religious practices.

I humbly believe that the degree to which we grasp the diversity of forms of social organization is directly proportional to our level of tolerance toward others, particularly new arrivals.

It’s not so much a matter of being ‘right’ as of being able to develop a certain outlook, of sincerely and honestly trying to lay the groundwork for creative dialogue so that, ultimately, a mutual feeling of justice can emerge.

This is a fundamental benefit and it is part of the Crossroader experience.

We live in an era where Canada (and North America in general) is a major destination for the flow of human migration. People converge on this continent from all over in hopes of finding a better life. In our lifetime, the population of our blue planet, our little oasis in space, will go from six to 10 billion; and our country, celebrated as a cultural mosaic, will soon consist entirely of minority groups. One hopes they will be able to adopt and maintain the type of pluralistic outlook that, while fair and equitable to all, upholds shared values allowing us to come together, recognize and identify with each other.

The CCI experience is one way of building a world of peace and understanding, a world focused on what we share rather than what divides us.

In my humble opinion, it’s the meaning of the expression "one world." And isn’t that also the basis of our celebration?

Daniel J. Carrière
Niger 1980

 

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