Jane Gaskell

(Upper Volta 1967)

We had very different personalities and we came from very different places: American, Canadian, African, rural, urban, academic, vocational, black, white, male, female. That created some complex dynamics. But we talked about these dilemmas and most of the time, found a solution.

During my anti-racism, anti-Vietnam student days, I was looking for interesting, things to do in the summer, things that I considered to be progressive. Crossroads was certainly that.

I remember the orientation sessions were just mind boggling. We talked so openly about race, among other things. We had really intense discussions with interesting people from across the continent. The black Americans in our group were exploring what it meant to be black, and it was a chance for all of us to discuss the black experience.

My group had the task of building a school in a village in Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso). We landed in Accra and drove through most of Ghana to Upper Volta- eight of us propped up against each other in the back of a truck for more than day. I can remember the ethics that developed around how much you could lean into somebody's knees. It was a hard, dusty, uncomfortable journey, during which we all realized we were somewhere very different.

While we were terrible at constructing a building, and no good in the sun, I think our biggest challenge was figuring out a way to work together as a group. We had very different personalities and we came from very different places: American, Canadian, African, rural, urban, academic, vocational, black, white, male, female. That created some complex dynamics. But we talked about these dilemmas and most of the time, found a solution. Those were formative learning experiences for me.

During our down time we were able to participate in a lot of cultural exchange activities. We taught our African friends how to play baseball and they'd teach us traditional songs and dances. We travelled to Bobo Dioulasso, and went to people's homes to enjoy a big goat barbeque and drink the strong local wine. I took notes from the moro naba (traditional chief) on the traditions of the Mossi, and I still have them. It was a dramatic introduction to material and cultural differences around the world. I don't remember there being difficulties in communicating with one another. Our exchanges made me more interested in how language and culture work, which is what I ended up studying as a graduate student.

It was just a fabulous experience that definitely developed my interest in African studies and world development. But I also had amazing moments that had nothing to do with understanding Africa or development issues. I remember we were feeling homesick and dying for chocolate cake, so the American ambassador invited us over to make one. Here we were, in the ambassador's kitchen making cake having the time of our lives. It was one of those moments that always stays with you.

Dr. Jane Gaskell is the dean of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto.

 

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