Alain Bissonnette

(Mali, 1974)

I had the good fortune to be chosen by Crossroads and to join a team led by Diane Prescott that traveled to Mali in the summer of 1974. This was my first time abroad and I lived in Farako near Sikasso. I have lasting memories of the experience and of the Malian students who would become elementary or secondary school teachers and with whom we experienced everyday life.

Our leitmotif that summer was to do our best to be in contact with our hosts, to follow the tone and temper of their lives, to participate in even the most basic tasks and to try to understand rather than to judge. The program was demanding for young people like us, but thanks to Diane's constant support and understanding, as well as our sense of team spirit, we were successful in meeting the challenge. I find that even today, I am sustained by my experiences of working in the fields, daba in hand; taking part in long discussions over tea; sharing our meals crouched around the food and eating without utensils, under the watchful eyes of the children waiting for the leftovers; and dancing, singing and enjoying the simple pleasure of getting to know other people and their dreams, values and challenges.

I was studying law at the time and trying to find my own path in life. Crossroads and that summer in Mali let me gain an appreciation of international cooperation, while understanding the pitfalls and difficulties involved in the work. People like Diane Prescott, Georges Daigle and all the members of my team were like a new family for me, and I was regularly involved in Crossroads until 1984 and more sporadically since then. I have also helped to select and train new Crossroads participants.

I worked for a year in the Montreal office with Michel Bélisle and returned to Mali in 1978 and 1979 as a team leader. After finishing my studies in law, I decided to study anthropology, thereby adding a knowledge of history, society and culture to the more formal training I received in the rules and procedures of Canada's legal system. This educational mix guided my entire professional life. I spent much time studying the situation faced by Canada's Aboriginal peoples, worked for six years with an Aboriginal association and participated in negotiating a proposed land claim agreement.

Unfortunately, it remained an agreement in principle only, but I learned a great deal and met people in our own country who are seeking to forge a path that blends respect for their heritage and integration in contemporary society. I then returned to international cooperation, working to promote human rights and democracy. I was fortunate to live China for three years. The lessons I learned in Mali with Crossroads helped me once again in my work with the Institut national des juges in Beijing.

I subsequently returned to Mali, where I was to evaluate a cooperation project funded by CIDA (Canadian International Development Agency). After several meetings with the Mali partners, they teased me that I was Malian, all because I remembered some of the songs that I had learned with the Pioneers, a few greetings in Bambara and, I think, because I dealt with my partners in a way that they appreciated. It is difficult to thank someone who has taught you things that are very basic, yet make such a huge difference both professionally and personally. I am among those who fervently hope that Crossroads highlights Diane Prescott's fundamental contribution to Canadian Crossroads International. Serge Goyette, Georges Daigle, Nicole Sanschagrin and many others join with me in stressing how much Diane's impact continued to be felt even after her accidental death in 1976. This impact is hard to summarize, but I would describe it with a few words that say so much: simplicity, joie de vivre, an acceptance of others, and a sense of humour.

Mali is still a part of my life. I regularly see friends in Montreal who are from Mali or have ties with people from there. I am also in regular contact with Nouhoum Coulibaly, whom I met in 1974 in Farakol. Nouhoum has been the principal of a high school in Ségou for several years. I saw him again in 2004, 30 years after my first visit, during a mission to Mali. We immediately began talking about people we had worked with in 1974. Nowadays, we catch up on family and professional news. Serge Goyette and I have tried to help Nouhoum come to visit us, but so far we have not been successful. Nouhoum talks to me about the needs of his school and his students. I would like to find a way to provide financial or other forms of assistance. My ties to Mali are still strong.

The celebrations surrounding the CCI's 50th anniversary have reconfirmed for me how much an experience with this organization often affects people in all aspects of their lives. I would like to thank the organizers of the celebrations, the Board of Directors, and the Crossroads site. In different ways, they have each helped us maintain contact and share the values supported by the CCI.

Alain Bissonnette

 

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