Saturday, September 22, 2007
I live in the top floor of a community centre, Maison de l’Amitié, run by the Mennonite church. As a resident here we are expected to give 3 hours a week in service back to the centre. There are plenty of volunteer opportunities: teaching English classes, working at the reception, helping to organize peace events and working at the Globetrotter Evenings.
Soirées Globetrotter are monthly evenings that features different countries. Representatives of that country, usually immigrants living in Montreal, prepare a meal and teach participants about the culture(s) of their country.
This month was Sénégal so I was excited to volunteer. I found the the event coordinator on Wednesday, told him I’d lived in Sénégal, and I would love to get involved. He replied, “You’ve lived in Sénégal? Do you know how to cook a Sénégalese meal?” “Ummmm…yeah, maybe”, I hesitated. Apparently the Sénégalese woman who had volunteered to cook for the event was ill and wasn’t going to be able to cook anymore and they were looking for someone.
So, I ended up planning the menu, getting recipes, shopping with the coordinator, and helping to cook for 30 people!
The few hours before the meal, I was completely stressed out. It was my first time helping with this sort of event so I was uncertain what to expect, we seemed short on volunteers and 2 hours before the meal we hadn’t figured out where to get the mangos we wanted to serve for desert. Finally I realized, however, that I was the only one stressed out. Despite not having enough volunteers to get everything set up “properly,” two guests who had arrived a bit early for the dinner (and who were regular attendees of the Soirées), jumped right in and ended up helping us serve the meal. And when the volunteer dishwasher didn’t show, up half of the guests came into the kitchen to help clean up.
After the meal, a young Sénégalese woman came and led some Sénégalese dancing- and almost every guest got up and danced! I couldn’t believe it. People just hopped right up without any coaxing. Ever other event I’ve ever been to that includes teaching dancing has always required a tremendous deal of arm pulling to get anyone up and dancing.
After everything was cleaned up, about 2/3 the guests were still lingering around chatting and we started an informal discussion circle. The group was made up of a bunch of Canadians, many of whom had traveled/lived in West Africa, a Sénégalese woman who has been in Montréal for 8 years now, and had completed 2 masters degrees in Sénégal, and a Cameroonian woman, also highly educated. The discussion was tremendously engaging. We covered topics from Sénégalese culture to corruption in African governments to neo-colonialism. When the discussion finally wound down around 10:30 p.m., I was mentally exhausted from all the complex French discussion, but I also felt an intense sense of fulfillment.
Throughout the evening, I learned and began to appreciate so much. I learned that my expectations for having everything planned, running on schedule and served to perfection are often unnecessary. Throughout the evening I was able to let go of these expectations completely. Having everything planned in advance isn’t always conductive to community. Community was built that evening by spontaneity: by guests becoming servers, by eating with our hands out of the same big dish, by dancing together and by an impromptu yet informed and respectful discussion.
The evening ended with exchanging of emails and phone numbers, plans to see one another at the next Globetrotter event and many bisou bisous.