A taste of heaven

Women sway their lithe bodies in colourful Chitenges to African music. Nearby, Japanese in loose white clothing perform precise Judo moves while a whiff of Croatian doughnuts mingles with Thai curries and French crepes. Swinging wide petticoat skirts, Italian girls whirl through the steps of a folkdance. If heaven is where everyone lives together in peace and harmony, Edmonton’s Heritage Festival is as close as it gets on earth.

Dancers in traditional dress perform under the Canadian flag. (Photo by Marianne Stamm)

Dancers in traditional dress perform under the Canadian flag. (Photo by Marianne Stamm)

On the festival’s homepage the organizing committee writes: “In spite of events that may be taking place on the international stage, local cultural associations have the foresight to look beyond sometimes centuries-old disagreements, co-exist peacefully for three days in the idyllic setting of Edmonton’s River Valley, and share with visitors, and with each other, those traditions that make their people unique.” (www.heritage-festival.com/about-us/)

What could be more Canadian? Every August long weekend for 35 years Edmonton has put on a huge multicultural party at Hawrelak Park. Visitors can sample food, shop for foreign art and clothing and watch traditional dancing at 63 pavilions representing 85 cultures.

Heritage festival is like travelling overseas - barter at the market right here! (Photo by Marianne Stamm)

Heritage festival is like travelling overseas - barter at the market right here! (Photo by Marianne Stamm)

Astounded by the sheer number of pavilions, I know that even with 85 cultures represented there are more – I see no Swiss or Zambian pavilions. I realize again how big, how diverse our world is and how much of that world is right here where we are.

A young man at the Zimbabwe pavilion tries to sell me a t-shirt. “My heart is in Africa,” it reads.

Almost, but he only has black ones. He’s from Harare, the capital city, and says they’re praying that things will change in Zimbabwe. He’s very interested in our work with small farmers in neighbouring Zambia. For a moment I forget I’m in Edmonton – it feels so good to talk to an African!

At the Kenyan pavilion I try to get some Ugali and Sukumawiki (cornmeal dish with steamed vegetables) to show my friends how Africans eat. But there’s none left. Oh well. We try some nectar of fig with rose water at the Arab pavilion. Everyone thinks it tastes like perfume. You can’t win them all!

Part of the fun is tasting the wide diversity of traditional foods. (Photo by Marianne Stamm)

Part of the fun is tasting the wide diversity of traditional foods. (Photo by Marianne Stamm)

The slice of scone with raisins from the Irish pavilion meets with more approval. Our son tries a cold herring sandwich at the Dutch food stand. Robert likes the pork kebabs from Croatia. One friend thinks she’ll just have a cone from the ice cream stand – at least then she knows what she’s getting!

A girl scoffs at her friends who want to get some food from the Somali stand. “We’re Somalis. Why would you get food there when you can have it at home?”

“Because it’s your country,” I tell her. “If there was a Swiss stand I’d go try something too.”

“Yes,” she answered thoughtfully. “I guess that makes sense.”

Canada prides itself on being multicultural, encouraging its citizens to retain pride of their heritage. As an immigrant myself, I appreciate this attitude. The whole atmosphere at the Heritage Festival makes me all the more proud to be a Canadian. Maybe heaven can begin down here!

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