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Junior Nathan Kennedy (Kenosha, Wis.) is spending winter term 2006 on an off-campus French studies seminar program in Mali offered through Carleton and led by French professor Cherif Keita, a native of that country.

Dec. 27, 2005: Mali Expectations

December 27, 2005
By Nathan Kennedy ’07

Over the past month I’ve been accumulating stuff, as I’m sure everyone going to Mali has—gifts for my host family, basic necessities, malaria meds, and of course plenty of Pepto-Bismol. But until about a week ago it was all still so far away, the fact that instead of going back to Carleton with its familiar faces and atmosphere, I’ll be flying halfway across the world to a place where, it seems,everything will be different.

I soothe my apprehension with the same thought I’d used before—people live there. Just as I grew up in Wisconsin, rooting for the Packers and getting used to a middle-class American lifestyle, millions of people call Mali home, with its life and culture that seem so strange to us. And these people are inherently no different from me or anyone else. We’ll be inserted among people who are living their normal lives, and they’ll go right on living after we leave.

For some reason this thought is comforting to me. Perhaps it makes me think that this country won’t be so strange after all, being home to people no different from me. It helps me tell myself that I’ll have no problem adapting.

Of course, I know that it won’t be that easy. I know that I can’t just slip out of my identity and wrap myself in a new one. But that doesn’t stop me from wanting to try.

And that pretty much sums up what I want to take away from the next ten weeks. My goal is to acquire an understanding of Malian identity. I want to learn how Malians think about society, politics, people, even life. I want to know how their society works, and the role of both institution and individual. As an international relations major interested in development, this has professional implications for me, but the personal implications are also important. If I return with the kind of understanding I seek, I should be able to approach life with a whole new perspective.

But that’s all in the future; now all I can think of is making sure I have everything I’ll need for my stay there. For all my goals and expectations, I really have no idea what this trip will be like. But if I go into this experience with an open mind, it should be a fun ten weeks.