Skip Navigation

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.

January 8, 2006: In the Village

January 8, 2006
By Nathan Kennedy ’07

Our journey began with a short stay in a Bamako hotel, and some basic introductions. Apart from a few ill students, and a flat tire that delayed us about two hours in the middle of the city, this went rather smoothly. After that we all packed a bag to stay three days in the village where faculty adviser Chérif' Keita's father was born. This was one of the most eye-opening experiences of my life.

The bus pulled into Nana Kenieba after a slow, bumpy two-hour ride, and a crowd began to gather. We all got out our cameras and some small gifts, and when we got off the bus, we were immediately swarmed by village children. They especially enjoyed the digital cameras, because they could immediately see themselves in the photos.

The kids also enjoyed showing off where they live. Two kids showed me their room, about the size of four phone booths, which they shared with two others. Another kid led me to his family eating dinner, a paste made from water and probably millet. Seven or eight people ate from a small common bowl, and they were more than happy to share with newcomers.

Despite its modest scope, this village is one of the most luxurious in Mali. In 1960, the year of independence from France, Chérif's father opened a school here that now draws from many surrounding villages. And thanks to the small Iowa nonprofit Medicine for Mali (founded by Carleton alumnus Elise DeVore ’95, and her parents Stephen and Jill DeVore of Des Moines, Iowa), this village has clean water, an excellent medical center, and computers in the school library—something that even public schools in Bamako cannot claim. Many villages in Mali have none of these things, and having seen the day-to-day struggle of life in Nana Kenieba, I can only imagine how hard life must be elsewhere.

But no matter how difficult village life is, the people are always kind and welcoming. On our second day in town we climbed to a nearby rock to see ancient carvings of religious significance to the people of surrounding villages. A religious leader interpreted a small part of the lines and curves etched in the rock, and even saw my Malian name, Moussa, written, you might say, between the lines. (This also speaks to the intertwining of anamist and Islamic religious traditions; Moussa is the Arabic word for Moses.)

That night there was the dance. I've seen images of Africans dancing with costumes and masks to the beat of drums and it seemed so strange and so far away. This time it was real, happening right in front of us. Indeed, it happened to us, since we frequently joined in the dancing. But even while were just spectators, we became so caught up in the beat of the drums and the incredible energy of the dancers it was as if we were an integral part of the dance. Though I'd never experienced anything like it, that night nothing seemed strange or culturally removed; that night we were Malians.