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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.

My Family in Mali

January 17, 2006
By Nathan Kennedy ’07

We were picked up by our host families the night we returned from the village. It was an apprehensive wait, although many of us had already met our parents. Still, nobody knew quite what to expect. How different would life with a Malian family really be? Would our homes have luxuries like TV or running water? Would we really feel like a part of this new family?

For me, the experience so far has been a good one. My house does have TV and running water (I believe that everyone in our group has at least the latter), and I'm beginning to feel like less of a guest. My mom (Kadiatou), two younger brothers (Mohamed, 11, and Massa, 16) and cousin (Drissa, 27) have accepted me as well. It helps that my mom, educated at Vanderbilt University, speaks English and, knowing something about American culture, has attempted to make my transition as smooth as possible.

By Malian standards, mine is fairly well-off family, as most of our host families are. My mom is an economist who directs the inspection department at the Energy Company of Mali. This pays for a nice house in a good neighborhood, some cable TV with many French and even some American shows, and a maid who does most of the daily chores. My mom is also supporting Drissa while he trains as an engineer, and pays for Massa to go to military school. He hopes to become a fighter pilot. So far I haven't lacked much in terms of material comforts.

There are some cultural elements, however, are taking some getting used to. First, there's Ami, the maid. She came here from her village to earn some money, which she uses to help support her family. It's nice to have her around, I must admit, to prepare food and wash clothes. But there are many times I feel uncomfortable being waited on. I have to remember that this is essentially the only way for her to make money, and that there are many more like her in Bamako. A little extra income can be key to the survival of a family.

There's a similar dynamic with my little brother. In Mali, age is respected in daily life much more than it is in the United States. Older members of the family frequently order around younger members, who cannot refuse. For me, this means I am essentially Mohamed's master. When I walk into the living room, he always gives up his chair, even if there are others available for me. He never starts eating before I do. Once after I'd brought my empty cup into the kitchen over the objections of my mother, she seemed perturbed and told me I should let Mohamed do that from now on. I'm used to the American way of doing things for oneself, and this master business makes me uncomfortable.

One of the most interesting cultural differences is that my family, like most families in Mali, is Muslim. This hasn't been very noticeable except for Tuesday January 10, which was the Muslim holiday of Tabaski, in honor of Abraham. The Muslim story of Abraham is pretty much the same as the one in the Christian Bible—God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son, but ultimately accepts a sheep instead. Each year in honor of this, Muslims sacrifice and eat a ram or sheep. We'd been told about this beforehand but that couldn't really prepare us for the experience.

As I walked up to where our ram lay, I could hear the sawing and the animal wheezing. Drissa, Massa, and a family friend held the ram while blood drained from its throat. I could see its severed esophagus sticking out. It took about five minutes to die. But somehow the sacrifice of this animal didn't seem brutal. The man who killed, skinned and cut it into pieces knew what he was doing. He did his job without emotion. Cutting up the freshly killed animal didn't seem cold-blooded or vicious, just businesslike.

I helped a little with the preparations. My brothers and I took the ram to a nearby field and cleaned out its stomach and intestines. I'd dealt with intestines before, stuffing potato sausage with my American family, but the process of purging them of digested food was much more personal and disgusting.

After returning home and washing thoroughly, we began to eat. Our first course was liver and heart, then ribs, then meat from some unknown part. I felt very connected to the meal.

This past Thanksgiving, my mother bought a free-range turkey from a nearby farm. When we picked it up it already had been decapitated and plucked, but it hadn't been trussed, and getting it from the farm where it had lived seemed much more personal than buying a Butterball at the supermarket. My mother even named it Roger. But after participating in Tabaski, that Thanksgiving experience doesn't seem personal at all. The experience of eating chunks of a ram's heart while its severed head lay on the ground nearby is something I won't soon forget.

That night we visited my uncle's family. My Malian name, Moussa Konate, is the name of his father, and in Malian culture that means that I represent a reincarnation of his father. He was very happy that I was here to learn about his country's culture and history.

The most interesting part of our conversation, however, occurred when he found out my surname is Kennedy. Immediately he launched into praising the late President John F. Kennedy. I thought about telling him that I'm not related, but then I remembered how Malians think of family names. Sharing a jamu, as it's called in Bambara, means sharing a common heritage. Even though my ancestors came from Scotland and JFK's came from Ireland, we still share a family name and thus a family. Therefore the good deeds of John F. Kennedy reflect well on me and all other Kennedys.

After that night I was hit with a desire to explore the history of my family and the name Kennedy. Already, it seems, I've been changed by my experience in Mali, infused with a new pride in my name. Both of my names, in fact.