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.

Bamako - City at a Crossroads

January 26, 2006
By Nathan Kennedy ’07

Bamako, the capital of Mali, is a city full of anomalies. We've been here about three weeks and everywhere I've noticed these unexpected juxtapositions of old and new, traditional and Western. For example, on our second full day here, I was sitting in the courtyard of our hotel and was able, for the first time, to place myself geographically. Earlier that day, traveling through the city, I had been looking out of the bus window and seen first a donkey cart, and not ten seconds later a brand new Honda.

Bamako seems to represent the intersection of two worlds—the traditional Malian on the one hand, and the occidental influence on the other. In many respects this is a modern Western city. Cars and small motorbikes have taken over the major roads, internet cafés are popular, and stores sell a wide range of Western products. Yet most streets remain unpaved and walking around the city you see chickens, donkeys and even cattle alongside Coca-Cola and instant coffee.

Everywhere the two—traditional and Western—are intertwined. In general they are quite compatible. But there are times when the Western does not fit in well here.

An example of this came on our first full day in Bamako. We were being ferried around the city in an old bus from JFK International Airport, and on the way back to the hotel a rock became punctured a tire. Unfortunately, the mechanics at the shop where we stopped had a difficult time fixing it, because JFK, presumably in the interest of aesthetics, had painted the entire rim white, and in the fading light the mechanics couldn't see the bolts well enough to remove the tire. Two hours, one broken wrench and many happy Malian children later, we were finally on our way. Traveling in Bamako, we learned, is always an adventure.

This lesson has been reinforced many times for all of us, not least by the Soturama. These ubiquitous green vans are Bamako's answer to public transportation. To ride, you signal as it passes, make sure it's going where you want to go, and take your place on a crowded bench with 15 or 20 other people. For 150 CFA (about 35 cents) you get an exciting, often scary, ride and occasionally some good conversation. Many Malians enjoy seeing a tubabu (Bambara word for white person) on the Soturama, especially if you speak a little Bambara.

Speaking a little Bambara gets us a long way in this city. The first Bambara we learned was to say Aw ni tile (good day) and to respond correctly to I ka kene? (you are well?). To that question the correct response is always the affirmative: tooro te. Say this to any group of people on the street and you will have instant friends. Between school, this internet café and my house, each about ten minutes apart, there are at least five groups of men with whom I've sat, talked and drunk tea. The younger men enjoy talking about American rappers, whereas the older ones prefer to talk about Malian and American society and politics. All enjoy testing my Bambara. And all talk among themselves in Bamako's special blend of French and Bambara, frequently called Frambara.

Which brings me back to my original point—in Bamako even Malian and Western languages are so intertwined that they're hard to separate.

Of course, there is some separation. An American or European could live here quite comforable here without coming into regular contact with Malian culture; indeed, we've met some who do. But for those of us from Carleton, interacting with the culture and people of Mali has been the richest and most interesting part of our experience. And to do so in Bamako, all you need to do is walk down the street.