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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.

February 15, 2006: All the Way to Timbuktu...

February 15, 2006
By Nathan Kennedy

Yes, Timbuktu (spelled Tombouctou in French) is in Mali, and we actually went there. Before I started preparing for this trip, I didn't know that a city of that name really existed. I thought it was just a cliché, as did many others in our group. It's amazing how far this term abroad has taken us.

But I suppose I should start from the beginning. The visit to the famed middle of nowhere was just a part of a long journey around Mali and its neighbor Burkina Faso. Twenty-two students, four professors and seven drivers were squeezed into seven 4X4s, in which we traveled over paved and dirt roads, through diverse landscapes on trips ranging from two to nine hours. In eleven days we visited nine cities and villages and saw the immense diversity among Mali's different regions and ethnic groups.

During the first leg of our trip we followed the Niger River up to Segou, a large city northeast of Bamako. We had two main reasons for this stop. The first reason was to visit to a women's cooperative there and to deliver a gift from the last Carleton group that traveled to Mali.

The women of the cooperative make cotton weavings. They will use the equipment we gave them to remove impurities from the cotton. As with many places we've visited in Mali, we were greeted here with music and dance, not to mention friendly people.What we've also seen many places in Mali, including at this cooperative, is Malians taking their development into their own hands. The cooperative provides great benefits for the women who work there, especially iimportant in a country like Mali, where women often suffer from lower social status.

The other attraction of Segou was the Festival sur le Niger, a weekend of concerts and cultural expositions that draws some of the biggest names in Malian music, and mention tourists from all over the world. Yet in the middle of all that we had a very "small world" experience: In a café near the festival, our group ran into a Peace Corps volunteer whose sister is a friend of one our members.

Our next stop was Djenné, a town dominated by the Great Mosque. This UNESCO World Heritage site is a rebuilt version of Djenné's first Great Mosque, originally built in the 13th century. Although because we are non-Muslims we couldn't enter this imposing complex, we did take time to admire the beauty of the Mosque as well as its role as a symbol of West Africa's tolerant version of Islam.

From Djenné we continued northeast along the Niger to Mopti, where we caught a plane to Tombouctou. After getting our passports stamped (to prove to everyone we'd actually visited Timbuktu) we stepped into the airport's waiting area and were immediately surrounded by merchants. This turned out to be a fact of life for us throughout our time in this city—people showing us knives, turbans, and jewelry, all offering a "bon prix, bon prix!"

Three experiences stand out for me in Tombouctou. The first had nothing to do with Mali. At our hotel we met some American soldiers stationed in Tombouctou on a training exercise, who had previously been fighting in Iraq. It was interesting to hear from them about the real experiences of soldiers on the ground there. Of course I'd heard stories of soldiers before, but talking with them face-to-face made the stories much more real.

Next came our tour of the city, the highlight of which was seeing a collection of centuries-old manuscripts at the Ahmed Baba Center. Written mostly in Arabic, the manuscripts deal with a huge range of subjects, including history, politics, math and science. Most haven't yet been studied closely, and considering that the Center has more than 25,000 manuscripts (and that more than 100,000 more are estimated to be in the possession of Tombouctou families), they contain a huge potential wealth of knowledge about this region's history. Fortunately, a huge preservation project is under way, led by Mali and South Africa and supported by many other Muslim countries.

Finally, that night we experienced one of the most memorable moments of our trip—riding camels into the desert at sunset and eating dinner at a Tuareg camp. The Tuareg are a nomadic people who founded Tombouctou and have lived there ever since. Historically they are merchants, and many still are (most of the people following us around the city shouting "bon prix!" were Tuaregs). But despite the many cultural differences, there are many common threads connecting them to other Malians we've encountered. They're friendly to outsiders, proud of their history and culture, and of course drink the tea that is ubiquitous in Mali. Even though most of us were sore from the bumpy camel ride, nobody is likely to forget that night soon.