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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 23, 2006: The Voyage

February 23, 2006
By Nathan Kennedy

We flew back to Mopti after spending the night in Timbuktu. After a quick stop at the hotel, where we'd left our larger luggage (its name: "ya pas de problème," literally, "there's no problem"), we spent a little time touring the city. Then it was on the road again, off to Mali's famous Dogon country.

This was a long road, because like many in Mali, it was not a good road. Most of it was paved, but as we approached Dogon country, the terrain became hillier and the road bumpier. After we had driven up a large hill into a village we thought was our destination, we were surprised to find that our journey would in fact continue, down the other side of the hill. This particular bit of road seemed impossibly steep, even for our 4X4s, but after a slow and jostling ride, we made it to the hotel.

It was immediately clear that Dogon country attracts a lot of tourism. The hotel/restaurant where we stopped for lunch was run by a European woman, who served us gazpacho (even the most expensive restaurants in Bamako don't offer soup). Arriving at our hotel we found, as we had in other cities, a well-stocked gift shop. And more soup.

But our memories from Dogon will most likely center more aounrd the next day's activities: climbing a large hill to visit a village. The Dogon people, so the story goes, used to live in the Sahel Plains but fled into the hills centuries ago to avoid conversion to Islam. And it's in the hills where they remain today, their farms and frequently their water sources remaining on the flat ground below. How they climb up and down the hill each day I cannot imagine.

Maybe I'm just out of shape after weeks of not exercising much, but both the climb and the descent were hard for me. It took us about a half hour's climb up a steep rocky hill to get to the village. On the way up we saw many women climbing up with buckets of water on their heads, not to mention the guy carrying our box of bottled water on his.

In the village it was interesting to see how the people there live much as they have for centuries. It was also interesting to see the strong religious connections they have with the land. (We were warned not to stray far from the guide's path for fear of stepping onto sacred ground.) After a stop in the village's tourist-oriented market, we continued up and, another 20 minutes later, found ourselves on a high plateau overlooking a breathtaking landscape.

Then came the descent. We started down a slippery sheet of sandstone and arrived at a steep drop down to a narrow trench. One by one, we trod carefully down the rock, turned slowly and stepped onto thin steps carved into a log, and climbed down into the trench. Our Dogon guides aided us and then, quickly and skillfully, climbed down themselves.

The rest of the descent was careful but straightforward, giving us the chance to appreciate yet another wonder of Dogon country—the Tellem cliff dwellings. The Tellem had lived in these cliffs centuries ago when the Dogon came, and the former group slowly disappeared. But their homes remain, and these southwest U.S.-style cliff dwellings seem much higher up than their North American counterparts. Some are still used by the Dogon people to store food and bury dead in.

Our next stop was Ouagadougou, the capital of Mali's neighboring country, Burkina Faso. But the road to Ouaga contained many stops. The first came when one of our 4X4s broke down. This problem resurfaced multiple times, and by the time we reached the border, "la voiture bleue" (the blue car) had become a running joke. Or not running, as it were.

Getting into Burkina Faso itself was rather intimidating. Stopping at the border to show our passports, we were ordered to stay in our cars. After that, we were forced to stop at least five additional police checkpoints before we finally made it to Ouaga. By then we'd spent more than 10 hours on the road.

The next morning we met with the Minister of War of the Mossi Empire, a traditional government that still exists independent of the current state of Burkina. We spoke with this man (whose other job is deputy in Burkina's National Assembly) about the modern role of a traditional Empire.

At our next stop in Burkina, a city called Bobo-Dioulasso, we watched a performance of a traditional music and dance group, which included men doing acrobatic flips and a balafond (xylophone-like instrument) player holding the instrument in his teeth and spinning around, all without missing a note. This group, as it turned out, helps fund a large private elementary and vocational school designed to help orphans and other children start their education or learn a trade. We were pleased to encounter yet another example of African-led development.

After Bobo-Dioulasso we crossed back into Mali on our way back to Bamako. This border crossing into Mali was much more relaxed and friendly than the one into Burkino Faso. The man reviewing our passports, seeing my name was Kennedy, asked to shake my hand out of respect for my "ancestor" JFK. Outside, the guards offered to share their meal with us, one of them asked to marry one of our female students, and we performed for them the dance we'd learned in our music class. Welcome home.