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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.

March 5: Saying Goodbye to Mali

March 5, 2006
By Nathan Kennedy ’07

It’s been a long ten weeks, but at the same time it’s gone by very quickly. Now it’s nearly time to leave Mali. In two days we’ll be on a plane headed north, back to Western society, cold weather, and family. Not that we won’t be leaving family behind as well. Monday night we face some tough good-byes.

Last night we all took our host families to Chérif’s house for a farewell dinner party. The highlight of the evening was the dance we performed for our families. We’d been learning three dances all term (and practicing them in unlikely places, such as in front of the guards at the Malian border), and last night we finally got to show them off. Our families went wild. Malians have always loved watching us dance, and the sight of a group of “tubabus” in matching uniforms performing traditional Malian dances was quite a spectacle, apparently. The evening was also moving for all of us, since it was our last real group experience in Mali.

During the past few weeks we've all been trying to make the most of our experience here. Spending time with our families, taking trips to the market to buy gifts and souvenirs, and exploring Bamako have been our priorities. Then there are the friends we've made, even among people we just pass on the street. My walk to this cyber café takes me past two groups of men with whom I chat regurlarly. One, a group of taxi drivers, sit in the shade of trees near their cars, waiting for customers. The other, the owners of a auto-parts store and their friends, sit outside the shop, also waiting for business. This comes rarely, but they are always content to sit, chat and drink tea.

I'm sure we'll miss Malian people like these the most. Everyone is friendly, welcoming and eager to talk to us, especially in whatever little Bambara we can muster. The tea they drink encapsulates this spirit of openness and community. It takes half an hour to make one small pot, after which everyone gets a few sips of very strong tea and then must wait for the next pot. The point is not that the tea is worth waiting for, but rather that during those 30 minutes you have time to sit and talk with your friends. Community is perhaps the most important aspect of Malian culture and society, and it has sustained the people through much hardship. We'll miss that.

We'll miss the atmosphere of this city a well: the sound of radios, always playing the same popular songs; the cars and motorcycles honking in Bamako's pell-mell traffic; the dozens of small shops—tailors, hardware stores, auto parts, restaurants; women in colorful dresses carrying bowls on their heads and babies on their backs; men in soturamas yelling out destinations as the green vans zoom past.

What have we gained from this experience? I know that we've all changed, in ways we probably won't discover until we return. I know also that we've gained a more international and diverse worldview. As an international relations major, I've gained a whole new perspective on my academic interest as well as on my personal life. These are perspectives I intend to keep with me as I throw myself into this globalized, interconnected world.

I think if we've learned anything from our stay, it's that Mali, one of the poorest countries in Africa, is far different from the starving children and gun-waving rebels stereotype that too often shapes Western impressions of this continent. Mali is a country whose culture, society and people are much more vibrant and dynamic than any of us imagined. Of course it has problems, but, contrary to what the media might have us believe, it is not defined by its problems.

I'll sign off by quoting a Malian expression: "You've left your home, and you've arrived at home." We've felt this spirit everywhere we've gone. If home is where the heart is, I'll be leaving a bit of home behind in Mali.