The drive to Nana Kenieba was long and bouncy and hot. I think I need to get used to those conditions. I have a feeling I’ll be seeing a lot of them. Nana Kenieba is a tiny village…totally remote, so we definitely wouldn’t be seeing any other toubabou (white people) when we got there. Anyways, it’s the birthplace of Cherif’s father, and many of his relatives live there. The village is comprised mainly of Keitas and Camaras, so I was going to be meeting lots of “cousins”. This village, despite its remoteness however, has been touched by the West a bit. Medicine for Mali visit from time to time, and Cherif’s father built a school there for the children which now had 9 classes. He was hailed as one of the most generous people on account of this. So, this village is pretty special.
We were forewarned by Cherif’s wife that this village would be swarming with kids and that they often have to shoo them off. And she was right, although apparently there were fewer kids then normal. The first thing I did was shake many little hands and respond to many a “Ça va?” There were also tons of American flags. Funny side note, most people here think there are 52 states in the United States – 50 and then 2 which aren’t connected (Hawaii and Alaska). Some people believe me when I correct them, but most insist I’m messing with them. I have yet to see a flag with 50 stars.
We were escorted to a small courtyard where we would hold meals, and near where the boys were eating. I sat on the porch for maybe 5 minutes before the smiles and beckoning waves got to me, and I descended into the sea of small kids who wanted to hold our hands and have their photos taken. At times I would have 3 kids trying to hold the same hand – hanging on to different digits and clustering around me. Some of them spoke French, but many spoke only Bambara so communication was limited. Well, lingual communication. There was enough smiling and hand holding to make up for it though. Pretty soon all of us had gone down, and we’re taking pictures of kids, holding hands and playing soccer. It was super fun. Emilia and Haley taught a bunch of them how to “pound it” and this became the new fad. So now, if you ever do visit Nana Kenieba, you can go up to a kid, say pound it, and they’ll respond appropriately. They’ll never leave you hanging. Some of the older boys spoke French and would come over to demand what your name was and where you were from, how old you were, etc. One, when I answered that I was in the 14th class in school told me that was impossible. I tried to tell him it was but he didn’t believe me. Often when you asked them their age, they would lie. Most of them claimed to be 16, when they were clearly no older than say, 14. But I pretended to believe them.
I ended up spending a lot of time with one of the girls who first beckoned me off the porch. Her name was Nasara, and I’m guessing she was somewhere around 10 years old. She was very pretty, with big dark eyes and she smiled at me all the time. Like most of the others, she didn’t really speak French, but it didn’t matter, we figured out our own way of talking. Although I had to leave several times to go to the bathroom, or get my pack, she would always wait and find me again, and would wave from afar until I joined her again. She was clearly one of the older and more respected girls, as she would boss others around in Bambara, telling this kid to take my other hand, that one to buzz off. And she LOVED arranging photos. She would snap at some kids in Bambara and after they moved where they told her she’d make a hissing sound to me and point saying “photo?” Then I’d take it and show them and she’d laugh and clap her hands saying “C’est bon!” It was so dear. After a while she took my hand and started leading me into the village. At first I was nervous, but we weren’t doing anything and Cherif knew everyone in the village so I figured it was fine.
She led me through the village, pointing out different things. At one point, we came across some puppies (they have some dogs that roam the village for protection) and she pulled me forward, placing my hand on their tiny heads so I could pet them. Afterwards she led me to what was clearly a mother or friend’s home and had me take a picture of several of the women, including and elder woman who was tossing the corn to make millet. After I took her photo, she and Nasara pulled me over and gave me the large basket to let me try. I wasn’t very good, but it was fun and all the women got a kick out of it, and Nasara showed me the correct way to do it.
Afterwards she took me to several other huts to take pictures of other women. I also to a picture of one other girl’s father. Nasara finally took me to what I presumed to be her mother’s hut, so I could take a picture of her cooking. She was very kind, and offered me a seat so that I could share dinner with her. I declined…though I was loath to do it.
We spent most of the afternoon with the kids before supping and later dancing. We saw our first masquerade dances that night. According to Dragos, the dances were once based on stories, but have now simply become forms of fun and entertainment. That said, you could still see hints of Soundjata in some of them, and one dance that was performed by some of the older boys was clearly a (gentle) mockery of westerners. We also got to dance here, but all of us were feeling more comfortable this time and this had more fun. We would all do the large line dances, and then get individually invited into the circle to dance in front of the djembe players of you were given a scarf by one of the women or children near you. It was loads of fun, and I got to dance a lot, as I was near several kids with scarves. None of us danced more than Matt though. He’s tall – well over 6′ with red hair and glasses. A physics major and a nice guy. Anyways, they REALLY liked him. They’d give him girly and flowery scarves and laugh as he danced with them. But he was a really good sport about it and danced (as far as I could tell) pretty well. If you forget about all your nerves, dancing is easy to do here. You just have to let the rhythm get inside you and you’ll be fine. And yes, everyone’s probably laughing at you the entire time, but that’s half the fun.
After the djembe dancing, they put on more recent Malian music and we all danced with the kids. This was super fun, and the kids were all phenomenal dancers. Nasara found me within a little bit and we spent the next our dancing together. She put me totally to shame. I honestly can’t even begin to know how to move like she did. She had me try, and would laugh and clap at my blundering, but it was good fun. Best night we have had thus far.
We spent the next morning touring the village with Cherif. We visited the elders and were thanked for visiting, asked to tell others of Nana Kenieba, and not forget them. We have become some part of the village now, and they urged us to return someday with family. We visited the forgeron next, and learned about his significance in the village. It’s his job to help build the village as he makes the weapons and tools. He also is responsible for initiating the children into society by performing circumcision and his wife performs excision, so they are responsible for “sculpting” the village inhabitants as well. They also practice divination, and serve as a bridge between the visible and the invisible worlds. Each village has only one forgeron and he passes his craft down to one of his sons, so that the same family serves the village for generations. He was very nice, and we got to see him carving a pilon for one of the women. He also showed us his tiny forge and how he worked it…totally cool!
We also visited the school. Nasara found me almost instantly and took my hand the entire time. Cherif told us that the politics in Bamako are not very positive for schools like these as they aren’t helping to provide resources for the school and its students. I’ve never heard Cherif get that fired up before. It was impressive.
Nasara hung out with me until we had to leave. We didn’t talk, but she took my hand and placed it over her shoulder and held it to her heart. I was totally touched. And totally enchanted with her. When the time came to leave, I didn’t want to go. Looking out the back of the car at Nasara’s dwindling, waving figure made me so sad. And I have yet to stop thinking about her.