To honor my father

On Father’s Day, an ode to Namballa Keïta, a nurse, soldier, and seemingly ordinary man, who worked tirelessly to promote education in newly independent Mali.

Namballa Keïta (left) and his nursing assistant Moro Coulibaly, Medical center of Badougou Djoliba (Mandé region). Image courtesy Chérif Keïta.

My father, Namballa Keïta (1915-1999), worked for most of his long career as a nurse and the head of a small medical center in the village of Badougou-Djoliba in the Mande region of Mali. This charismatic man, known as “Dòkòtòrò Balla” or “Djoliba Balla,” had never spent a day in the colonial school, for he was born in a region that the White people’s school had not reached. He owed his access to modern science and his social status to the five years (1940-45) he spent in the French Army as a Tirailleur sénégalais. He had enlisted during World War II in the Senegalese town of Gossas (in the peanut growing basin), where he was a seasonal farm worker (navetane, as they were called), just like many young people from the colonies of the French Soudan (today’s Mali) and Upper Volta (Burkina Faso).

After surviving the brutality of the Italian Front and receiving an honorable discharge in 1945, the recommendations of his French military commanders helped him get recruited into the Service d’Hygiène (Hygiene Corps) in Bamako. Surprisingly, there was a department called Service d’Hygiène in Bamako. But seeing how Bamako is buried today under mounds of trash and choking from the unbearable smell of its plugged sewers, it is hard to imagine that such a department existed in a relatively recent past. And I must add that this department was one of the most powerful branches of the colonial administration. It was thanks to the great diligence of its agents, those who were called “naravelikelaw” that Bamako owed its reputation as “the cutest town in French West Africa.”

The “naravelikela”(corruption of the French word for “délarver,” to kill the mosquito larvae) was usually a very disciplined army veteran, who believed strongly in the colonial administration’s commitment to the cleanliness and sanitation of both dwellings and workplaces. He was feared and before his daily inspection in the sector he was assigned, people would drain any standing waters and pick up trash from their houses and their businesses. In the minds of generations of Bamako residents, this Corps was associated with the prestige of a legendary figure named “Lassidan” [Adjutant] Karamoko Keïta, praised in songs by all the singers of the day. I must add that this famous man was the father of the renowned anticolonial and pan-African activist Aoua Keïta, whose autobiography is titled Femme d’Afrique.

To get back to my father, it is said that he discharged his duty with great rigor in his assigned district of Bamako, an area that stretched from Lebanese shops of downtown Bamako to the foot of the Koulouba Hills, including the colonial high schools and the Grand Hotel. In order to discourage violators from trying to smooth-talk him in Bambara and easily get off the hook, he pretended to speak only Wolof, a language he mastered during his long stay in Senegal. When people saw him coming like the soldier he used to be, they would quickly put things in order, so as to avoid being ticketed by the “Crazy Wolof Man.”

As I retell these stories, I cannot but laugh because my father was the comedian type, one who liked to tease and was fond of jokes, a disposition he would use to his advantage when approaching his patients. He never failed to make them smile or laugh when they came to his health center. In Djoliba, he had a joke for everyone and he could make anyone laugh, men and women, young and old alike, even when they were in pain.

I will say that for my father, a man whose medical training was not from a formal school but rather from his dogged determination to learn in order to triumph over adversity, educating his people and particularly the Malian youth within the public school was truly a religion, the high-priests of which were the school teachers.

In Namballa Keïta: A Soldier and His Village, a film which won the Jury Prize for Best Feature documentary from the African Diaspora at the Rencontres Cinématographiques de SYA (Bobo-Dioulasso), I paid tribute to the lifelong battle my father fought not only to promote the schooling of children in Djoliba, his adoptive village, but also to launch the first school in his native village of Nana-Kenieba (Mande Mountains), with his own money on the eve of his country’s independence.

A story I have never shared before is proof of my father’s boundless admiration for the anonymous soldiers who built a quality school in Mali, thanks to which my generation of children, those schooled during the last years of the French colonization, owe much of what we are today: high-ranking government officials and top researchers and teachers in Mali and elsewhere.

In 1982, my father retired after 45 years of service to both the colonial state of the French Soudan and to post-colonial Mali. I was then pursuing my postgraduate studies in the US after Europe. I decided to save part of the small stipend I earned from the University of Georgia (Athens) working as a teaching assistant in order to send it to my father. I believed that as small and symbolic as it was, this amount of money could meet some need in my large family. A few months later, this is the surprise I got: a letter from my first school teacher, Mr. Sidi Kinta, which I cite entirely here in order to honor him, wherever he may be, after so many decades:

Bamako, June 14 1982

Dear Keïta

I was very happy to get your latest news from your dad Namballa. This brought back many distant but vivid memories from my days as a teacher in Djoliba. Your father and I spoke a lot about you in Kati. During our conversation, I was moved by the fact that you still remembered me. He gave me 5,000 Malian francs on your behalf. I was very happy and I thanked him for this nice gift.

What I did for you at the start of your education was my duty. I always had the feeling that one day, you would make yourself useful to your family. This secret wish of mine has been realized. I am extremely pleased and overjoyed. You have chosen the right path for a young person: the duty to be of help to your parents.

I was your first teacher and I am very happy for your success. I continue to wish you a lot of courage and success. Presently, I have stopped teaching.

Your first teacher, Sidi KINTA, at the Interior Ministry, Bamako (Rep. of MALI)

It would be difficult to add more to the moving words of this eloquent teacher, of the type that can be called “true breeders of talent and moral conscience.” However, I want to clarify that it was my father’s idea, not mine, to look for my first teacher. He believed that the latter was entitled to my first income from a job. This generous act of my father made me look back and thank those who first saw my potential and who helped me take my first steps on the steep road to success in school. It made me appreciate several years later how much my father respected the role of the teacher. My father knew that it would be useless to build a school if one could not put in charge of it people who considered their job as a sacred mission. For him, it is those exemplary teachers who should be rewarded immensely for their role and their contribution to society’s progress. Even without ever going to school, my father knew this truth, one that is sadly disregarded today, with a bitter consequence: a lack of patriotism among intellectual elites and the corollary falling apart of African postcolonial states, Mali being a good example of that sad phenomenon.

No country can become truly independent without a highly performing education system. My father was convinced of that as he returned from the war. In this regard, the last sentence in my teacher’s letter, “Presently, I have stopped teaching,” made me realize several years later the negative forces that were attacking the Malian educational system, the one that trained my generation. In fact, I understood that for my teacher to give up teaching for a routine job in administration, something terrible had happened: the dismantling of the public school system in Mali by the institutions of Bretton-Woods (World Bank and IMF), with the cowardly complicity of the then regime of General Moussa Traoré, caving in to the demands of structural adjustment in the 1970s and 1980s. In fact, it is at that time that teachers became socially devalued, by being placed in unspeakable conditions. While my teacher was leaving the classroom for an office job in the administration, many others were jumping ship in order to seek opportunities in neighboring countries such as Ivory Coast, Niger, Senegal, Burkina Faso, even in Central and Equatorial Africa (Gabon and Congo), and beyond. What Mali was losing, those countries welcomed with open arms to strengthen their educational systems. The disastrous consequences are visible today in the great disparity that exists within the intellectual leadership of our various countries in West Africa.

What is the situation today? The advent of the democratic era in the 90s did not help, sadly enough. The ill-fated decisions to appoint student leaders to key government and cabinet positions were a bad signal for Mali. They undermined a society in which merit and personal effort were measured by success in a well-organized educational system. Democracy and its various dysfunctions have made the Malian education system hostage to various mafias—political, business, school and university—ills that will need to be eliminated in order to build a healthy school system, one in which patriotism and responsibility toward a secular state are the guiding principles.

Further Reading


The writer, from Cape Town, reflects on the life of her working class father, who like her friends’ fathers worked tough jobs for low pay and hid his vulnerabilities.