Oumou Ba Sangare
Bamako, Republic of Mali
M.S.Ed. '96, Educational Leadership and Services
Member, Mali National Assembly

A former English teacher and high school principal, Oumou Ba Sangare did not exactly choose to enter politics in her homeland of Mali in West Africa. Rather, she was, in effect, drafted.

As a member of several women's organizations working toward improving the conditions and status of women in the Republic of Mali (population 11 million), Ba Sangare was encouraged by her peers to run for a seat in the National Assembly.

She was elected in 1997 to a five-year term, and is one of only 18 women in the legislative body of 147 members.

"Mali is a young Democratic country and women do not enter parliament easily," said Ba Sangare, 55, who lives in the capital city of Bamako. "They have to compete hard, and because we are in a society ruled by men, women suffer."

She strongly believes that her country needs to put training programs and exchanges in place that will help improve conditions for women. Her goal as an elected official, she explained, is to help women help themselves.

Ba Sangare, who has served as the second vice president of the National Assembly the past two years, also is a member of the committee concerned with women, children, employment and sport.

As a master's degree student at Old Dominion in the mid-1990s, Ba Sangare was active in the women's studies program, which played a role in what soon would be- come her political agenda back home. "Anita Fellman made it possible for me to meet lots of interesting women at the various seminars organized by her department," Ba Sangare recalled, referring to the director of the university's women's studies program.

"I was also very active in the Model United Nations organization. I attended all their seminars in Virginia and in New York. It was a big experience for me."

Ba Sangare, who had always dreamed of studying in the United States, came to Old Dominion on a scholarship in 1994, at the age of 47, to pursue a master's degree in education.

"It was a new world for me, different from what I used to see on TV," she confided. "ODU was more than a school for me. It was a place where I also got to see a new life and experience different activities and places."

Despite the many cultural and language adjustments she faced - finding books and documents that she needed at the library was often a frustrating task - Ba Sangare had no trouble making friends among faculty, students and members of the community. Petra Snowden, associate professor of educational leadership and counseling, became her favorite professor as well as a good friend.

"We had always heard that Americans were very individualistic and that you wouldn't be able to get to know them well," Ba Sangare said. "But I never spent one weekend alone. There was always someone who would invite me to their home."

Through her work with the Peace Corps back in Mali, Ba Sangare also got together with many of the former American volunteers during her time in the U.S. "My friends from the Peace Corps came to visit me in Norfolk and invited me to their homes. I visited 14 states in my two years there!"

Ba Sangare, who stays in touch with many of her American friends, is currently focusing her attention on raising money for her re-election campaign. Elections will be held in July, and she wants very badly to return to the National Assembly so that she can resume her work to effect change for her fellow countrywomen.

"I have done the best I can, and I do hope I will get enough support so that I can come back to continue the job I started."