Kern Smith is a founding board member for Ko-Falen Cultural Center with her artist husband, Arvie Smith, and as the long-imagined project of close friend and Malian artist, Baba Wagué Diakité and his artist wife Ronna Neuenschwander. In Bambara (the prevalent language of Mali) the word ko-falen means “gift exchange.” In accordance with its name, Ko-Falen organizes biannual, four-week music, dance, art, and textile workshops in Mali, and in turn, every single penny of the proceeds goes directly to youth enrichment and women’s empowerment efforts in Malian communities.
The youth enrichment program provides for twenty students, first through eight grade, to attend daily 3 hour tutoring sessions at the Ko-Falen center, which is located in a small neighborhood on the edge of Bamako. This additional instruction and encouragement has resulted in impressive results in student performance in the public school classroom of 100 + students. Last year’s reports showed perfect attendance and top class ranking for these Ko-Falen students.
Kern Smith explains that the goal is not only to provide this handful of students more opportunities but to create a lasting model of education that can be adopted in various communities – and in fact, last year, due to the success and resonance of the program, several families in the neighborhood pooled together their own money in order for eight additional area children to be able to receive tutoring at Ko-Falen’s center.
Ko-Falen also funds a female empowerment group that spreads education about anti-circumcision, has improved and expanded a village school in Soni Tiene, and recently established a micro-lending program. Kern Smith has traveled to Mali six times in the last fifteen years and has seen the tangible effects of Ko-Falen’s efforts. “To be able to have a personal impact on people living halfway around the world is humbling.”