Chapter 2: Hello, Mali

If you read my previous post, you know the backstory about our obsession with being abroad (and yes that’s “abroad” not “a broad”). So here’s how we went from dreaming to doing.

January 2011: While presenting at a conference in Orlando, noticed another presenter’s bio said “lived and taught abroad for 17 years.” Interrupted her lunch to get the scoop. Told us that she and her husband (with kids in tow) taught at international schools in 7 different countries, including Kenya. American style schools, tax-free salary, housing and everything else provided, and no high-stakes testing. What?! Told us to Google “International Schools Services,” (ISS) the organization they went through to do this.

February 2011: Paid fees to join ISS. Both of us were approved after filling out 3 zillion application papers. Even though it was the tail end of the recruiting period for the 2011-2012 school year, began emailing international schools across the globe. Lots of jobs in the Middle East, but discovered their laws weren’t exactly supportive of couples like us (e.g. Saudi Arabia: same-sex sexual activity punishable by death, prison, fines, and/or whipping).

March 2011: Skype interviews with international school in Kenya! Looked promising until our research revealed 14 year prison sentences for gay people. Didn’t work out after all, we breathed sigh of relief. Made big chart of scary countries to avoid.

Niger River, Mali

April 2011: Decided to get serious–if we were really moving abroad we needed to unload our worldly possessions. Put our house up for sale in the worst real estate market ever. Sold full price within a month to former editor of Architectural Digest magazine (as a guest house, mind you). Sold decades worth of our “stuff” at an estate sale. Learned you can actually survive without 10 boxes of Xmas decorations, massive collections of Fiesta ware/turtle figurines/1950s furniture/metal lunch boxes/etc, and 37 kinds of cookware. Sad to see others buy our stuff just to add to their stuff, but happy to take their cash! Even scanned scrapbooks/photo albums to make digital versions, and chucked the physical versions. Our load is lightened and we’re ready to rumble.

June 2011: Moved to a 700 sf furnished apartment in happening part of town, walking distance to everything. Came with our clothes and art. With weekends free of lawn care, Home Depot trip$, and home maintenance torture we concentrate on snagging international teaching gigs. With dwindling opportunities for the 2011-2012 school year, decided to focus on 2012-2013 possibilities. That recruiting season would start in the fall.

September – December 2011: Planned to attend a recruiting fair but in meantime emailed dozens of international schools we were interested in, all located in countries where we wouldn’t be flogged, fined, or hanged because we were a male couple of 25 years. Many amazing possibilities (exotic locales with warm climates a plus, of course). Had Skype interviews with international schools in China, India, South Africa, Korea, western Africa (Mali). Nothing solid yet.

American Embassy, Mali

January 2012: Received another email from Head of School at the American International School of Bamako (AISB), in Bamako, Mali saying they were still interested. Had another Skype interview at 5 AM our time (thank goodness the video wasn’t working), said they’d let us know in a day. The next day we got an email that started with this:

Dear Jeff and Jamey,
It was a pleasure talking with you both yesterday. We feel that you would both be excellent additions to the AISB faculty and community and as such I would like to offer you positions at AISB for the 2012 -2013 school year. The contracts will be for two years. Jamey would be teaching MS/HS science which would encompass; Grade 8 science, Grade 9 conceptual physics, Grade 10 Chemistry, Grade 11 Biology and AP Biology (probably) or possibly AP Environmental Science. Jeff would be an elementary classroom teacher teaching grade 4.

A two-year contract that includes housing, medical, moving expenses, and even an R&R trip to Paris!

Before we accepted we consulted with a director we befriended during our international search, a super helpful person who knew a lot about most of the international schools. A colleague of this director sent this statement about AISB:

I have worked with the Directors and several Boards at the American International School of Bamako during the past three years (in governance workshops and in their last head searching).  It is a great little school — the community is small and friendly, as is the staff; teachers and administration are professional; the new school director, Carolyn (who is Australian) is excellent; parents consist of many expatriates from many different countries (mainly from North American, Europe, and Africa), working mostly in development and diplomatic organizations; Malians are very friendly, outgoing, with a strong visual and performing arts culture.  Bamako, Mali is also hot all of the time, dusty winds part of the year, poor people and undeveloped infrastructure. To me, positive attitudes at the school and among Malians, all of which are in abundance, more than compensates. I’d go there in a heartbeat.

Excellent director, nice people, AND a strong visual and performing arts culture?! It’s like Glee Africa!

The Great Mosque of Djenne, Mali

Then we checked with the travel website Lonely Planet. Here’s what they said:

If you only visit one country in West Africa, make it Mali. This is a country as rich in historical significance as it is blessed by an extraordinary array of sights, not to mention being home to many of West Africa’s major cultural groups.

Mali’s natural wonders range from the deserts of the north to the fertile greenery of the south, with the Niger River weaving a path through the heart of the country. The lucrative trade routes of the Sahara once made the region the world’s richest, and the Niger, one of the grand old rivers of Africa, still provides Mali’s lifeblood. To journey along it (preferably on a slow boat) is one great journey.

Not far from the riverbank, the extraordinary Falaise de Bandiagara rises from the plains. It shelters one of West Africa’s most intriguing peoples, the Dogon, whose villages and complex cultural rituals still cling to the rocky cliffs. A visit here is utterly unforgettable.

Some of Africa’s greatest empires also rose from the Niger’s hinterland and bequeathed to Mali some of its most dramatic attractions: the legendary city of Timbuktu – whose name has never lost its remote allure – and the gloriously improbable mosque at Djenné are merely two among many. Even in places where the landscape seems too barren to support life, you find Mali’s famous elephants sharing the Sahelian soil with Tuareg and Fulani nomads.

There’s almost as much to hear in Mali as there is to see, with a musical soundtrack provided by some of Africa’s most celebrated stars. Whether you dive in to Bamako’s wonderful live music scene or time your arrival to coincide with the country’s two world-famous music festivals, Mali’s diverse rhythms will soon have you on your feet. 

SOLD! We signed the contracts and began to plan our exit strategy.

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Chapter 1: You’re Lookin’ Swell, Mali

When we tell people we’re moving to Mali, West Africa to teach school, they ask one of three questions: (1) Is that a country? (2) Is that where Madonna adopted those kids? (3) Are you running from the law? (answers: yes since 1960, no that was Malawi, none of your beeswax).

I’ll provide the backstory to give this all some perspective, and to reassure everyone that this is not a last-minute lame-brain scheme.

College student Jeff strikes a pose in Egypt

Childhood: Loved that TV show “Big Blue Marble,” where every week they showcased a kid living in another country. Decided I definitely needed to expand my horizons beyond the midwest. See, TV doesn’t always rot your brain.

High School: I was a non-Spanish-speaking exchange student sent to Trujillo, Peru to live with a family and attend school. Ate guinea pig. Hiked three days on an ancient Incan trail to Machu Picchu. Decided I needed to see the rest of the world. Especially places where they didn’t eat guinea pig.

College: Found a summer internship in Nuremberg, Germany where I worked a month before backpacking through Europe and northern Africa. 12 countries, 2 months, 2 pair of pants, 4 shirts. Rode camels around the Sphinx, saw Evita in London (the musical, not the politician/icon), did not eat any animal considered a pet.

Jamey & Jeff outside of a temple at Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Adulthood: Jamey and I vow to travel abroad every year to an exotic destination. Soon realize this plan would work better if we had chosen an occupation paying slightly more than teaching, like being an assistant co-manager at a tanning salon, or selling Avon. Nevertheless we manage to stick to the plan and experience riding a pony across the volcanic plains of Iceland, boating for 2 weeks down the Volga River in Russia, drinking snake wine in Vietnam (again with the pets-as-food thing!), ballooning over the ruins of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, celebrating Christmas night in a smoky Fado bar in Lisbon, floating in an inner tube down an almost undiscovered river in the jungles of Belize, walking throughout the streets of Prague at 3 AM Easter morning as the snow fell, and drinking super sweet, cavity-inducing tea with a family of Berbers in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco. Travel becomes a crack-like addiction: the more we do it, the more we want it do it. “They tried to make me go to rehab, but I said no, no, no.”

Jeff & Jamey in Granada, Spain

Jeff & Jamey in Thailand

Adulthood Part 2: Brought like-minded travel friends Ilean and John into our addiction. Adventure is ramped up. 3 weeks in Thailand riding elephants (not plastic ones attached to a spinning carnival ride), hiking to a remote hill tribe in the mountains to bunk with the villagers, visiting a Buddhist monk who lived in a cave in the jungle and wanted Jamey to remain with him. Found Carmen Miranda’s grave in Rio de Janeiro, and the grave of Evita (the politician/icon, not the musical) in Buenos Aires. Ran around those giant heads on Easter Island. Stayed with the Kuna Indians on an island off Panama (and convinced Jamey’s parents to join us!). And in Nicaragua discovered that bad ceviche can have long-lasting effects. Despite the diarrhea/vomiting, started to consider living abroad vs. just visiting.