Chapter 7: Cock-a-Doodle-Don’t

Just when we were getting used to our very personable rooster, he literally flew the coop. At least that’s what we think Fati (our maid) said in French to us this afternoon. Or she cooked him—hard to tell with our low level French comprehension.

Our rooster, just before going on holiday.

I did enjoy seeing this little rooster come to the glass front door every morning to get our attention. We wish him well on his adventure –or- hope he provided nourishment for an impoverished family, whatever the case may be. I’m pretending he’s on a little vay-cay.

We’ve just completed a full teacher-only week at AISB (American International School of Bamako). Today I was sitting at my classroom desk freaking out over scheduling, curriculum, classroom interior design, etc. when I looked out the window, saw the Niger River, and thought, “Holy crap! I’m in Africa!” Amazing how school stress can make you forget you’re in a third world country on another continent. This stress is different than what I experienced in the U.S. though. By this point in Florida I would have been surrounded by piles of FCAT test data (the high stakes Florida test) letting me know which of my students may not pass

I can see the Niger from my teacher desk. And some playground equipment.

the next FCAT in 8 months, deciding which students are most likely to pass and are actually worth the extra investment of time, being told not to schedule field trips or anything else remotely creative or enjoyable or to definitely NOT teach social studies and science–subjects not on the 4th grade FCAT–until April 2013 when the three week FCAT testing window is over, and being reminded how my salary, my job, and my health will suffer if my students don’t produce high test scores. Ah, the good ol’ days. At least now my stress only involves deciding which creative activity to do first, and how to create an inviting classroom in the light-filled, cavernous space assigned to me.

Our first week faculty meetings could not have been more different from what we were used to back in Florida. Our director actually apologized for keeping us so long at our first meeting–which went a whopping 70 minutes and actually involved time for teachers to talk about their vision for enriching the lives of students….as opposed to staring blankly at PowerPoint slides of color-coded test data and dreaming about less stressful career options, like alligator wrangling.

Growing a living maze in one of the school courtyards. I imagine some kids could get lost in there for days.

The answer to many teacher questions was “Just use your professional judgment,” something that made me do the happy dance in my head because it meant that this school considers me a professionals and capable of making judgments on my own! Every morning there were fresh French pastries, and at lunch the school cook, Fanta (yep, just like the soda), prepared a meal for the staff. She even made me a special garlic-free portion of every meal due to my allergy and unwillingness to have explosive diarrhea during Week 1.

My split class so far has nine 4th graders and eight 5th graders. They include the Danish ambassador’s son, children of officials with the Dutch, South African, Indian, and Nigerian embassies, a child of an African Union Commission official, and a Microsoft Mali exec’s kid. No Americans yet since DC hasn’t given the all clear sign for American Embassy dependents to return here, but that could happen in a couple of weeks. Apparently the US are always the last return because of so much paperwork they require. Go figure.

Our getting-to-school routine is a welcome change. As we come out of the front door our watchman dashes to greet us and open the gate. Then we walk about 7 minutes down an orange clay road which, if it’s the rainy season as it is now, may include an impromptu stream and series of car-sized puddles. We pass a couple of unfinished soon-to-be fancy two-story homes (although I’ve never seen anyone

Jamey takes the lead on our 7 minute walk to school.

working on these yet), fields of rice/corn/lettuce, two mules, various Malians either on a moto (scooter), bike, or walking–and in the case of women or girls, usually with something large balancing on their head, a couple of shacks made of sticks and scraps of plastic sheeting that are about the size of a walk-in closet and they house whole families. We greet everyone we pass with a “bonjour” and they seemed kind of surprised that we take the time to speak to them. Once we get to the school the guards and drivers out front greet us with all kinds of French and Bambara phrases (how’s it going, did you sleep well, you have mud all over your shoes) and then practice remembering which of us is Jamey and which is Jeff. This process is reversed on the way home, except that when we walk into our house it is sparkling clean and all of the dirty clothes we left are washed and ironed in a nice stack, including socks and undies, the dirty dishes we left in the sink are washed and put away, and our muddy shoes from the day before are clean and lined up at the door. It’s like being 8 all over again.

After school yesterday one of the teachers organized a Friday happy hour at a local hotel on the river.

Happy Hour on the Niger with our worldly colleagues

We caught a ride with fellow teachers Thomas and Cindy and their two kids as we don’t have a car yet (although we did just agree to buy one left by a teaching couple who didn’t return this year). Hard to imagine that we will soon be navigating the craziness on these main roads! First, there aren’t curbs on these TWO-lane roads that seem to accommodate three or more lanes of traffic, which consists of SUVs, giant trucks, gobs of motos (they zip around your vehicle on the left and right side—just inches away from you, and dart from the side of the road at any given minute.), carts pulled by donkeys, small beat up yellow cars that are actually taxis ($2-$3 a ride), locals crammed into green, open-sided vans that sort of represent a bus-like service but without set stops (as the vehicle slows down a guy shouts out where it’s going and people clamber to get on), and all of this happening within a haze of dust and exhaust. Lining every inch of the road on both sides are buildings (masonry or ramshackle stalls) selling things or just open areas where people are selling more stuff like gas in jars or 80s looking sofas and side chairs, all just plopped in the dirt and fumes. And there are people everywhere, just walking, or herding goats, selling phone cards, milling about. The robes they wear are bright and how they keep them looking so clean amidst all these clouds of dust is a mystery to me. This could be a great commercial for Tide I think.

A donkey cart merge.

On this particular ride with Thomas and Cindy last night, we detected an unusual sound as we made our way along the chaos. After pulling over we noticed the shock had fallen almost completely off and was hitting their tire. So we waved down a couple of taxis. Cindy, Jamey, and I rode in a taxi already occupied by a soldier in the front seat, his rifle wedged between his legs. We took a short cut through a market area where sheep butchering was going on, and where I glanced at piles of sheep intestines, heads, and other assorted body parts. Never a dull moment on a taxi ride through Bamako.

A happy hour sunset over the Niger.

Of course all of this craziness contrasts nicely with our eventual destination, a lovely hotel with a covered deck extending over the river where we sat quietly enjoying drinks and watching the sun sink into the river. Not a sheep intestine in sight.

Of course just sitting with our new colleagues is a treat because they are all fascinating people who could write books about all they’ve done. Just in our small group of Americans last night was someone who grew up in Nepal, another whose mom works for the State Department and who went to high school in Moscow, the Danish ambassador’s wife and son who have also lived in Thailand and Ecuador (I’ll have the son in my class), someone who worked in the Peace Corps in Niger, sisters from the US whose family moved to Mali years ago and whose mom runs a store offering crafts from women’s cooperatives in the region, and another who has taught at international schools around the world for 20 years and who rock climbs and teaches yoga. Sure beats sitting around chatting about the last episode of True Blood (though we did that too). We ended up at an Indian restaurant with the most amazing food and garishly decorated crown molding. And the Indian waiter spoke excellent English and French and had no problem leaving the garlic out of my delicious dal (spicy lentil stew served over rice).

And because I’m a teacher, here is a little lesson on a big Islamic holiday: During the past 30 days the Malians have been observing Ramadan, the Islamic holy month where they fast from sunrise to sunset (no liquids or food, which I didn’t realize at the faculty meeting as I snarfed down a croissant and coffee while sitting next to our Malian bookkeeper). It officially ends with the sighting of the new moon (there is actually a moon

Courtyard near my classroom. Flower Power!

sighting committee who makes this determination). On the way home last night our taxi driver told us the committee had spotted the moon. This means Eid ul-Fitr, Festival of Breaking Fast, begins and lasts through Monday, so our Malian staff at school as well as Fati our maid will have the day off on Monday. There will also be lots of family meals, sweets, wearing of new clothes, the giving gifts to children, prayer, and giving to charity. There is something about killing a sheep too, but I’m going to leave the details of that part out of this lesson.

And I’m sure our rooster will return once the celebrating is over.

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6 thoughts on “Chapter 7: Cock-a-Doodle-Don’t

  1. Awesome Jeff – so happy to find your blog and love reading about it through your eyes – so happy to have you as a new colleague and my daughter’s teacher here at AISB!

  2. I see a best selling book in your future. I so enjoy reading your posts. I can hear your voice, inflections, enthusiasm, sarcasm (sometimes) and overall joy. So glad you and Jamey took the leap and did this. Can’t wait to hear about what happens next. And by the way…these updates are better than any episode of True Blood! Best TV on the web. T

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