By 4:00 each day in West Palm Beach we were home from work, plopped on the couch snacking, watching the latest Ellen show we had on the DVR and trying to decide where to get take out.
At 4:10 PM today we were on a patio next to our school with 3 colleagues, drenched in sweat, learning new steps to an African dance from a Malian dancer with tiny dreads who only speaks French and who we sort of understood, with three drummers pounding on interesting looking, handcrafted drums, and with the Niger River and the green hills as our backdrop.
During our frequent breaks (and thank god they were frequent) one of the resident tortoises the size of a manhole cover ambled by. And the clouds were like a Jesus painting. Seriously, are we really here?
We were looking for a change of pace in life and I think we’ve found it, like when a child finds a surprise by sticking a fork in an electrical outlet (which, by the way, in Mali are round with 2 little prong holes). The world as we knew it is long gone, and we are loving the contrast.
Stopping at a roadside stand yesterday, we paid $6 for five bags full of fresh vegetables that in the U.S. would have cost $100 at Whole Foods. But at our next stop, a sort-of
Western style grocery store, we paid $40 for a sad little Made-in-China ironing board that’s dorm room size. Later four of us ate lunch for $5 each at a local restaurant specializing in heaping plates of traditional West African food, then at the drugstore around the corner I paid $75 for 8 Meflaquine pills. So I guess the moral of this story is if you want to stretch your cash when you come to Bamako, eat lots of local food, wear wrinkly clothes, and embrace malaria.
It’s been a week of especially crazy contrasts. The students returned to school. Well, 84 of the original 200 kids from last year actually returned. The U.S. still hasn’t allowed the dependents of its Embassy staff to return since the March coup (even though things in
Bamako are A-OK) so we are short a whole gaggle of American brats. Apparently the Dutch and Danish, who never even evacuated in the first place, aren’t big scaredy cats like some countries I know. There is a senior class of one this year, a cool Malian-Dutch kid who is the sole student in Jamey’s AP Physics class (so much for sitting in the back of class texting while the teacher lectures!). He’s a shoe-in for valedictorian from what I hear, and definitely will be in top 5% of his class. On the elementary side of the school every other classroom is empty since three of us are teaching combined classes, K/1st, 2nd/3rd, and 4th/5th, freeing up classrooms in between us. It makes for a spacious environment, plus I have pilfered everything from the now REALLY empty classroom next door so it’s like having my own private Target.
I have seven Grade 5 students and six Grade 4 students so far. From the minute the first student walked in during student orientation and told me my classroom smelled like gin I knew I was in the right place.
Among these 13 they speak Danish, French, Portuguese, Bambara, Hindi, Portuguese, Spanish, and English–only 2 speak English as a first language and half of them are tri-lingual! I have the child of the Danish ambassador, the child of the current Mali Prime Minister, and two children whose parents teach at the school too. No pressure (he says as he takes a swig from the bottle of Bombay Sapphire hidden in the crayon box).
The classroom discussions have been a tad interesting too. Example from the first day:
Me: Do any of you have teachers in the family?
Gin Student: My grandmother teaches college in Vancouver.
Me: Your grandparents live in Vancouver? I love that city.
GS: Well my grandmother lives there. My grandfather is gay and has a boyfriend and they live in another city.
Me: Did I hear the bell for recess? (swig, swig)
And what I found bizarre is during that exchange not one student even winced. Hell, even I don’t even know anyone with a gay grandfather!
On Friday I played the song “Perfect” by the band Simple Plan, a heart wrenching, based-in-fact song in which the two brothers in the band sing about how they didn’t meet their father’s expectations (even though they are successful, wealthy musicians). I asked the students to analyze the lyrics for the main idea. PM’s son answered, “It’s just so cliché, Mr. Fessler.” They are keeping me on my toes for sure.
We bought a vehicle from a departed teacher (one who left the school, not one who died).
It’s a Honda SUV-something-or-other, totally not my style plus it cost a gazillion dollars to fill with essence (that’s French for gas, pronounced ess-AHHHNCE) But an SUV is totally necessary to drive on the things that pass as roads here. The red clay back road we take to school is less than a half mile long, but it’s an adventurous half mile with foot-deep water covering all of the road in places, mini jagged boulders, mud pits, parts that look like a smaller scale version of the Grand Canyon, and random bushes growing in what would seem to be the center of the road. Riding to and from school is sort of like getting a magic fingers massage from one of those vibrating mattresses, so it’s not all bad. I’m not an auto expert, but I’m thinking these conditions play havoc with all that stuff underneath the car (the other day we were riding with colleagues in their SUV and a shock literally fell off the bottom of the car into the tire).
Jamey did drive on an actual main road last Friday for the first time, which is far better than our crazy back road but still crazy in many other ways. Our director had invited the faculty over for happy hour, gin and tonics by the pool, and I couldn’t resist (plus Jamey was my DD). So off we went on Sotuba Road, two lanes that somehow handle 4 or 5 lanes of traffic, full of motos (motorcycles), cars, little buses, donkey carts, people hauling big carts of eggs or bananas or auto parts, and people walking everywhere. Thankfully everyone travels at a slower pace than most places we’ve visited, but having motos zoom up on either side of you at the same time when you have your turn signal on and they still stay next to you, well, it just makes for a surreal driving experience. The gin was good by the way, Bombay Sapphire, and she also had US-style junk food, like chips that tasted Ruffles-ish. Definitely worth the dangerous first drive.
Our home is looking better everyday. On Saturday we had a driver take us across town (which in and of itself is a complete thrill ride) to buy some curtains from a World Bank Brit
guy who was transferred to Senegal. African print material, well made, and featuring our current favorite POC (Pop of Color)…orange…which of course was inspired by the plastic dog I wrote about in a previous post. They instantly brought life into every room of our place and pumped up the Africa-ness. I also used one curtain panel to make pillow covers that I whipped up by hand (thank you Grandma and mom for teaching me how to sew when I was 9). Last step is having one of the maintenance men come to hang our many, many pictures—apparently the solid concrete walls almost require a jackhammer to get a nail in them. Even our gardener has done his magic, which is a miracle since we gave him directions in French (or what we think was French). We now have potted plants everywhere–along the porch, on the roof deck, in the house, at our front gate…come to think of it I may have mixed up the number 5 with the number 55 when I was ordering these. He also took the vegetable seeds we brought with us and planted a raised bed garden next to our house, so I’m looking forward to haricort verts, salade, and other French names that sound so fancy even though they are just plain vegetables.
It is truly bizarre having a gardener, a maid, a driver, and full time guards just for our house. I’m not used to having people open the gates for us, carry our backpacks or groceries in, keep the yard looking perfect, scrubbing the floors and shower and kitchen every day, washing and ironing our clothes daily, and fanning us with long palm fronds (okay I’m making that last one up).
Plus they do all of this hard work for so little money…a little more than $100/month for a full time, 5-day-a-week maid (we spent more than that on groceries for the week). The guards get less. Even less than that for the gardener. In the states I was resigned to the fact that as a teacher we were at the bottom of the earnings totem pole, but here we’re freakin’ Richie Rich! It’s a little uncomfortable and hard for us to wrap our heads around. But man do I love coming home to a stack of ironed boxer shorts and socks.