A year ago we signed a contract to teach in Mali, an African country that nobody had heard of before. People assumed we said Bali, even though it’s not a country and nowhere near Africa. But it does rhyme.
Or they thought we were heading to Malawi. It was also an obscure African nation, well, until Madonna adopted David Banda and Chifundo there and it was featured on E Entertainment News and in scholarly magazines like People, Us, and Star (whose current cover screams “It’s Demi! Cougar Goes Wild in Mexico: THE SEX WAS VERY LOUD”).
Then people would ask US, “What’s Mali close to?” And we would mention neighboring countries such as Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, and Mauritania. And they would do that nod-without-actually-understanding-what was just-said thing.
Then two months passed and Mali’s 20 years of democracy disappeared overnight when a group of junior soldiers staged a coup d’état in Bamako. We were certain that Mali would be splashed all over the headlines, but apparently the U.S. media saves that kind of coverage for celebrity adoptions.
Not a single call came from concerned friends or family members because the bloodless coup wasn’t mentioned in the U.S. press. Unless you count those single sentence news blips they bury a few pages in, where I found the coup mentioned right under a blip about David Beckham’s dad having his phone hacked, and right above a blip about Gene Simmons of KISS calling Rihanna ‘fake karaoke’ in a bizarre rant. Now that’s news!
It was probably better, we decided, that Mali’s troubles weren’t front page–or even back page–news in the U.S. We didn’t want our loved ones thinking we were going to be teaching in a war zone. Sure, things in Bamako were sketchy for a short while, with sanctions and a clumsy sort-of counter coup. But except for a couple of tense days at the start, the streets were calm and it was business as usual. The school where we planned to teach continued to operate, though in a “virtual school” format since many of the students and their families left Mali a couple of months earlier than usual. But it would reopen in August and we planned to be there.
But this distraction in Bamako had caused all hell to break loose far in the north of Mali, where Tuareg rebels and then Islamist militants easily overtook small desert towns (Timbuktu, Gao, and Kidal) that the Malian military had abandoned. Though horrible for the Malians in the desert, this was not affecting life 1000 miles to the south in Bamako.
The Islamist militants imposed a strict form of sharia law in these desert towns. Despite the fact that Mali is a culture rich in the arts—and has been for thousands of years—the rebels outlawed dancing, musical instruments, listening to music, and even performances by griots, the African singers and storytellers (and repositories of oral history) whose tradition dates to the 13th century.
They outlawed watching sports on TV. Women couldn’t wear perfume, go for a stroll with friends, or chat in groups. Those women who didn’t cover their bodies and faces were imprisoned or raped.
So what did the rebels actually allow under this extreme version of the moral code and religious law of Islam? Let’s see, it’s okay to recruit and arm 12 year-olds to fight with them. It’s cool to destroy ancient shrines, tombs, and mosques. And you can read the Quran.
And still, Mali wasn’t in the news.
But that all changed when Islamist rebels in the remote town of Aguelhok stoned a couple for having a relationship outside of marriage. And started public floggings for cigarette smoking or drinking alcohol. And when they cut off the right hands and left feet of five men in Gao accused of robbing a bus, with one of these amputations occurring in the town square.
This kind of horror sells papers and attracts viewers. When a news anchor says, “What we are about to show you is disturbing and not appropriate for young children,” viewership spikes like the Richter scale during an earthquake. They come up with alliterative headlines, like “Mali Madness” and “Massacre in Mali. So pictures and video of the Mali amputees and their bloody stumps were everywhere, and suddenly everyone we knew associated Mali with limb-cutting and death by gravel.
I thought it was curious that the media was suddenly interested in the sharia law in these remote desert towns when other entire countries have operated under this system for decades. For goodness sakes, Saudi Arabia operates under sharia law–no constitution at all and the only Arab country that’s never had national elections. It’s the only country in the whole world where women are banned from driving. And the death penalty can be imposed for “homosexual activity” (Having an Oscar party? Singing show tunes? Making parfaits?).
Malaysia, which supposedly operates under a more moderate version of sharia law, sentenced a Muslim woman to a caning for drinking a beer, and could have imposed a three-year prison term. A Muslim male and female who are not married but in a secluded area together can be jailed. In 2003, a Malaysian court ruled that, under sharia law, a man may divorce his wife via text messaging as long as the message is clear and unequivocal. I think all of these situations would make for must-read news stories, or at least a good Lifetime movie: “Scars Across My Buttocks: The Suriawati Sayid Story, a gripping teledrama of a Malaysian housewife viciously caned for sipping a white Zin while she listened to Kenny G.”
But it was the bloody stuff, of course, from the remote Malian north that caught the attention of the U.S. media and eventually of our friends and family. “I guess you heard about the stoning and the lopped off limbs in Mali?” they would ask us in a caring, yet I-told-you-so tone.
“Oh, you mean those isolated incidents out in the middle of the Sahara, 1000 miles from where we will be living?” we would answer.
“And they lashed a guy for smoking,” they would add.
“I often feel like lashing people who smoke, especially when I’m eating,” I would reply.
Meanwhile during the same month the Islamists did those things, the following incidents happened within a 50-mile radius of our West Palm Beach home:
- two sisters were killed with high-powered semi-automatic rifles in a home invasion; a few weeks later the 17-year-old son of one of the women was arrested for another murder
- prosecutors released 1000 pages of evidence in the case of a man accused of killing the 6- and 10-year-old children of his girlfriend, stuffing their bodies in suitcases, and dropping them in a local canal; the wife was found dead in a landfill the previous year
- a man broke into a woman’s home and raped her while her child slept nearby
- a 6-year-old girl brought two loaded guns in a backpack to her elementary school; they were put there by accident by her uncle, a convicted felon
- a deputy was put on leave after firing shots at a stolen truck coming toward him
- a 26-year old man destroyed a psychic’s shop and used his own blood to write FEAR GOD on the window
- a two-story condo was set ablaze by an arsonist
- a 19-year old man randomly shot into a crowd of people
- a judge sentenced three alleged members of the Latino street gang Sur 13’s local chapter to a total of 150 years in prison for attempted murder, armed robbery, and racketeering
- a 21-year-old man received 9 consecutive life sentences for participating in a violent robbery of a Dunkin’ Donuts in which another man shot several people
- a man received a 30 year prison sentence for the beating and stabbing death of his 29-year-old girlfriend
- a man who killed a major league pitcher out for a jog during spring training was released 10 years early from prison
- a 33-year-old woman was found not guilty by reason of insanity after bludgeoning to death her 80-year-old grandmother and shooting her aunt’s boyfriend
- a 22-year-old man was arrested for shooting at transvestite prostitutes
- a 16-year-old boy who brought a gun to a street fight was charged with shooting a 12-year-old girl who was among the onlookers
That same month statistics were released showing Florida ranked 4th from the bottom on the U.S. Peace Index, based on homicides, violent crime, incarcerations, and small arms.
Ahh, nothing like the safety and comfort of home.
To be honest, we weren’t going to Mali to escape the violence in the U.S. as much as we were trying to escape the slow death of our careers! Teaching in the U.S. was about as enjoyable as passing a kidney stone, and at least with the kidney stone the pain eventually passes. Teaching became more and more agonizing with each passing month. It was like some bad movie about a deranged scientist in a secret lab somewhere, constantly inventing ways to make teaching and learning more miserable:
Setting: outside of Moody Creek, Idaho; castle-like structure with the lights aglow in a laboratory in the basement filled with bubbling beakers of multicolored liquids.
Mad scientist: I DID it! One drop of my new potion in their Starbucks reusable cup and lawmakers will immediately pass a law requiring all the little brats in America to take a single test on one day!
Assistant with Hump Shoulder: But that’s not deranged. Kids always take tests.
Mad Scientist: But wait Humphrey, there’s more. This won’t be just any test….it will ruin lives! Kids will get stomachaches and vomit just thinking about it! Teachers will lose their jobs if their kids don’t score high enough! Schools will be shuttered if the test results don’t meet some ambiguous mark!
Assistant: But there’s plenty of money in the education budgets. Schools will be able to get any resources they need for test prep.
Mad Scientist: Do you take me for a fool? I invented a potion to make lawmakers keen on the idea of charter schools—you know, for-profit enterprises that suck the money out of public school budgets? And don’t worry, by the time states pay companies for providing and grading the tests, there won’t be much left in any budget. Mwahhhha ha ha ha!
(End of scene)
I don’t think our loved ones fully understand our complete and utter dissatisfaction with teaching under these dreadful conditions. And yes I realize there are worse job situations—maybe pumping poo out of porta-potties, cleaning slaughterhouses, or working as Donald Trump’s hair stylist. But we had invested a whole lotta time and a whole lotta money in our teaching careers and all we were getting in return was a shrinking paycheck and expanding ulcers.
Personally, I got into teaching to amaze and inspire my students, to knock their socks off about learning, to help them become passionate and thoughtful and empathetic and creative. I have and will continue to invest unlimited time in that pursuit—but not under those conditions listed above. It’s degrading and insulting to me as a professional. In my last position in the States, as a resource teacher for our district office, half of my annual evaluation was based on the high stakes test scores of students at all of our district’s elementary schools….and I worked with exactly two of those schools. Geez, that damn mad scientist has a new potion!
Honestly, we prefer to teach at an international school–free of this high stakes test madness–even if it’s in a country with a shaky government, rebel skirmishes 1000 miles away, and herds of longhorn cattle blocking the main road in town. I can perfectly justify the negatives here in Mali with the negatives we endured teaching back home. As a matter of fact, let me do so in a chart (I am a teacher after all):
|open sewers||are not as stinky as||opening our paycheck last year to see a 3% salary decrease (after 5 years without a raise)
|having to remove red dust from everything||is not as bad as||having to remove art, music, recess, social studies, and field trips from the school in favor of tested subjects
|closing the windows when someone is burning tires or plastic bottles||is preferable to||closing schools when the test scores are too low
|draining any standing water so as not to attract malaria-carrying mosquitoes||is not as horrible as||draining the creativity, motivation, and fun out of education with constant test prep
|giving loose change to the poor that surround us outside of stores and restaurants||is better than||giving public money to charter schools that do no better (and mostly worse) educating kids than public schools
|unreasonable bands of rebels 1000 miles from us||is less hostile than||unreasonable lawmakers and administrators who continue to allow high-stakes testing to continue
Yep we’re in MALI, the place with the conflict in the north, the sharia-law-imposing Islamist rebels, and a ragtag government that’s struggling to keep up. But we are still shopping at the bottle shop warehouse for beer, tonic, and Coke, but definitely not gin because it is that lowly Gordon’s stuff. We still hit our ATM, the one that always works but gives you an amount different than what you selected on the screen. We still frequent our newly expanded minimart that carries things you can’t find anywhere else in town, such as plastic sandwich bags, Clairol Herbal Essence Shampoo, canned tuna in water, and duck-flavored canned cat food. And we still enjoy visits to our friendly neighborhood pharmacy to buy more malaria prevention meds prescribed by Dr. Me-Myself-and-I, no pesky prescriptions necessary. This is a great place to live and to thrive.
Rest assured, we’re fine–really. I don’t know what tomorrow will bring, but I do know that for now, at the end of the day, we come home smiling and feeling like we did one hell of a job inspiring our students.
So the next time the TV is sensationalizing Mali’s conflict, showing a bloody stump or a pickup truck full of smelly-looking rebels, picture the two of us reclining on a chaise on our roof deck, me with a glass of white Zin, and the mellow sounds of Kenny G coming from the iPod. Ain’t Mali grand?