Chapter 18: That’s MALI. With an M. And no AW.

Malawi, not Mali

Malawi, not Mali

Me (with a Toureg) in Mali, not Bali or Malawi

Me (with a Toureg) in Mali, not Bali or Malawi

Bali, not MaliBali, not Mali

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.

west africa map

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.

madonnamercydavid

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.

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A griot at work!

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.

mayhem

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?).

Saudi women go crazy and show their hand skin.

Saudi women go crazy and show their hand skin.

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:

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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. 

A crazy-haired woman, with a face that uncannily resembles Michelle Rhee, wears a stained lab coat. Her assistant, with a face eerily similar to Florida governor Rick Scott peers over her shoulder.

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.

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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!

Our novel turns into live action.

Our novel turns into live action.

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):

Mali

USA

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.

Our school sits on the Niger River, which is also just down the road from our house.

Our school sits on the Niger River, which is also just down the road from our house.

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?

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Chapter 17: Is This Blog About: (a) Peri-urban Slums, (b) Malaria, (c) Multiple-Choice Questions, or (d) All of the Above?

bazin smoke

Don’t worry about those toxic fumes kids, just smile for the camera please.

No doubt about it, field trips make teachers as gleeful as the students. I mean c’mon, what educator doesn’t enjoy a break from the routine, a glimpse of the world outside of those classroom walls, an occasion for the “real world” to be the teacher, an opportunity to get to know a different side of your students, and a perfect chance to “lose” a student you don’t particularly care for (“Seriously Principal Jones, I really have no idea how Timmy got locked inside that ancient Egyptian sarcophagus in the museum.”)

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Field trips give us a peek inside the real world.

So it’s just utterly depressing that field trips in the U.S. are becoming as rare as a third grader without a cell phone. There was a time when field trips were a normal part of the curriculum, as routine as those bad baby showers in the school library where I always chipped in to buy “ones-ies” for some teacher I hadn’t said two words to in three years (and I still don’t know what “ones-ies” are).

Smoking in school and triangular sideburns have fallen out of fashion.

Smoking in school and triangular sideburns have fallen out of fashion.

But now field trips have mostly gone the way of the dodo bird and recess and smoking in the teacher’s lounge…even though field trips can be an important part of the curriculum.

Now granted field trips didn’t always appear on the surface to be related to the curriculum, but scout’s honor they were. Growing up in rural Illinois, I recall yearly trips in junior high to the Six Flags amusement park in St. Louis, Missouri where we would ingest as much fat and sugar as possible before riding an upside-down roller coaster and discovering just how the body’s digestive system does/doesn’t work.

Junior High trip to Six Flags

Junior High trip to Six Flags, where the back of the bus was the place to be.

Or how one could use an umbrella and a wad of gum to rescue coins from the fountain and finance another trip to the sno-cone cart. Or how certain chemicals in Mountain Dew can remove the vomit smell from your clothes. Or how certain forces, maybe evil ones, can allow your spit to travel in many directions on spinning rides. These valuable life lessons have stayed with me for years.bus

I can remember going on plenty of non-vomiting field trips too. We once visited New Salem State Historic Site near Springfield, IL, a reconstruction of the village where Abe Lincoln spent his early adulthood.

Boiling a classmate on our New Salem field trip

Me (right) and several others boil a classmate on our New Salem field trip.

I can still remember asking the guide what they sold at the general store back in Abe’s day. She said, simply, “A lot of liquor.” And our two teachers tried to secretly give each other the thumbs-up sign except we all saw them. So history for me has always had positive, liquor-related connotations. Now excuse me while I go study Samuel Adams six to twelve more times.

Photo: ©2012 Linda Hall Library

Photo: ©2012 Linda Hall Library

There were plenty of other field trips too. In high school we went to the movie theatre to see the rerelease of Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet—you know the one where we see Romeo’s butt and Juliet’s boobies for a millisecond each? Of course back at school those were the only milliseconds of this 138-minute film we could recall in vivid detail.romeo

In elementary school we visited the potato chip factory where we all decided we would work one day since we figured the workers ate as many free chips as they wanted. We also went to art museums where I remember our 4th grade selves sprawling on the ground to look up the dress of a realistic sculpture of a woman and getting a quick anatomy lesson.

Oregon Industries slides.Photo: Original Collection: Visual Instruction Department Lantern Slides

Oregon Industries slides.
Photo: Original Collection: Visual Instruction Department Lantern Slides

I also remember a fantastic college field trip to Toronto where we came up with redesign plans for the urban waterfront to make it more pedestrian friendly, toured the city to see cutting-edge urban design work, and watched Canadian Border guards use a drug-sniffing dog to find pot in one of my classmate’s guitar case. Good times.

Drug sniffing dog finds what it's looking for in our classmate's luggage. And it's not dog biscuits.

Drug sniffing dog finds what it’s looking for in our classmate’s guitar case. And it’s not sheet music.

But these days, school is all about that damn high-stakes test in the spring. If a school activity doesn’t involve a multiple-choice question or a fact that can be memorized and regurgitated, it’s not seen as valuable. Never mind that not a shred of evidence supports this drill-and-kill nightmare approach to “instruction.” And never mind that it numbs kids’ brains and makes them hate school. It’s enough to drive a teacher to drink. Or at least take a field trip that supports that habit.winesMy old school district back in Florida actually had an official “blackout period” in the months preceding the state test–no field trips, no guest speakers, no sending teachers out of the school for professional development. What WAS allowed was having kids sit bored in their classrooms answering multiple-choice questions to prepare for the state test that’s comprised of multiple-choice questions. On that note, I’ve got a question for people who believe that approach makes sense:

1. Why are multiple choice tests stupid?

a. They lead kids to believe that there is just one “right” answer to every question.

b. Kids can answer correctly without actually thinking or problem solving or even reading the question.

c. They give kids no way to apply the knowledge they have learned.

d. They purposely include “distracter” answers that are wrong or confusing, like “none of the above” or “all of the above.”

e. All of the above.

absolut

Point me in the direction of the free samples!

But seriously, what moron doesn’t understand the benefits of a field trip? Would you rather read a worksheet about chocolate production, or pay a visit to the Snickers factory? Analyze a report on the effects of alcohol on your short-term memory, or participate in some experiments at the Absolut headquarters? Memorize the process of human reproduction or….oh well, I think you get the picture.

Now that I’ve escaped that madness by leaving the country, I have a new appreciation for the power of field trips, especially as they relate to service learning. This is one educational trend that doesn’t suck at all. Basically service learning means that you involve students in a community service project that also incorporates one or more academic areas. They learn academic skills, help their community, and hopefully understand that they can make a difference in this world by stepping away from the PlayStation.

So with the wind back in my sails in a brand new non-test-obsessed school, I’ve partnered my class with a U.S.-based, non-profit organization here in Bamako called Mali Health whose mission is to “empower impoverished urban communities in Mali to transform maternal and child health sustainably.” As far as mission statements go, that’s a biggie because the situation here in Mali is just darn scary. For starters:

  • life expectancy in Mali averages 49 years
  • 93% of Malians live in poor, urban communities (AKA slums)
  • Mali is one of the 15 poorest countries in the world
  • 1 in 5 children dies before age 5
  • 1 in 3 children are underweight
  • 1 out of 22 women die from maternal complications

A month or so ago Mali Health did a short presentation at our school that really piqued my students’ interest. They were especially interested in the fact that the communities Mali Health serve have no sewage systems, plumbing, or electricity. And as usual they dwelled on bathroom-related questions, such as:

  • So the people poop in holes? (affirmative)
  • Does it smell? (affirmative)
  • Does it ever leak out? (yes, and contaminating nearby wells)
  • Who cleans out the holes when they get full? (someone is lowered in, and he shovels it out)
  • Do they use toilet paper? (varies)
  • Do they have flat screen TVs in their latrines? (OK, I just made that one up, but I’m sure they were thinking this)

    A latrine under construction in Sikoro. Photo: ©Sikoro Teriw - www.sikoro-mali.org

    A latrine under construction in Sikoro. Photo: ©Sikoro Teriw – http://www.sikoro-mali.org

Working with their energetic young director we decided that my students would create graphic novels (the fancy name for comic books) that teach about malaria prevention—but in an entertaining way that would engage kids.mosquito

Malaria is a big problem in sub Saharan Africa, especially this year. Most of the teachers and students at my school have fancy mosquito nets over their beds, have plenty of mosquito spray in a variety of scents and consistencies (I prefer Off Smooth & Dry Powder Formula), Offand take weekly preventative malaria medication. If we do get malaria it is easily treatable with a 3-day course of pills that cost $7 at the pharmacy (no prescriptions required for meds here). For most of us malaria is nothing more than flu-like symptoms that go away quickly with the meds.

But the folks in these impoverished communities don’t have these luxuries, though I doubt many Americans consider a can of Off Bug Spray a luxury. A doctor visit and malaria meds would cost a Malian about $10 total—or about 10% of a skilled worker’s average salary here. Quite a few organizations do donate mosquito nets.

Our mosquito net in its upright position; at night it encloses us in a netty cube

Our mosquito net in its upright position; at night it encloses us in a netty cube.

But tightly woven nets keep out mosquitoes AND breezes—not exactly a plus in an oven-like climate—so they are used as fishing nets or room dividers or bridal veils (which totally sounds like an episode of Project Runway or Design Star).

On top of everything else, because malaria is common and can go away on its own, folks here don’t consider it a big deal, even though it can actually kill them if left untreated.

So the plan is for my kids to create these books to help create awareness about this illness, and Mali Health will distribute them to local school children. Since these local kids either speak Bambara (their first language) or French (taught in schools here) my students will first write their text in English, then translate it into French. Thankfully our AISB French teachers will assist. My French language skills, while improving, are still in the Tonto-sounding phase (“Me happy big feast tonight Ke-mo Sah-bee.”)

The great part is that while my students are creating something that can potentially save lives, they are practicing their reading, writing, science, and French skills in a real world way that doesn’t require a single photocopied worksheet or multiple-choice question. I tried this approach once back in the States, where four years ago I had my students create PSAs to encourage people to spay and neuter their pets. Long story short, the Humane Society of the United States put them on DVDs and sent them to shelters nationwide, and the Humane Society still has a link to them on their website (see link at bottom of that page). Here are two of the PSAs:

To get the ball rolling we decided a field trip to the Mali Health office would be in order so that my students could receive background information on malaria transmission and prevention from the experts. So the director put together a full morning of activities and a week ago we headed to Sikoro, a peri-urban slum on the outskirts of Bamako with 80,000 residents (peri-urban, a word I just learned too, means this was once a rural area that has become urbanized). Over 90% of Mali’s population lives in poor urban communities like Sikoro.

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Looking down on Bamako (literally, not figuratively).

Aside from the obvious fact that this is a slum, I have to say that the locale is fabulous! The community begins at the bottom of a very large hill and climbs right up the side, all the way to the top. So like the hillside shanty towns in Rio de Janiero, Brazil with gorgeous viewsover the city, Sikoro gives you amazing views over Bamako.

But the roads in there, wow. Our two school vans struggled to navigate the steep dirt paths, full of giant craters and gullies, strewn with trash, and filled with people going every which way.

IMG_2509

Zak and Jade present our class donation to Devon, director of Mali Health.

The Mali Health office, a simple structure with rooms open to the outside, was our first stop. There we presented Devon, the director, with a donation of funds our class raised running two booths at our school Halloween carnival. Devon and Matt gave a short but kind of scary presentation on malaria that will forever make me keep the mosquito net canopy tight over the bed while I live in West Africa, or maybe anywhere in the world except for Antarctica.

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Matt at Mali Health gives us the scoop on mosquitoes.

Next we walked/hiked up and up and up rambling roads to Bandiagara Coura Elementary School, one of the local schools in Sikoro and one of the potential audiences for our malaria prevention graphic novel. Again, a fantastic locale on a hilltop that, in an alternative universe, would be the perfect setting for a luxury hotel or my sprawling mansion (hey, a teacher can dream, can’t he?).

Daredevil sheep.

Daredevil goat.

But instead here sat the school, several unpainted, concrete block rectangles comprised of three or so side-by-side classrooms. There were no doors. Above each doorway someone had quickly hand-painted the grade level. The classrooms were no more than 12 by 12 feet with dirt floors and a single window opening without glass or a screen. There was no electricity, hence no lights. Thirty kids sat scrunched together at little wooden desk/bench combos meant for about half that many. A piece of plywood painted black was nailed to the front wall and covered with chalked on French sentences.

When U.S. teachers complain about crowded classrooms, I'll whip out this photo.

When U.S. teachers complain about crowded classrooms, I’ll whip out this photo.

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No books, pencils, or floor.

IMG_2527

My tongue-tied students.

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Q&A with the school’s director.

The crazy thing is that this is a PRIVATE school that has better conditions than the public schools (which kids have to pay to attend too, just not as much). To attend this private school these kids pay anywhere from $5.00 to $18.00/month. It doesn’t sound like much, but remember a skilled worker here makes a whopping average of $100/month. So having a few kids in school could wipe out a big chunk of your salary.

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I prop myself up against a tree after hiking the steep roads.

DSC_0045

My students mix in. Well, kind of.

It was the first time I saw my students speechless. Really, they couldn’t even think of one question to ask the kids in the classroom. My vision was that this part of the visit was going to be a dynamic, back-and-forth conversation between my kids and the Bandiagara Coura kids, discovering that even though they were from vastly different worlds they were all just kids when it came down to it. Nuh-uh. Now it looked like the rich kids ogling the poor kids, and vice versa.

bagami

The bakery in our school lobby.

I suppose I understand their reticence though. After all, we had just left our expansive 18-month-old school overlooking the Niger River, with LCD projectors and classroom sets of MacBook computers and a bakery shop in our lobby and our classroom with 6 ceiling fans and sliding windows on three sides and a floor plan that is so huge for the 18 of us that I have room for an acting area, a library area, round tables for student seating, a teacher zone, a walk in closet, a computer area. And where I recently put in a work order because I didn’t think the AC was quite cool enough. Now, in 15 minutes, we were in the real world–at least as far as Mali is concerned—and the contrast was massive.

For the most part my students come from privileged backgrounds. They travel internationally at least a few times a year. They have maids, gardeners, and drivers. Their parents have great jobs in embassies, big mining companies, or international aid organizations. They mostly are kept far away from places like Sikoro, so I can understand why they were a little tongue-tied as they stared at 30 kids crammed into a room that would fit twice into our own school’s hedge maze garden (yep, we have a hedge maze at school).

IMG_2547

The Malaria Games; like the Hunger Games without the killing.

After some awkward silence my students and the Bandiagara Coura students headed to a nearby dirt play field where the Mali Health staff taught a capture the flag style game. Except this one involved students playing either humans, mosquitoes, or the malaria virus, and the goal was to capture the mosquito eggs (small plastic balls, thank goodness). Together the students kicked up quite the dust storm, but from what I could see (and taste) through the brown fog they seemed to be enjoying themselves.

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Photo: Matt Schinske

Photo: Matt Schinske

Then it was time for another hike, this time back down the hill along more rambling dirt roads. I have to say that up there at the top it didn’t seem so slummy. The small plaster houses with tin roofs were mostly spaced apart on the hillside, kind of reminding me of some rural areas in Greece. You could see for miles over the chaos of Bamako while standing in peace and quiet.

IMG_2557IMG_2553IMG_2550IMG_2554IMG_2518But, as we made our way down and the community grew denser, it felt more like a slum. Since there are no sewage systems, dirty water of some sort trickled down the wrinkles in the dirt road. It did not have a pleasant odor. IMG_2514It pooled here and there into puddles where I am sure Ms. Mosquito and her ten trillion closest friends have a hopping shindig every night, from dusk to dawn. The smell was somewhat intense too, gag-inducing actually, and we all pulled our shirts up over our noses for the better part of tour hike.

Before long we arrived at Sourakabougou Clinic, a tiny public health center for the residents. After a quick talk with the very young head doctor ($250/month salary BTW), we broke up in groups of three to tour the facility, which like the school is a concrete block structure with tiny, un-airconditioned rooms.clinicIMG_2558 One fit only four, old metal twin beds placed side by side which held malaria patients, each with an IV drip in their arm. Another, about half the size of that one, held two metal tables with stirrups—the birthing room. It was a sobering experience for my students who, if they need medical care, usually travel to Paris or the States to very fancy schmancy clinics.

Back in our own classroom the kids were so beat they collapsed into our comfy beanbag chairs (not sure I saw many of those at the Bandiagara Coura school) and I postponed the math test we were going to take. We had walked a lot that day in some pretty intense sun on some pretty crazy paths, and gave our senses quite a workout too (especially our sense of smell).

The kids were exhausted, but they were buzzing (haha) with ideas for our graphic novel about malaria and how they wanted to help the school and the kids in that community. There was talk of a school supply drive and hosting their students at our school for a day. One boy even remarked that today he realized “how lucky he really was.” Another said, “Even though they don’t have very much, they didn’t seem sad at all.”

So to summarize, my students were enlightened about malaria, poverty, community service, and life because

a. they were forced to memorize this information from a textbook at school.

b. they read a passage about this information on a worksheet, then answered five multiple-choice questions.

c. they read this information on Wikipedia.

d. they went on a four-hour field trip.

IMG_2561

Our last stop before returning to school…lunch at the Parc National du Bamako.

Chapter 16: These Are a Few of My Favorite Things

I don’t particularly fawn over raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens. And if I’m ever finding myself in a situation where I notice “snowflakes that stay on my nose and eyelashes” I’m probably getting frostbite and my toes will eventually blacken and fall off.

But like Maria/Julie Andrews I actually do have a few favorite things, none of

The African hills are alive with the sound of music.

which are Austrian-based at this time (though I’m not adverse to “crisp apple strudels”).

Nope, my favorite things all come courtesy of Mali. Which is good, I suppose, because I do live in Mali now. It would really blow to have lots of favorite things that were Malian and live in, say, a small town in Arkansas—though that would probably blow no matter what. I am extremely thankful that my Malian list of favorite things continues to grow and is much, much longer than my list of “Things That Drive Me Insane,” a list that was always growing when I lived in the States, particularly after a drive on I-95.

Speaking of thankful, I’ve noticed a lot of folks doing a daily “What I’m Thankful For” post on Facebook during the month of November. I thought about jumping on that bandwagon, expressing my gratitude for all my favorite things in Mali. But while I personally enjoy reading these “thankful” posts, there are others who, hmmm how do I say this politely, would rather gargle with bleach than read these. From the criticisms I’ve read, the critics don’t seem to complain about the concept of people being thankful (which I’m thankful for), but rather what they perceive to be the generic/sappy/not-so-creative nature of the posts. I must admit, it is interesting when someone shakes things up a bit, as with these “thankful posts” I saw online from someone named Therese Long of Pearson Education, someone I wish lived next door to me:

1. I’m thankful we don’t celebrate Thanksgiving in an old-fashioned way…invite everyone in my neighborhood to my house, have an enormous feast, then kill them and take their land.

“Contrary to popular mythology the Pilgrims were no friends to the local Indians. They were engaged in a ruthless war of extermination against their hosts, even as they falsely posed as friends. Just days before the alleged Thanksgiving love-fest, a company of Pilgrims led by Myles Standish actively sought to chop off the head of a local chief. ” -from The Hidden History of Massachusetts

2. I’m thankful for watching football, making pumpkin pie, and saying the magic phrase that sends my aunt storming out of the dining room to sit in her car.

3. I’m thankful for 38 years of marriage to myself. I have always been by my side and understand me when no one else did.

4. I’m thankful you can delete status updates after 10 minutes of no likes.

5. I’m thankful Facebook is now the second place I have found comfort in talking to a wall.

6. I’m thankful that everyone who likes me is awesome and brilliant, and everyone who doesn’t, is a selfish jerk. Very weird phenomenon!

7. I’m thankful I don’t live in a bubble wrap factory, as I just don’t have that much self-control.

So to avoid any chance of my thankful posts being deemed “generic” (which for me would be the greatest insult EVER), my thankful things list will become my list of favorite things. AND I’ll bury this list deep in my blog where it will be safe from the scrutiny of the general public. Well, other than the 2726 views my Mali blog has racked up so far (!) from people in 52 countries (!!) including Madagascar, Qatar, and Bosnia and Herzegovina (!!!). Which is thrilling and scary at the same time.

 My Favorite Things: Mali Edition

One chocolate croissant, s’il vous plait. And make it fast…I’m late for social studies!

1. The American International School of Bamako lobby which includes a school store and…a bakery! I used to think my school in Florida was pretty cool because it had a soda machine, but a bakery in the lobby?! I’m pretty sure I dreamed this one time (“I was wandering through this school made of gingerbread and frosting, with a French bakery in the lobby and a swimming pool filled with gin and tonic and floaties in the shape of lime wedges, and all of the students were Oompa-Loompas.”).

To top it all off, it’s a French style bakery and the pastries and bread are warm when the bakery guy brings them in the morning. Chocolate or almond pastries are tied for my favorite. Oh, and apple. And the plain is good too. We have a standing order for 5 loaves of French bread (just 60 cents each) every Tuesday and Friday. And no we aren’t big, fat

We always get enough just in case unexpected guests pop in.

pigs…they are skinny loaves and you never know when company might show up unexpectedly. The loaves are crispy on the outside and moist on the inside, and they taste good with anything, like peanut butter and jelly, butter, or gin. Well, gin goes with anything you know.

2. Malian driversI have yet to see one get ticked off or shoot the bird or scream profanities. Even if you pull out in front them. Or hit them. Honestly, we saw a car slam into a moto and knock it clean across the road. The moto driver got up and dusted himself off while the car driver checked to see if he was alright. Then they shook hands and took off.

Out of one lane, many.

To put this all into context, there are basically few/no rules of the road here. If you need to get into traffic you just kind of pull your car into the flow of traffic and the person careening head-on toward you will slow and flash their lights and let you in. On the roads here you can also drive in just about any direction, in just about any lane, or between the lanes, or in the shoulder. Everyone just kind of accepts the traffic chaos and deals with it–without emotion or feeling like they rule the road. Plus they drive sloooooowly. How I miss those giant SUVs that used to zoom up behind my little car in Florida, driving 75 MPH about 2” from my rear bumper, the driver all red-faced and mouthing unclean words because I wasn’t going faster. Good times.

3. The Koraa traditional Malian instrument I love so much I became one for Halloween. It has 21 strings and sounds like a cross between a harp, banjo, and guitar, and maybe a zither too. And it’s made from a darn gourd! Then there’s the way you hold it….

4.  Beverage choices circa 1957: If you want soda, it’s regular Coke made with actual sugar (not corn syrup), sipped icy cold from the famously-shaped glass bottle. No diet stuff, no added fake cherry or lime flavoring, no caffeine-free. Just Coca Cola like Beaver Cleaver drank it. Actually we drink more water than anything else since (1) filtered water is free at school and (2) if you don’t drink a lot of water here you’ll faint.

5. Flag and Castel Beer – For rehydration purposes, of course.

6. K’an Bεn, Our School Cat – No sad, caged hamsters at AISB. Nope, we have a school cat that roams the open-air interior spaces of our school and just loves to be caressed by the kids. He has a weird, endearing meow that sounds like a cross between a cat and Ethel Merman singing.

7. Gingembre – Other than gin, this is my preferred bottled beverage in Mali, a carbonated, sweet, ginger juice drink that has a peppery aftertaste that makes you cough a bit. But in a good way.

8. Amadou & Mariam – Malian musical duo–married and blind–who create “Afro-blues” music that mixes traditional Malian sound with rock guitars, Syrian violins, Cuban trumpets, Egyptian ney (flutey-type thing), Indian tablas (drums), and percussion from the Dogon (an ethnic group from central Mali). They sing in French and Bambara, have opened for U2, and the kids in my class know the words to most of their songs. I move my lips like I do, mostly so I can appear to be cosmopolitan.

9. The Sounds Outside of Our Window – Wacky bird calls that I swear are from the “Voices of the Deep Jungle” sound effects CD, the chanty-sounding Muslim call to prayer far off in the distance, the rattle of vehicles as they bounce over our bumpy road losing parts, neighbors greeting each other in Bambara (which sounds kind of like arguing sometimes, unless maybe they are arguing),

angry sheep being herded to the slaughterhou….I mean to the daisy-filled meadow to frolic and play, the clip clop of a horse or donkey pulling a cart full of lime green weeds/ watermelons/garbage/kids/toaster ovens…

10. Speaking French & Bambara – It’s a slow process and sometimes curse-out-loud frustrating, but we are slowly learning to speak two more languages. The school guards and custodians are informally teaching us Bambara each day (I have a massive cheat sheet), Jamey takes a French class at our school once a week, and I’m still plugging (and cursing) away with my online Rosetta Stone French course.

We’ve been here just 3 months and we can already use our newly acquired language skills to ask for gas at the full service station, order at a restaurant AND tell them I’m allergic to garlic, purchase a variety of bakery goods (I practice this one almost daily), read the text messages from our local cell phone provider (last month one message told me I could win a sheep in one of their contests), give instructions to our mechanic, guards, maid, and/or gardener, and tell the neighbor kids to get the hell off our lawn (just kidding—the 24 hour guards and the 8’ wall around our property seems to take care of trespassers).

So…..when the dog bites, when the bee stings, when I’m feeling sad, I simply remember my favorite things, and drink G&Ts like mad.

These are a few of my favorite things too…smart, creative students who keep me on my toes!

Chapter 15: Cause Every Little Thing is Ghana Be Alright

Ahhh, Fall Break in Bamako. The frost is on the pumpkin and the leaves are a symphony of autumnal colors. Okay, not really. It’s 90 degrees and sunny and any pumpkins around here are diced and added into a mutton stew.

It hardly seemed like we deserve a weeklong break already but in our Life 2.0, this is how we roll. We decided to join our friends/colleagues Thomas and Cindy and their two kids Kailou (13, and Jamey teaches him) and Jade (10, and I teach her) on a sojourn to Ghana, a quick little two-hour flight on Air Mali—which, I might add, served a full meal. Take that cheapskate airlines in the U.S.!

Boarding on the tarmac…still like this better than sweaty, claustrophobic jetways.

We landed in Accra, Ghana’s capital and a sprawling city that seemed to never end. The main part of the city looked much more modern than Bamako as I noticed traffic lights, a Woolworths, and (drumroll)……the Accra Mall! Well of course we asked our taxi driver to stop there since our shopping options in Bamako are limited to roadside stands selling goat heads or gas, and whatever the Lebanese grocery store owners buy from the Chinese wholesalers.

While technically the Accra Mall is a mall (food court, stores in rows, a massive new SUV parked inside that all the men were looking at, traffic clogged parking lot) the two anchors

Pseudo-mall, Accra, Ghana

were Walmart-style stores that smelled like new plastic and were filled with lots of Chinese imports made of plastic. The rest of the stores, lining two short wings of the mall, didn’t have anything we were interested in–not a pair of Gap khakis or an Aunty Anne’s pretzel place in sight. So we headed out in two rickety taxis toward our first beachfront hotel. Along the way we made a stop at a restaurant for some traditional Ghanaian food. I had Red-Red, which is another take on beans and rice and probably wasn’t a good choice for the long, bumpy ride ahead.

It was an interesting ride. We were tucked into two un-air-conditioned taxis. Francis, driver of the taxi I was in, had the radio turned up full volume to a talk-radio station spoken in Twi, a local language that to me sounds like people arguing. And he kept calling people on his cell phone as he weaved in and out of heavy traffic. Lots of tail-gating too. And did I mention there were no seatbelts?

We drove for an hour or so and it quickly became apparent that this is a super-dooper Christian country. There were roadside churches every couple of feet with names like “He is Coming Apostolic Church of Our Lord and Most Gracious Savior” and “Jesus and His Apostles Continuation Church of the Most Holy Redeemer of Jordan” and so forth. Lots of religious billboards too, advertising things like “7 days of Fasting and Celebration” which

The Savior finally got his PhD.

made me wonder just how much starving people could really party down. And the cars had adhesive letters attached to the rear windows saying things like “I am covered in the blood of Jesus” which we saw twice and actually both drivers appeared dry. We also saw “Dr. Jesus” which of course made me wonder how the Savior fairly gets a PhD since he would obviously be able to snap his fingers and a dissertation would just appear.

But most religiously striking of all were the names of the gazillion little booth-type stores lining the roads for almost every inch of roadway. No matter what they sold or what service they performed, they always worked a Jesus-y type of feel in there somehow. For example, there was “God is King Razor Wire Company” that featured a skull and crossbones logo. Also: My Hands are Blessed Sewing Shop, Bride of Christ Aluminum Works, Jesus is Lord Agro-Chemical, God Did It All Fashion Centre, Blood of Jesus Electricals, and I Shall Not Die Motors. If the road didn’t turn into a series of canyons I probably could have recorded more of these names, but the taxi was bobbing up and down like a buoy so I mostly kept my eyes closed.

An hour later finally arrived in pitch blackness at Big Milly’s Backyard in Kokrobite Beach, where we would spend our first two nights.

Relax, oh tourists. But not with drugs.

It’s a walled compound that backs up to a working beach, and includes a big outdoor bar, an elevated restaurant overlooking the crashing waves, and then a series of individual structures containing one or two rooms. Our place had a quaint front porch where we could sit and relax, but the room itself was tiny—really just room enough for the full-sized bed and a chair. There was a little AC unit that didn’t work well the first night but did the

Big Milly’s bar, front and center.

second night. The bathroom was a closet-sized alcove with a toilet and showerhead (no sink) and no door—just a see-through gauze curtain that was not an effective sound stopper, if you know what I mean. I should probably say that the room cost all of $25 and Big Milly’s caters to backpackers, so we knew not to expect Jacuzzi tubs and 1000 thread count sheets (they were tye-dyed here, by the way).

The next day was marvelously sunny and we were excited to hit the beach after being in landlocked Mali for the last two and a half months. I read a little notice on the back of the door that said the beach was safe to walk

…or you’ll be stabbed!

and the villagers were friendly “as long as you brought nothing with you.” Then it said, “For more details ask the receptionist.” So I headed to the reception building and asked the young Ghanaian man about the beach. Here’s how it went down:

Me: Can I bring my camera to the beach?

Ghanaian: No (said without looking up)

Me: Will it get stolen?

G: Yes. (still not looking up and speaking in a monotone voice)

Me: Really…

G: They will mug you. (said matter-of-factly)

Me: With weapons?

G: Knives. So is your room okay?

Jamey braves the beach.

So my parade was rained on a bit since I hadn’t factored in a knifing during this vacation. We did frolic in the water, without anything but ourselves and our bathing suits, and not one stabbing occurred. It’s a working beach so there was always something to see-the wooden boats coming ashore with nets full of fish and lobster and ladies carrying baskets of stuff on their head, like baggies of water to drink or a heaping basket of bras in a variety of delightful colors and patterns, such as camouflage.

We did have a fantastic dinner at the open-air restaurant overlooking the crime-ridden beach—a heap of fresh lobster that really just melted in your mouth. It made us forget all about the potential bodily harm that could happen just a few meters away.

Sit down, you’re rockin’ the boat..

All-in-all Big Milly’s had a weird vibe to it, as budget, backpacker-type places often do. There were two English dudes motorcycling across Africa who worked on their bikes right in front of our little house the whole time we were there. There was a serious-looking dreadlocked blonde gal lounging around who may or may not have “worked” there. There were locals playing what looked like speed checkers (not sure that’s a real

Quick pic of me and a boat, then back to the safety of Big Milly’s.

game) around the bar. There were signs saying “Smoking Area – No Marijuana – Cigarettes Only). When I was chatting with the receptionist when changing money, she told me she didn’t like Obama because he “legalized homosexuality.” And when Cindy and Thomas turned in some dirty clothes to be laundered, they came back still dirty, but folded. We were ready for the next hotel.

Off to Green Turtle Lodge

On Day 3 we had arranged for our very own vehicle to take us on the looong journey to the Green Turtle Lodge in Akwinaa Beach (with a couple of sightseeing trips in between), far to the west about 6 hours or more.

Here we are, still in the “this is going to be so much fun to ride in” phase.

We were riding in a tro tro, the Ghanaian term for any public transport bigger than a regular taxi, and it’s usually a cargo van. Ours pulled in an hour late at 9 AM sporting a brilliant orange-red paint job over it’s rickety, rusting frame–what my students back home would have called a “hooptie” or what we might call a vehicle that we would prefer to take a picture of rather than ride in. While Ghana is an English speaking country, the driver didn’t speak it very well, nor did the two guys accompanying him whose roles we didn’t understand. But he assured us he knew where he was going, and off we went. In the exact opposite direction of where we should have been going.

Thirty minutes later we determined we were heading due east rather than west, and the driver swore we were going to Lake Volta in eastern Ghana, even though we had shown him on the map that we wanted to go to the Green Turtle Lodge in far western Ghana. The three guys (whom I’ll call Clueless Driver, Bitchy Co-pilot, and Pee-Guy) were perturbed but turned the tro tro around and back we headed to where we began, now a full two hours behind schedule. The tro tro was un-air conditioned and the windows rattled and the seats were tattered and not very cushiony and the traffic fumes filled the whole inside with a diesel-ish smelling odor. I was trying to imagine a worse form of transportation–maybe a razor blade-covered surfboard? A bike made out of poison ivy and King Cobras? A canoe made of human waste? Our tro tro was still worse.

Cape Coast palace, where tens of thousands of kidnapped Africans were held before being shipped off to a life of slavery.

After a couple of hours we reached Cape Coast, a somewhat picturesque seaside town that features the Cape Coast Palace, a 200-some year old structure that the Obamas visited a couple of years ago. It was originally the place where tens of thousands kidnapped Africans were brought, processed (e.g. branded), and sent through the “Door of No Return” to be herded onto ships for a grueling overseas journey to slavery–if they even survived the voyage. We walked deep underneath the structure where I immediately stumbled into a small water-filled trench, originally where human waste would have flowed. I tried to imagine what was going through the minds of these prisoners as hundreds of them were crowded into these dark, underground dungeons with not a breath of fresh air and no idea of what their future held. I couldn’t get out of there fast enough.

On the road again, we noticed Bitchy Co-pilot getting more and more irritated, turning around occasionally to say (I think) “This is very far!” or maybe, “I want to stab you” or whatever. We kept restating the directions and the destination, naming the towns we would pass through and exactly how many kilometers between each. Clueless Driver kept pulling over and asking random people on the road if they knew where Green Turtle Lodge was—even though we were hours away and it was a tiny remote hotel off the beaten track. Every time we stopped Pee Guy would hop out and urinate a few feet from the tro tro, with his back to us but still…eew. Seriously, I can appreciate cultural differences and all, but peeing 2 feet from a van full of strangers is just tacky unless you travel back through time to medieval days. It was probably even tacky then.

Roadside scenery

Now this particular routine continued for the next EIGHT hours, with Clueless, Bitchy, and Pee getting madder and madder. The roads turned bumpier, then it got dark and the tro tro windows were so filthy that it was like driving through pea soup fog (there was no wiper fluid, naturally). Just when it seemed that things couldn’t get worse, we went through a village with 5 foot wide mud roads that was having a giant street celebration complete with throngs of people and smoky air and a brass band (I’m totally serious…a brass band in remote Ghana) and they were all reaching into the windows and screaming and chanting.  I thought C, B, and P were going to lose it right there and plow through the crowd at full speed.

After they asked yet another random guy on the road about the lodge, we were directed down another pitch black, muddy, rutted road that eventually turned into a single path with thick jungle on both sides. And was it ever pitch black. Tar black. Ink black. The muddy path was full of deep gashes and sharp ridges, and that old tro tro creaked and swayed and hit bottom over and over. Between the angry crew and the Little House on the Prairie style road my stress barometer was reaching a new high. When Bitchy blurted out something about how stupid this all was, I finally engaged him:

Me (in a near scream): WHAT DO YOU WANT US TO DO?!? WE DON’T KNOW WHERE WE ARE. YOU DON’T KNOW WHERE WE ARE. QUIT TALKING!!

Bitchy (screamy tone): Poot da mooney on top, poot da mooney on top!

Me: Poot da what?!?

Bitchy: Poot da mooney on top, poot da mooney on top!

Me: What does that even mean?

Bitchy: Poot da mooney on top, poot da mooney on top!

Me: I don’t know what you are saying. Turn around.

Bitchy: Poot da mooney on top, poot da mooney on top!

At this point Pee-Guy grabbed my hand and shook it saying, “It’s okay, it’s okay.” As in, ignore the freak in the front. Thankfully a sign for the Green Turtle lodge appeared in the headlightss and we were there–after being in that ratty tro tro from 9 AM to 7 PM. We decided to give the crabby, clueless trio an extra $50 (which apparently is what “put the money on top” means) but of course Bitchy demanded another $10, to which we just said “GO AWAY” and dismissed him with a flick of the hand, just like in the movies.

Finally at the Green Turtle

Empty beach for miles and miles…

Once our tro tro disappeared into the darkness (thank God), we were led by a tall, be-robed man to our beachfront house at the end of the Green Turtle property. We literally walked along the beach to get there. It was dark but the moon was bright and made the coconut palm fronds sparkle in the ocean breeze. The sound of those waves crashing practically drowned out our conversations. The beach house was brilliant—a  long, covered  front porch along the whole front façade, 2 giant bedrooms at each end with big windows facing the beach (no glass, just a screen) and a steady ocean breeze blowing in,

Our beach home away from home

all solar powered lights and fans, pebbly mosaic floors, and a big bathroom with a shower surrounded by a rock wall. I was thinking that this might have been worth the last ten hours of torture. Well, at least until I saw the composting toilet, which looks like a toilet until you open the lid and peer down into the dark hole where all of the stuff just drops onto dirt. That part wasn’t especially pleasant, especially after a couple of days.

Made me wanna drink more…

All of us shared the beach house, formerly the home of the British couple (and their two kids) who ran the place. Apparently from the scuttlebutt we heard at the bar, this couple had put the place up for sale for 300,000 Euros and flown the coop a year ago to return to Britain. They still own the place but left a manager in charge along with a Ghanaian staff of 20 or so folks. It was evident that without the owners there to attend to the details, well, the details just weren’t attended to. Don’t get me wrong, it was still a magical place—miles of beach without a hotel, house, or person in sight (a few dogs and goats and an occasional sea turtle though), individual cabins/huts made of local materials and powered only by solar energy, the best bar ever featuring a surfboard with the Savior painted on it saying “Jesus Loves Cocktails,” gazebos on the beach where you could eat your meals,

Interpretive dance or a muscle spasm, can’t remember which I was doing.

oceanside hammocks, etc. But as we had to remember with the last place, this was far off the beaten path and budget priced–our house for 6 people was a whopping $50/night. I’ve paid more than that for a bottle of gin.

When we awoke the next morning it was raining, and that would normally bum me out. But it just felt so perfect! We just sat on the porch and chatted, watching the rain hit the slate blue ocean. We ran in the

even looks good in the rain…

rain to have breakfast in the bar–French toast with grilled plantains. The rain eventually stopped and we walked a mile down the beach to a seaside shantytown village called Akwidaa where their shacks were no more than 10 feet from the ocean, and where a crowd of local kids (some of them butt naked, and not just the little kids) gathered to watch these crazy Americans. Obviously not too many tourists made it to this faraway place and I kind of liked that. Of course just when I thought I was at the edge of the world in a place untouched by time we passed a stand selling Coke and Twix bars. And then one of the kids started rapping some Jay Z song.

Me with the village people

Three kids followed us all the way back to Green Turtle, offering to climb a palm and get us some coconuts. We finally said okay, up the palm they went, and minutes later we were sipping fresh coconut milk and eating fresh coconut meat. We gave them a couple of dollars and they left. Kailou, Jade, and I hit the beach again to build a sand castle. Then it soon became clear that our coconut providers had returned to the village and spread

Our coconut hunters

the word that the rich Americans were doling out big bucks! Come one, come all! Lots of kids came, surrounding us and our castle. One five-year-old even had a machete (thankfully for coconut chopping rather than tourist chopping). They kept asking for money and I found the best way to say no was just to sing show tunes loudly. I got through the better part of the Grease songbook before they gave up and walked away. “Those suh-uh-mer n-i-i-i-i-i-i-ghts…tell me more, tell me mo-oh-ore.” I love you Olivia Newton John. Seriously, this could be a great tactic for the army to use to deter enemies.

Sand castles and show tunes.

That night we had a delicious meal of grilled fish, chicken, and lobster in our own little gazebo smack dab on the beach. We had a lantern illuminating our table, and the only other light was the almost full moon. No more machete kids, just waves crashing on the beach. After eating we walked along the shore looking for sea turtles laying eggs, and it’s amazing how old shoes, food containers, and various other things that belong in a trash bin actually look like turtles from a distance. We just pretended they were.

The village people head back after enduring hours of show tunes.

Toward Kumasi

The next morning we had arranged for a better mode of transportation to take us on what we thought was a 4-hour drive north to Kumasi, the heart of the Ashanti culture in Ghana. The Ashanti are legendary warriors who kept the invading British at bay longer than any other group in Ghana. They are also known for their beautiful crafts and their Kente cloth, and are still “ruled” by a king who wears the coolest-looking outfits ever that they believe repel bullets, even though they are made of cloth and feathers and such.

Obviously a crippled donkey would be a better mode of transport than that awful tro tro we endured. Our ride this time was an upgraded van of the last decade without visible rust and still possessing an original paint job with a slight sheen. The driver (whom I’ll call Hoarse Guy) and his partner (Door Opener) seemed nice enough though barely spoke and/or understood English. The bumpy path that seemed to be such a nightmare two nights prior wasn’t as bad during the day in a vehicle with shocks. We were soon zipping down a highway and even with the windows open it was pleasant enough. I could handle four hours of this.

Except it was eight hours. And seven hours of that was on a deteriorating blacktop road that was pockmarked with potholes 8 or 10 inches deep. Hoarse Guy, who spoke with a gaspy, airy voice that was probably difficult to understand in any language, was also thinking he was Speed Racer. He would roar 70 MPH down this awful road, swerving to avoid potholes, driving on the wrong side of the road into approaching traffic, driving onto the rocky unpaved shoulder, well, you get the general idea. The only thing that could be worse is if some weird moth-like creature landed on my foot while we were riding along, bit me, and drew blood. Okay, that happened too! As Hoarse Guy started passing a giant truck on a hill, I had enough. I shouted from my back seat that he needed to slow down and drive more carefully or I was getting out and not paying him a dime. He whisper-talked something and waved his hand, and after that he was less of a danger, but still swerving all over the road.

The best parts were when we followed a giganto truck spewing diesel fumes, and the smoke filled our van, mixing with the dust that was flying through the air too (I had to wipe off my iPad every 30 minutes or so to remove the dusty film). I asked him to turn on the AC so we rolled up the windows and sat in a blistering hot tomb for 30 minutes until we decided the AC didn’t work so well. Hello diesel and dust and various other smells that wafted in (plastic burning, campfire smoke, animal poo, and flowers for a just brief second. I have been on a public bus in the wilds of Peru, in a crazy taxi in crazy Cairo, Egypt, and in a pickup truck on a steep and rocky mountain road in northern Thailand, but this particular trip definitely topped the list of the worst rides ever. I was relieved that at least the two person crew wasn’t belligerent like the last bunch, with hoarse guy remaining silent (or at least inaudible) and Door Opener guy just opening the door for us whenever we stopped.

Our lunch pit stop, where the food smelled like manure and wet cows.

Oh yeah, the pit stop! How could I forget? We asked if he could stop at a restaurant around lunchtime and Hoarse Guy was quite perplexed. He would say that we were approaching a town with restaurants and then we we got to an area that looked sort of like a town we would say, “So is this the town?” And he would whisper-talk, “No, we passed it already.” Then we would repeat our request to eat at a restaurant. This went on for some time. Finally we saw a sign for “The Royal Hotel and Restaurant” and made him pull over. This open air restaurant had a TV blaring with a Chinese kung fu movie. The hostess said they only had rice and foo foo with either fish or goat. I was sitting this one out as it all had garlic in it (my deadly allergy) and my stomach was tied in knots from the ride. When the food came it smelled like farm odors, maybe sweaty and/or butchered livestock and manure. Mmmm mmmm good.

We finally arrived in the town of Kumasi at rush hour, though we didn’t know where our hotel was located. After some pointless driving around which we certainly were not in the mood for, I noticed a large hotel that could be a landmark. Thomas found it on the map, was quickly able to see where we were, and guided Hoarse Guy to our place, the Kumasi Catering Guesthouse.

In Kumasi

Our guesthouse unit, nestled in a garden.

I liked this place the second we pulled in. It was a walled, leafy complex with little bungalows nestled into shady gardens. The room was comfortable with sweet views into garden areas and……it had a TV, cold AC, and free wifi! As much as I bitch about technology ruining my life, these bits of technology made me very happy at this moment. We sprawled on the bed letting the cold air fill the room while we read through a weeks’ worth of Facebook postings and drank icy Cokes. The Internet was fast as lightning, a luxury we don’t have in Bamako, so we downloaded things like crazy, AND watched YouTube clips without any any buffering. Ah, the simple things in life can be so satisfying. That evening we walked to Vic Baboos restaurant where they had American, Chinese, or Indian food. I opted for sweet and sour chicken and a really large Ghanaian beer that took the edge off quickly.

Making foo foo…mashed up casava (and fingers if the pounder isn’t careful)

The next day we headed out in two taxis to the Ashanti King’s palace, a quick five minute drive. But somehow our taxis became separated and Thomas, Jamey, and I were dropped off in a spot where the others were not waiting. Without phones we had no choice but to wait around, and after 20 minutes we found the others who had been dropped off at another entrance. The palace was a colonial style house that was the former residence of the king—he now had a sassy modern home just behind that looked like a house you would see in a basic gated community in the U.S. But the old place was cool—lots of history and life-sized wax figures here and there that would freak us out every time we walked in a room.

Eyes are the window to our soul, and this dude’s soul is wacked out!

Next we headed off in two taxis to the Cultural Center to visit the Jubilee museum and have lunch. Another 5 minute ride, but my taxi with Cindy and Kailou arrived and the others didn’t. Surely they were just caught in traffic and would be pulling up any second. An hour later, just as we were going to call the American Embassy and report a kidnapping, they pulled up. Turns out their driver took them to Jubilee military park on the outskirts of town where they encountered a big parade and lots of traffic.

We blew off the museum in the interest of time and had lunch, then walked to find the famous “Okomfo Anokye sword,” a sword that has supposedly been in the ground for 300 years that many have tried to pull out (including, supposedly, Mohammad Ali).

C’mon, pull out the sword and ruin a centuries old kingdom. Or just drink some schnapps.

If you do pull it out the entire Ashanti kingdom is supposed to collapse, so I’m guessing they aren’t rooting for anyone to be successful. It was bizarrely located in a hutlike structure on the grounds of a hospital. In order to get there we had to pass through the hospital mortuary area and guys pushing carts with metal domes over them and bodies underneath. We paid our $1.50 to get in the hut and sure enough, inside there was a little wall surrounding a small pit in which a sword handle protruded, and empty bottles of schnapps laying around it. Not sure what the Ashanti-schnapps connection is, but we also read that you can get an audience with the current Ashanti king if you bring along a bottle of schnapps. At least we now he has fresh pepperminty breath.

Our final stop was to be a hat museum, a private collection of some 2000 hats from around the world. This time our two taxis stayed together and arrived together…success at last! And the hat museum had closed a year earlier. So it was back to the guesthouse for more TV, Internet, cool AC, and icy cold Coke (I wasn’t complaining). We again had dinner at Vic Baboos (though we did hike around looking for other restaurants) and this time a group of young Americans was clustered at the door. We struck up a conversation and found out they were Peace Corps volunteers in Ghana. They asked us where we were from, and we told them we lived in Mali. “You live in MALI? Wow…..” one replied.

You know when you impress Peace Corps people, the ones who actually live in huts in villages in the middle of nowhere and walk miles to get water from a well, you have earned some street credibility. We told them things in Bamako were fine but I could see they thought we were sooo brave for living in a post-coup nation with Islamist terrorists roaming the northern half of the country. I wanted to tell them how I had to dodge machine gun fire on the way to work every day, and use Kung Fu to keep the terrorists at bay, but I’m not sure I looked so Indiana Jones-ish in my matchy-matchy Original Penguin outfit. They also advised us to take a bus back to Accra rather than a tro tro since the 6 hour ride was REALLY bumpy. Just the outlook we wanted to hear.

The next morning I awoke early and decided to check the bus schedule for the next (and final) day of our trip. As often happens when Googling, I found a blog about traveling in Ghana and how one could fly between Kumasi and Accra. FLY! In just 45 minutes! I checked the website and not only was there availability, but the cost was only 40 bucks a ticket! I ran like the wind to Thomas and Cindy’s room with the news, and even thought they were still in bed they were excited at the prospect of missing out on a 6 hour bumpy bus ride in lieu of a zippy little flight. We decided to leave that afternoon rather than stay in Kumasi another night, so we bought our tickets online and found a beachfront hotel for our final night in Ghana.

Back to Accra

Restaurant at the new hotel, open air and stocked with alcohol.

The flight to Accra was a dream–fast, efficient, and safe, and we were even able to read our iPads and Kindles the entire time, even when taking off and landing. A couple of taxis were waiting to take us to the Alfia African Lodge, a quaint compound of 22 units on the beach. This being the big city, the price was 4 times what we paid for a night at our other budget hotels, but the beach was fun although littered with trash that I just pretended was big seashells. Dinner was to die for, another open air restaurant with ocean views, and super tasty, creative fare. I had mango curry chicken with a dessert of coconut lemon syrup cake (when all 4 words of a dessert make me salivate I know it’s gonna be tasty), washed down with almost a liter of milk stout, a really dark stout made in Accra that almost tastes like beef.

Hotel decor.

Back in our hotel room, which had a view of the ocean if you craned your neck far to the left, we drifted off to sleep with a smile on our face. Then we awoke at 1 AM sweating because the AC had stopped and it felt like we were locked in a metal shipping container in the middle of the Sahara. We tried to turn on the fan, but nothing. And the windows didn’t open. I attempted to call the front desk, but the phone didn’t work. Goodness, had the zombie apocalypse just happened while I was dreaming for the past two hours?

I dressed and started out for the reception area, and found the security guard who informed me that the front desk was closed and would open at 6 AM, and they could help me then. No, no, no I said. We need a new room now, not in 3 hours. “No poss-ee-bull,” he said. I asked him to call the owner. He chuckled. He said he would find help and left, but after 40 minutes I saw him slowly wandering around the compound again, not even thinking about us.

Accra beach with its big, big seashells

I started in again and didn’t let up and he eventually sent me to security guard number 2 who I think was a clone of the first guy, or maybe just the first guy playing another role to confuse me. “Go to sleep for 3 hours he told me, then we fix,” he offered. No, no, no I said again. “I’m going,” he said to me. “Going where?” I asked. I’m going,” he repeated. Was he blowing me off? After a lot of back and forth I figured out that he was trying to say “I’m going to be right back. By now it was 3 AM and we were sitting sweaty in a tomb of a room since going outside meant risking malaria-carrying mosquitoes.

At 3:30 AM he returned with a somewhat disheveled looking guy with grey dreadlocks who I guess was the owner, and he was very kind and apologetic. He said he had another room for us and to leave everything in this room for now. The new room was smack on the beach with the best views and had the chilliest AC ever, arctic really. We slept soundly for what was left of the rest of the night.

View from room #2

The next morning, our last in Ghana, we decided to splash in the ocean one last time amidst even more “seashells” that arrived overnight. We had another tasty meal in the restaurant and headed to the Accra airport. I now sit at the departure gate ready for the 2 hour flight back to Bamako, and school in just 15 hours. Bumpy roads, carnivorous moths, machete-wielding toddlers and all, it was a Fall Break to remember.

Tae Kwan Do on the beach.

Chapter 14: Baa Baa Dead Sheep, Have You Any Wool?

Malians will soon celebrate Tabaski, the most important religious celebration of the year. Known as Eid al-Adha in the rest of the Muslim world, this is the “Festival of the Sacrifice” that commemorates Abraham’s willingness to kill his son for God, another charming, pro-family parable that Christians and Jews also include in their holy books.

Dad, how about you just ground me for a week?

Even as a kid I found this one to be a hard sell…it’s not okay for cult leader Jim Jones to tell his followers to drink poison Kool-Aid as a sign of obedience, but it’s okay for God to tell a father to kill his kid as a sign of obedience? I was pretty sure I couldn’t be friends with, much less worship, anyone who encouraged me to stab or poison someone.

Now listen, it’s not a secret that I am no fan of organized religion. I don’t even like to talk about religion. Never have. Even when I was part of one for many years, I considered it a private thing that was nobody’s business but my own. Which is why it creeps me out when people hawk their religious beliefs like Ron Popeil on late night TV trying to sell his GHL-9 Hair-in-a-Can-Spray (“Forget those ratty-looking wigs and toupees! Get a full head of luxurious hair in just seconds with a single touch of a spray nozzle!”). News flash! I really don’t want to know why your religion and your particular savior is better than another (“Forget those ratty-looking Buddhists and Muslims! Get eternal salvation in just seconds with a tax-deductible donation to our Christian church!”)

Back in my Florida I was pretty savvy at identifying the religion hawkers as they slinked through my neighborhood looking for convert$. Two wholesome-looking boys with white, short-sleeved shirts? Mormons with their holy undies and their spirit baby-making god on the Planet Kolub. A group of four people in frumpy clothes, mostly minorities, with a child in tow?

Source: AP

Jehovah’s Witnesses about to convince you not to celebrate your birthday. Cute-ish 20-somethings with fashionable jeans and hair styles? Non-denominational Christians from the hip megachurch with the rock band and Jumbotron screens and their “Seriously dude, Jesus is so awesome!” lingo. Icky, icky, icky.

When I was a sophomore, flyers suddenly appeared all over school inviting everyone to a Halloween event at the fairgrounds outside of town. Free food/admission/bus, loads of scares…what teen could pass that up? And my did it ever turn out to be scary—in ways I never expected! First there was a long walk through the inky black woods where the sponsors had created scenes of gruesome horror: disemboweled bodies still writhing in pain, devilish-looking monsters feasting on children, ax-wielding freaks jumping out to scare us out of our wits.

Can I get an “amen?”

Afterwards we were herded into an exhibition hall where even scarier things awaited…a Baptist church group preaching to us for nearly an hour telling us that if we weren’t “saved” our lives would be very much like that horror walk we just went on. They goaded us to come to the stage and “accept-Jesus-Christ-as-your-Lord-and-Savior” or regret it for the rest of our lives (writhing, disemboweled bodies or Jesus Christ…it’s up to you!). I was only 15, but even then I knew these religious shysters had pulled a fast one. A really creepy, inappropriate, disrespectful, and probably illegal fast one I might add.

This religious boasting thing really is uniquely American and almost always involves Christians. I’ve not seen this odd behavior in any of the 40-some countries I’ve visited. You don’t see religious bumper stickers in Thailand (“Buddha is the reason for the season”) or Morocco (“Allah is my co-pilot”). In India I doubt they say, “Vishnu Bless You!” when you sneeze. I’ve never read a Facebook post that says, “Ganesha is great!” or heard a Japanese person say, “If they just allowed the Book of Tao is schools these days we wouldn’t have all of these problems.” In my experiences, the rest of the world (excluding

crazy fundamentalists who are just, well, crazy) just doesn’t seem to find it proper to boast about religion.

Which brings me back to Mali. While Mali is a Muslim country, it is a very moderate Muslim country that actually considers itself a secular nation (and again, of course I’m not including the wacko Islamic extremists causing havoc 1000 miles to the north of here, imposing Sharia law and stoning people).

Roadside mosque outside of Siby, Mali.

I’ve been around dozens of Malians every day for three months and not once—not even one single time—has any of them told me Allah was awesome or that the Qur’an had the answer to all of my problems or that I’d better get myself down on that prayer rug and face Mecca…or else! It’s a beautiful and classy thing to see a people so secure in their beliefs that they don’t need to act like a freakin’ carnival busker to advertise their faith.

Even more endearing, the Malians are the absolute least judgmental folks I’ve ever encountered. They don’t criticize other religions, hold you to a standard set by their tenants of faith, or pass judgment on your life. I’m not an authority on this, but I’m thinking that a married, male couple sleeping in the same bedroom here in Bamako is something Islam doesn’t look kindly upon. But again, not once has a Malian given us a condescending Church-Lady stare or treated us like we were “inherently disordered” (as the Pope describes gay people—as he wears his bejeweled gown). As a matter of fact, it’s just the opposite. Malians have been gracious like grandma at Christmas time, always generous beyond what’s expected, authentically kind, and extremely genuine.

Now Tabaski is the most important holiday in Mali, a country that is 90 percent Muslim, and it involves all kinds of actions and preparations. People ask for forgiveness from those they have faulted over the year. They have family dinners. They pray. They give to the poor. For those of us with household help, it’s customary to give your maid an extra month’s salary. Fathers give money to their families to buy new clothes, jewelry, shoes, and to get their hair done.

baaaaad to the bone

Fathers who can afford it must buy one sheep (or several if they have more than one wife) that they will offer as a sacrifice on October 26th, the day of Tabaski this year. On Tabaski one-third of the their sheep’s meat is eaten by the family, another third is given to relatives and friends, and the final third is given to the poor and less fortunate.

Sheep are everywhere this time of year, and of course the prices go up as Tabaski gets closer. Malians often save their money all year long to buy a sheep that they will clean up and keep inside their house in the days preceding the holiday. This year sheep prices range from $150 and up,

roadside sheep market

with some large rams going for five or six times that price (and this in a country where the average worker’s salary is $1500 a year). Just down the road the family that owns the mini-mart (which makes Mr. Drucker’s General Store on Green Acres look like a palace) have the most beautiful, brilliant white ram tied up right outside their door. I can only imagine how many bottles of orange Fanta they had to sell to buy that nearly cow-sized creature.

Since this religious holiday is celebrated throughout the Muslim world, it results in the annual slaughter of 100 million animals in just two days (is it just me, or is it peculiar that 100 million animals are killed to commemorate a father’s willingness to kill his son?). Sheep are the go-to slaughter animal in Mali, but other countries sacrifice cows, goats, lambs, and camels.

school sheep, for now; dinner, later

Even the two sheep that were keeping our grass low at school weren’t immune from all of this. On Friday morning I was showing a PowerPoint about earthquakes in my classroom when our director rushed in, glanced at the windows, quickly pulled one of the curtains closed, and dashed out. Was she worried that the light from the window was obscuring the screen? Making sure all of the curtains were evenly arranged? Nope. Later she told me that the ceremonial slaughter of one of the school sheep happened in the playfield just outside our classroom window, and she wanted to make sure the kids couldn’t see. Supposedly it’s done in a quick and humane manner, but I’m thinking a PowerPoint about seismic waves is probably better for kids to watch than a sheep’s neck bleeding into a hole in the ground. Just my opinion.

Friday evening we went to our director’s home to attend the school’s Tabaski party, being held early since we are on fall break next week when the real Tabaski happens. The main course at dinner was, you guessed it, Mr. School Sheep Who Was Killed Right Outside Our Window.

Our director with school custodian Lassi, winner of the sheep raffle at our Tabaski party

The second school sheep was there too, but alive and tied to the fence. He was raffled off to a Muslim staffer. A young custodian won, and in my head he is going to raise this sheep as a beloved pet that he dresses in cute clothes and hats. I have to say it was rather odd watching everyone tear into their roasted mutton as the mutton’s former friend was nervously watching from a few feet away.

It’s customary to dress up in traditional garb for this type of event, so Jamey and I donned the new boubous we had

Jamey and I sproting our traditional boubous in a non-traditional polyester fabric.

purchased at a market in Siby a few weeks ago. This pants and tunic combo can be quite comfortable if it is made from a natural fiber. However, we opted for cheap boubous made of polyester that seemed to trap body heat like a terrarium, especially with our current weather conditions. Mali basically has three seasons: hot (March – June), rainy (July – October) and “cold” (November – February when daytime temps only reach into the 80s…brrr!). But oddly, October includes a brief “mini-hot season” so currently the temperature reaches into the upper 90s with high humidity, creating terrarium-like conditions under our boubous that are perfect for growing orchids, ferns, and fungal diseases. However, the Malians so appreciated the fact that we were wearing these traditional items of clothing (which are traditionally not polyester), giving us lots of “tres jolie!” and “c’est bon!” type of comments (very beautiful, it’s good) that almost made us forget the sweat streaming down our back. Fashion before comfort I always say.

teachers and student dressed for Tabaski celebrating

Despite knowing that the food had been frolicking in our schoolyard a few hours earlier, it was an enjoyable Tabaski party. The Malian band was superb and we all

traditional Malian music kept the mood festive

ended up dancing under the stars for quite some time. If polyester could actually absorb liquid my boubou would have been dripping wet after this physical activity, but it maintained its crisp, unnatural form throughout the night.                    And while I don’t share the Malian religious beliefs, I’m happy to be part of their Tabaski celebration. I’m just mirroring their approach to life, treating people respectfully despite their religious or moral beliefs. Just don’t make me eat the school pet.

everybody dance now!

Chapter 13: High Noon In the Garden of Short-Handled Tools and Donkey Poo

A really cool and very practical thing about Bamako is that people don’t let a square centimeter of land go to waste. If it doesn’t have a building on it they either put sheep or cows on it, build a kiosk on it where they will sell something (eggs, bicycle tires, haircuts,


Bananas, corn, eggplant, lettuce, mangos, and more, right in the middle of dusty, fume-filled Bamako. Photo from: http://philweblog.blogspot.com/2011_03_01_archive.html

Coke bottles of gas, unrefrigerated meat), or plant a garden there. I especially love the garden thing. You can be on the road in the middle of Bamako in the midst of absolute chaos—traffic, fumes, dust, 4-story buildings hugging the road, crowds of people stomping around everywhere—and in a 2” crack along the road someone planted a row of corn.

And why not? As we learned in elementary school science class, plants clean the air, give us oxygen, provide food, and are a lot more pleasing to gaze at than a pile of

Roadside garden in Bamako. (photo: http://philweblog.blogspot.com/2011_03_01_archive.html)

bloody fish for sale that are covered with flies that moments before had landed on a big pile of donkey poo. Come to think of it, there actually was a vendor with a pile of fly-covered fish adjacent to the row of corn I spoke of earlier.

Somethings fishy around here.

But thank goodness those shiny green stalks glistening in the Malian sun have left a more indelible mark on my mind than the poo fish.

Now I’ve always had a thing for gardening anyway. Both sets of grandparents lived on farms for a good part of their lives and had bountiful gardens that I just loved to frolic in (hmmmm, maybe that explains all those odd rashes I had as a young boy). I can picture myself in tiny Mendon, Illinois with Grandpa Fessler showing me how to carefully pick the fat red strawberries off the plants, or how to gently dig into the soil to find potatoes, which was way better than searching for Easter eggs. French fries or mashed potatoes as an end product trumps a stupid plastic egg any day of the week. Yay for saturated fat!

That’s young me at Grandma and Grandpa Fessler’s, ready to ride to the garden and harvest crops (okay not really–my grandparent’s neighbor randomly brought this pony over once and they plopped me on it for a few seconds)

I can remember Grandma McClelland’s lush garden in even tinier Meyer, Illinois. Between gardening and making pies and having the Mississippi River a block away, spending a week up there was the ultimate. The best part was that raspberry vines covered the rusty metal fence that bordered one edge of her garden, and we would pick a bucketful and go right inside and make raspberry pies. Sweet berries, butter, sugar, and dough, and then some more butter smeared on top, and then some more sugar sprinkled on that. Eaten with ice cream of course. And washed down with a Frosty root beer. I was on such a sugar high I could have detassled all the corn in a 50-mile radius of her house.

My own parents always grew things too, despite the fact that they left farm life and became city slickers at a young age. I remember a grape arbor on the back of my childhood home, and mom and Grandma Fessler using the grapes we picked to make jelly. I’m not sure they ever knew that their star grape harvester (that would be the young me) put more

My brother Todd in our 70s garden

grapes into my mouth than into the bucket. Eat ‘em now, or eat ‘em later, what was the difference I reasoned. We always had tomatoes growing in the summer, and although we didn’t always grow sweet corn I somehow made it magically appear on the kitchen table on many days. Okay, so I picked it from the farmer’s field next to our cul-de-sac (yes, I learned French at an early age). I just figured it was payback for all the times he sprayed his fields with DDT or Agent Orange or whatever, and it drifted into our house where we breathed it in deeply and probably blacked out. I just can’t remember clearly.

And of course my bachelor’s degree is in Landscape Architecture so I did take this love of nature and gardening a step farther than most do. Except rather than enhance the land with nature as I thought I’d be doing, my jobs with Florida landscape architecture firms had me designing large shopping malls and walled suburban enclaves that obliterated nature,

It’s mall-tastic!

save for the spindly palm trees that would ultimately line the rows of parking, providing no shade and dropping giant fronds on cars. The shopping centers and mini-mansion developments we designed for our clients destroyed every pine grove and shady marsh in sight. Then we named these shopping centers and housing developments “The Shoppes at Pine Grove” or “The Villas at Shady Marsh.” Stewards of the land, that’s what they called us.

So when it comes to preserving nature, I’m an advocate. That’s why I really dig (oh God, here come the puns) the grow-stuff-anywhere-you-can mentality here in Bamako. Our short 4-minute drive to work, which used to be a 10-minute walk before we grew lazy, has us passing nothing but small fields of produce

roadside view on the way to school

such as rice, corn, sorghum, and the most vibrant lime green lettuce. Men and women are working these fields when we are on our way to school at 6:30 AM, at high noon when I glance out of the 2nd story window of our chilly library, and when we are driving home at 3:30 PM (15:30 if I’m trying to sound like a local). No wide brimmed hats, no Banana Boat SPF 50 sweat-proof sunscreen, no breaks to enjoy an icy Coke and a bag of barbecue Fritos.

And “working these fields” does not involve any equipment invented since medieval times. They use nothing but handmade tools that you would see the peasants using around King Arthur’s castle, all of them short handled and requiring one to bend over to use. That’s a weird thing here. I know for sure that shovels and hoes and rakes with long handles have been invented, but not one of those things is in sight. Even the custodian who cleans my classroom uses a broom that’s a bundle of course hay-looking stuff tied to a 6” wooden handle that requires him to bend over to sweep, just like Cinderella or the witch in Hansel and Gretel. Every time I see him use that I picture my broom back in Florida with its own jingle touting the merits of its long shiny handle (“O-Cedar makes your life easier”). Of course within 30 seconds his fairy tale stage prop broom has stirred up a Saharan-style dust storm and I run from my classroom gasping for air.

no rain, no hose, just a bucket (photo: OXFAM)

I mean, it can’t cost too much more for 3 feet more of wooden handle, can it? I really want to run out into those fields with a branch I broke off a tree, lash their tiny handled shovel or rake to it, and show them how to avoid back problems in later life. For the work they do, a long handled tool would be heavenly. Because it’s the rainy season now, all of the fields they plant are done in raised-bed style. That means they manipulate the soil to create a patchwork of raised rectangles, maybe 3 feet by 2 feet, with channels in between that carry away the massive amounts of rain. If it doesn’t rain, which it hasn’t done in the past week or so, they fill a watering can (another fairy tale stage prop-looking device) from the well in their field (also known as a very deep hole they dug not surrounded by any type of fence or rock wall that would prevent one from falling down there) and hand water every square centimeter of their field, one can at a time.

That’s a lot of backbreaking work that makes me appreciate every bite of carrot or piece of lettuce I chomp down on here. And speaking of eating the produce here, it is absolutely the tastiest stuff ever. Our maid Fati makes our dinner from the loads of fresh vegetables and fruits she buys for us every week. The potatoes are more flavorful, the carrots sweeter, the bananas don’t cause heartburn, and there is this sweet potato-ish root vegetable that makes fries that I dream about at night.

In Bamako the potatoes are buttery and the mangoes are sweet. (photo: Alpha Ghana)

However, before you eat any vegetables or fruit here you have to follow a little routine. You fill the sink with water and add 2 capfuls of “eau du javel” which I thought had such an attractive French name but really just means “bleach.” You soak the produce for 30 minutes or more, give everything a good rinse, and then you’re good to go.

Unless you want surprise explosive diarrhea (which is the topic for another blog post) this is a step you don’t skip. Apparently the well water they use to irrigate their fields here isn’t exactly like the bubbly fresh underground springs that Perrier uses for its water. A drop of Bamako well water under a microscope would reveal a full-on bacteria jamboree.

It’s a bacteria hoe-down! (photo from lifeslittlemysteries.com)

And the soil could also contain various types of poo, which I won’t detail here. Of course there are none of these worries in the States because produce there is coated with pesticides and herbicides and might involve genetic mutations and all of that that makes it much, much healthier.

On a side note, I read that scientists have discovered that we have several handfuls of bacteria, fungi and other microbes in our body which compose up to 3 percent of our body mass. So if you’re a 200-pound person, up to six pounds of you is actually bacteria and such. One more reason I use plenty of eau de javel.

Now this is the time when I slip in the fact that we have our own gardener, Oumar, a young Malian who also works part time for our school’s director.

Oumar, chic gardener to the stars (or to the teachers)

Not that I don’t enjoy personally getting my hands dirty or sweating as I plant things, but when someone will do the sweating for you for just $50/month, my direct involvement lessens. And Oumar does all of this manual labor while maintaining a very hip and stylish exterior–mirrored Aviators, cuffed jeans, casual flip flops. He always looks like a Gap ad. If I was digging in dirt in the African heat I would look like an ad for Hillbilly Handfishin’.

While looking natty, Oumar has lined our wide porch as well as our rooftop deck with clay pots of hibiscus, bromeliads, ginger, and other plants we had back in Florida.

The skinny space next to our house where Oumar is creating the Garden of Eden, sans magical talking snake.

The front porch and one of our guard cats.

He’s maintained our compact front lawn as a soft carpet of deep green grass that could be a putting green (if we knew which end of the golf club went up or down). He somehow found and transported on his moto two 5 ft. tall dracaenas in heavy clay pots that we now have in our living room. And he is especially proud of the topiary-like work he does on an arch in our yard made entirely of a shrub, which makes us feel like we are making a grand entrance from the carport to our front porch each day. If he sprinkled the walk with rose petals my life would be complete.

But wait, that’s not all! Besides all of this Oumar has used a skinny space (between the wall that surrounds our home and the potholed road) to

The ocra, our least favorite vegetable in the world, grows the best.

create a vegetable garden that Martha Stewart would envy! Before we left Florida Jamey went to Home Depot and bought a gazillion

Our little patch of heaven–and just on the other side of the wall sheep and donkeys and an occasional child use the road as a bathroom.

packets of vegetable and fruit seeds that we brought with us. Oumar was ecstatic when he saw these and immediately set about digging and hoeing and raking—using tiny-handled tools. He made more than 20 raised beds in this space where you couldn’t even park a car or a donkey cart. We aren’t exactly sure what he planted—definitely some lettuce, okra too I think, corn (or a weed that looks like corn), watermelon–but it looks fantastic and sometimes that’s all I care about.

One of Oumar’s gardening tools, probably not made by Black & Decker.

Oumar doesn’t speak a lick of English so he just talks to us in French as if we understand, saying the same sentences over and over as if repetition will solve our comprehension problems. Sometimes we do understand, sometimes we take the iPad outside and use Google Translate with him, and sometimes we

The romanticized view from our garden to the muddy potholed road.

just nod and say “Oui!” Nevertheless, he has created a flower-lined garden that is surely

The topiary arch that we march through triumphantly each day.

the envy of the neighborhood, and I can’t wait to chow down on our first harvest. He is, however, very much like a teenage child who has realized his parents have money: Can I have $10 to buy more compost? I can buy more flowers and pots for another $20. Can I get $40 for a little lawn mower—it will look so much better. I finally, with the help of Google translate, had to use the parenty-sounding, “What!? Do you think I’m made of money?” right before I gave him $10 dollars for some more hibiscus. Damn kids.

Chapter 12: Lebanese Coifs, Phallic Instruments, School Beer

Enjoyed some more “firsts” this week. Actually, now that I think about it, moving from South Florida to a landlocked, developing West African country pretty much means everything we do here will be a “first” for awhile–the first time we saw a pile of smiling sheep heads, the first time we rode with an armed soldier in a taxi, the first time we had explosive diarrhea. Ah, misty water colored memories. Here are a few more firsts…

My First Cut

I had my first haircut in Africa this week. I was worried about this particular grooming regimen because the only “salons” I had noticed were tollbooth-sized wood and tin shacks along the road with hand-painted signs that made them sound much fancier than reality, like “Le Salon des Cheveux Mal Coupée et Traitements Mauvaise Couleur” which translates to something like The Salon of Miscut Hair and Bad Color Jobs.

Random salon in nearby Siby sporting a fancy name and floating head.

Inside these places I could only see dirt floors and a single wooden chair with a light bulb hanging from the ceiling, much like in an interrogation room. And definitely no AC. Or air, really.

So I let my hair get a little longer than usual, which I noticed in the morning when I labored to make my bangs stay flat rather than turn into Shirley Temple curls. It was obvious that I couldn’t put a haircut off any longer. Fortunately our teaching colleague Paul also needed a cut and offered to guide us to the stylist he used, a young fellow from Lebanon with his own salon. Now of course I’m picturing the tin shack without oxygen as we pull into a little courtyard and see a very Americany-looking salon façade, very smartly designed and featuring a sign illustrated with non-African heads with lots of flowing hair and pouty little lips. Inside it was like we were transported to a salon in Anytown, USA. There were ornamental wrought-iron chairs with fancy cushions, a big glass coffee table piled with fashion magazines, hair products galore, and a few Malian salon gals in trendy outfits and coifs gossiping (okay they were speaking in French so I couldn’t tell if it was really gossip, but the tone was definitely gossipy). There was also a flat screen TV showing Men in Black 2 subtitled in Arabic, so it wasn’t exactly like home but close enough.

The 20-something owner spoke a little English (“You want short, no?”) before he went to work on my hair like it was his last day on earth. It was almost all scissor work and he moved in Edward Scissorhands fast motion and, gladly, in a very precise fashion. My hair texture is as fine as fine can be, but somehow he was able to add more texture than I’ve ever had (though one of my students commented the next day, “It looks a little fuzzy.”).

Roadside salon in Bamako.

He cut it short, really short, but I dug it. Next came the scalp massage that Paul said was the reason he keeps coming back to this place. I’ve never had a scalp massage and am not sure I knew there was such a thing, but now I’m hooked like a crack addict. That young Malian shampoo girl worked my head for 20 minutes like it was a glob of bread dough, at one point even taking a call on her cell phone while still using both hands on my scalp (Jamey told me another gal held the phone for her, so it was nothing alien or sinister after all). I’m sure that this vigorous massage caused my brain to develop more than usual and probably made my hair grow stronger. And all of this for just $11.

My First Midnight Music

On Saturday we went with a group of our colleagues for dinner at the French Cultural Center in Bamako, a pleasant little outdoor courtyard space with a metal detecting security checkpoint at the door. For the first time in 52 days we were in a space entirely filled with non-Africans. That was just weird and totally made us feel non-special so we ate fast to get the hell out of there to someplace where we would again stand out from the crowd. Actually we ate quickly because there was a concert next door we were attending by a Malian musician named Habib Koite. He and his band have toured the world many times, and he even played on Bonnie Raitt’s latest album. He is one of Mali’s most loved and most famous performers so we were psyched as ever to be attending our first Malian concert (see video below).

As we discovered when we started researching Mali a year ago, this country is known for its amazing musicians and really cool instruments like the kora, a 21 to 24 stringed banjo-harpish instrument that has a gourd body held at crotch level while you hold the neck out and away from your body (I know what you’re thinking and yes it does kinda look like that).

Is that a kora in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?

Also the bala, which is like a xylophone except made from many little gourds, and the n’taman (also called the talking drum) that is held up by your shoulder and played with one curved mallet and your hand and changes tone somehow. Finally we would see all of this in one fell swoop. Just one teensy problem though. This concert was slated to start at the exact time we are usually crawling into bed. And Malian musicians are known to start late and play for a loooong time. If there

Dried gourds never sounded so good.

was Red Bull in Mali I would have had a few (six packs) to prepare.

The auditorium in the French Cultural Center is a beautiful place (you know how those French people are about architecture). It was very intimate–we were no more than a few yards from the stage. Habib Koite made his entrance, head full of tiny dreadlocks and a smile that lit up the place. Then he talked and joked for a while. Kind of a long while. In French. When he would say something and the crowd would chuckle, we of course chuckled right along. “Ha ha ha,” I’d say to Jamey. “That Habib is quite the jokester” as I looked around to see if anyone could tell we were faking it. The crowd was an even mix of ex-pats and Malians, including some VIPs, such as the Minister of Tourism (who I’m guessing doesn’t have a whole lot to keep him busy in these post-coup days) and the French ambassador.

Habib Koite

Habib started playing an acoustic guitar around 9:30 when I am normally entering into REM sleep and dreaming that I am flying over Paris or walking naked through a church. Thank goodness his playing was amazing–it took my breath away for a second and made me forget all about slumber. He sang with this deep, rich, throaty tone that almost didn’t sound real, and it gave us the chills. Then his band members came on stage one-by-one and started to play their instruments. Good so far—lots of action and interest and gorgeous world music (sort of a mix of African, jazz, and pop) to keep us alert. And it got better! On the second song a young lady popped out onto stage in traditional bazin dress and did African dancing to the music. I guess it’s redundant to say “African” dancing since she is African and she was dancing. Really any dancing she does would be considered African dancing now that I think about it. But nevertheless, it was a visual and auditory treat and the last thing I was thinking about was dozing.

But the music and the bantering with the audience in French went on for quite some time. Jamey’s head began to lower towards his lap during hour two (11:30 PM) and I found myself needing to bounce to the music in a very exaggerated way to keep the blood flowing and my tiredness from taking over. I was sure the people around me thought I was having some sort of attack.

Habib Koite and his band Bamada

There was a non-African woman in front of us recording the concert on an iPad, and annoying as that was, the bright light from that device did keep my senses alert. But as it got later even that couldn’t keep my very heavy lids from dropping and dropping. Finally near midnight Caroline, our school’s director and our ride, gave the “let’s go” signal and we snuck out the back. Don’t get me wrong, I loved that music and enjoyed this authentic Malian experience immensely. It was just really, really late with no end in sight. I’m thinking that concert could still be going on even now, 2 days later.

My First Assistant

For the first time ever, I received a fulltime classroom assistant last week since my student population has “ballooned” to 16. I’m the talk of the school for coping with this ungodly crowded classroom–which of course seems like a cakewalk compared to the 24 to 35 kids that were crammed in my classroom in Florida over the past 15 years. My new assistant is a young man originally from Ghana and with a great sense of humor. He is very Christian (he worked that into the conversation fairly quickly, plus he was reading Bible verses on the computer) which makes him a bit of an anomaly here in this very Muslim country. But que sera sera, I say. I was just happy for the extra help, regardless of which holy book he followed.

Now Jamey and I have not made any big announcements about being a couple, but anyone with a functioning brain could probably figure this out without much trouble–even a very religious person whose faith teaches them that we are sinning freaks of nature who will burn in hell. So I was wondering how long it would be before this became a topic of discussion with my assistant. Well, we made it to recess on Day 1 before the old “So can I ask you a question?” happened.

Sir Elton provides background music during my awkward discussion.

An Elton John song was playing on my iTunes, which I thought was appropriate. “Sure, anything,” I replied as I mouthed the words to Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. “Are you married?” he asked.

That’s a tricky question to answer actually. After being a couple for 26 years we did travel to Iowa this summer, one of the states that allows same gender marriage, and tie the knot. So yes, we are married. However the federal government doesn’t recognize this, probably because preventing gay marriage is much more of an urgent and important issue than ending the war in Afghanistan or getting the economy back on track. Which means we still have to file income tax as a single people, losing all the benefits a married couple get. So I answered, “Yes and no” and decided that if he was going to be in my classroom all day he might as well know the whole story. I summarized (which just happens to be the reading skill I’m working on with the students) in the most neutral way possible. Throughout my explanation he continued looking at his computer screen, probably searching frantically for a biblical passage about stoning to death men who are married in Midwestern states.

A few minutes passed, a Lady Gaga song came on iTunes—sort of sealing the deal—and he said, “Now who did you say you were married to?” That was my favorite sentence of the day. But believe it or not we got along swimmingly for the rest of the day. I’m sure we are his first personal contact with an actual gay couple, so maybe we can rid him of the stereotypes he has about gay people. Note to self: Give Gaga, Sir Elton John, and show tunes a rest for a while.

My First Alcohol at a School

School beer just tastes better.

After that experience I needed a drink, and I didn’t have to go far! Our faculty was invited to the school library Friday afternoon to meet the new board members, and a whole table of food and alcohol was waiting for us. It’s odd drinking a beer in the very spot where I checked out some resource books on earthquakes just hours earlier. But I enjoyed it very much. And the brownies too because nothing goes together like beer and chocolate. The new board at our school is great, primarily parents along with a representative from the U.S. Embassy. As I imbibed I was chatting up a board member whose daughter is in my class. He and his wife–who is second in command at the American Embassy–are an Indian-American/Asian-American couple with two really smart daughters (stereotypically an obvious statement I suppose).

Interestingly, coasters are used on top of glasses here, to keep flies out of your beer.

I asked him if his daughter liked my class. He said he knew things were going to be just fine when she came home the first day and said, ‘My teacher put a pen under his nose like a moustache and spoke in a French accent!” Hope they shared that one with the ambassador….

Chapter 11: Just Cross Over the Crevasse on the Spindly Tree Branches Precariously Positioned There

When we lived in West Palm Beach, we were always so thankful to the Jews this time of year since Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur meant days off from school. As luck would have it we also had Friday off here in Bamako, although it was for non-Jewish reasons. The Malians celebrate their 52nd year of independence from France September 22, though I’m happy to report that French bakeries are still thriving here, as is the French language (though after I continue to labor through those Rosetta Stone lessons I’m not sure if that is a plus or not).

So with a day off we decided to let our hair down and join a group of our teaching colleagues on an overnight outing to southern Mali, about 50 kilometers from Bamako. It was close to here that the Empire of Mali was born in the 13th century. Among the hilly woodlands there are about 20 villages with some dating back to the Middle Ages, which make my former “historic district” neighborhood from the 1920s seem like chopped liver. It’s also home to the beautiful Arch of Kamadjan, a massive natural stone arch at the top of a stony hill.

The Arch of Kamadjan, seen from far, far away

Legend has it that a king cut the arch into the hill using his sword. I am sure Paul Bunyan and Ironman also assisted as this baby is massive. I was sure it would collapse on the day we decided to picnic underneath it, but I’m still here typing so you know that didn’t happen.

I purposely avoided asking a lot of details about this trip since many of my colleagues are very active, sporty types who opt for really adventury-ish type things that we tend to, um how do I say this, not do ever. Seriously, we thought we were pretty wild last week staying up to 10PM on a school night watching two Mike & Molly repeats on a Saudi Arabian channel. I did think I overheard someone mention that we were staying in “huts,” or maybe, I reasoned, we were going to be eating at a Pizza HUT. Sure, that was it.

We decided to drive our newly acquired Honda CR-V that our Malian mechanic Bill (that name can’t be real) just finished working on, fixing the AC (woo hoo!), replacing filters and fluids and whatever, and best of all throwing in matching sporty black and red (with flame motif) seat covers, steering wheel cover, and seat belt shoulder pads. If we were teenage boys in the U.S. in 1985 we would be SO popular right about now. Bill even Armor All’d the dash, so we felt ready to conquer the world.

Mooooove you darn cows!

We set out in a caravan of 3 vehicles at 10AM Friday morning, with a quick stop at the travel agency to pay for our tickets to Ghana for fall break next month. We appeared to be the only non-black people on the streets of this city of 2 million people so we were a bit of a spectacle. Since Jamey and I haven’t left Bamako since we arrived 44 days ago it was quite interesting to see how different it looked outside of the city proper. There were 4-lane highways with a concrete median, almost like we would see back home. Well except there was an occasional random donkey or long-horned steer standing on the concrete median in the middle of all that speeding traffic. And guys walking into the highway with what I thought were plastic tennis rackets except they were electrified devices for zapping flies (note to self: buy one of these for our roof deck ASAP). And there really aren’t “lanes” of traffic per se. While there are painted lines in the center these are ignored and sometimes there is just one big lane and sometimes they create 3 or 4 lanes when the motos squeeze in there (BTW, our group discussed what we saw the moto drivers carrying and this included: a stack of 10 chairs, two pelicans—which I might add are not birds that live within 1000 miles of Bamako, and a stack of tires with the driver playing the peg of a ring toss game).

No Photo Shop involved!

Our waterfall destination

As we got further out of town the road became just 2 lanes (or so) and the landscape opened up to reveal magnificently green fields punctuated by massive orange and grey rock hills that look like they just popped up randomly out of the ground. Jamey offered a scientific explanation but I was distracted by something shiny in the distance and I can’t remember what he said. These hills don’t gently rise. They abruptly jut from the ground and their faces show crazy patterns and shapes. As we got close to our overnight accommodations we saw a waterfall cascading over the top of one of these outcroppings and were told we would be swimming under this, just like Brooke Shields and Christopher Atkins in Blue Lagoon!

We drove off of the main road onto a rutted clay “road” not unlike the one we live on in Bamako. But this was lined with mud brick buildings (surely not like the “huts” we would be staying in, I was thinking) and lots of rural villagers who stared at us and smiled and waved when we waved.

Huts-Are-Us

A half mile down the road, through a field with donkeys grazing, was the entrance to our encampment, Centre Culturel Bougu Saba, which I believe means “huts without running water.” The French owner threw open the metal gates which were framed by fuchsia bougainvillea, and we all drove in. It was actually beautiful—rustic, but picturesque. There were indeed a series of mud brick huts with thatched roofs and doors painted with African figures. But they were charming. Inside each were two beds canopies of mosquito netting, mosaic tile floors, and an overhead fan. The rest of the compound included a little bar and covered eating area, a large open-air multipurpose area with huge peaked thatched roof and carved wood pillars, and a bathroom area with composting toilets (you can Google it).

It also included privately walled but open air showers that curiously did not include a shower head . This is because you ladle water from a big blue 55-gallon drum into a bucket, carry the bucket into your mosaic-tiled shower area, and use a plastic mug to pour water over you as you shower. It sounds labor intensive but I have to say it was a delightful experience doing this at 6AM this morning as the sun rose and the birds serenaded me with some crazy birdcalls. The water and the air were refreshing, even though I stressed a bit deciding if I had scooped enough water to condition my hair as well as shampoo it too (don’t worry, I had just enough water to do both).

Under the spreading mango tree

We didn’t dawdle here at the compound very long as we had a full agenda for Friday, an agenda neither Jamey or I even knew the details of, and this as I explained earlier was on purpose. Our first inkling that this was going to be an adventury type day was when they told us to not bring our vehicle as it doesn’t have 4-wheel drive. So we jumped into the other manlier vehicles and took off to the arch for a picnic lunch. Unlike the St. Louis arch, this stone arch is not close to convenient parking nor does it have an elevator to get to the top. So we first rode up a clay pathway that were even more rutted than the road we live on in Bamako, if that’s even possible, where an occasional moto would appear coming at us around a sharp turn. We really looked like bobble head dolls in the car and I am very thankful I didn’t have to pee during this ride.

Just a little picnic lunch on a cliff

About halfway up our colleague driver stopped and said there was a trail at this point and we could continue riding in the air-conditioned SUV or we could walk the rest of the way. That’s like asking me if I’d rather have a Coke or a cup of glass shards dipped in rat poison. Two occupants opted for the walk and I’ll give you a hint that they weren’t from Florida. Once we reached the final stop for the vehicles I couldn’t see any stone arch cut by a magical sword. That’s because we needed to HIKE to it, and that’s a word that Jamey and I shy away from. because when we went on a little HIKE in Thailand it actually ended up being 6 hours through 100 degree, mosquito-infested, muddy jungle on steep slippery trails, and then we ended up in a remote village sleeping in a hut where I smelled campfire smoke all night (see last blog post about my aversion to campfire smoke, and no I wasn’t a Boy Scout obviously).

Under the arch (which did not fall on us)

This was no 6-hour Thailand hike thankfully, just a 10 minute climb up a rocky path. And plus one of our colleagues was on the trail with her baby in a backpack thing, so I figured if she can do it my lazy old self surely could too. When we got to the top it was certainly worth the expense of energy; the sweeping view was magnificent. We could see the flat plains which are lime green during this rainy season time of the year, dotted with lollipop shaped trees in a darker green. Then we could see the rocky hills jutting out of the ground in various spots, along with tiny villages here and there. We were in the shade on a flat rock ledge immediately below the stone arch, and it was here that we have our picnic lunch! Peanut butter and jelly on freshly baked baguettes never tasted better. We even had Pringles (hello 1985 again), some almonds (I figured that was a healthy-looking option to counteract the Pringles), chocolate chip cookies, bananas, apples, and Evian water. The others seemed to stand precariously close to the edge while chatting with each. Jamey and I hugged the rock wall as tightly as possible as we ate.

Crazy rock outcroppings caused by erosion

While we ate I noticed a group of boys gathered a few meters away (I’m trying to get into the whole metric thing they use here, so bear with me). They basically were watching us like we were putting on a play. Our colleagues who had been here before said this always happens, and that if you are a rural villager watching our antics is like watching a sitcom. They stayed with us throughout the day, along with their strong scent of body odor.

After lunch we had some options: rock climbing, hiking, or watching the rock climbers. Obviously the last option sounded attractive to us, but a colleague said it was just a short romp on an easy trail to get to the TOP of the arch where the view was even MORE impressive. We thought that sounded good and followed them to the “easy trail” that didn’t seem to be a trail at all, but areas of 4-foot tall grasses that surely were hiding various species of poisonous African snakes and such. But we kept moving on. Then it was up a mini-cliff of sharp rocks that didn’t seem to be secure, and up another little cliff that required us to wedge our shoe into tiny notches on a branch to propel ourselves upward. Then it was through a crevice in the rocks that I swear if I had eaten one more Pringles I would not have fit. After some more twists and turns that I didn’t pay too much attention to (more on that later) we came to a steep rock wall face that we shimmied up.

View from the top

After picking the grass and seeds from my teeth and hair I did take note of the stupendous view in all directions and was thankful we had risked our lives getting here because at least the photos would be awesome. Then our colleague says, “Now we just cross over this little bridge and climb that,” as she pointed to another steep rock face that seemed to go to the moon. The “bridge” was 6 tree branches laying

The “bridge”

across a crevasse. No handrails or safety net. But we crossed, and were relieved to see that we actually would not have plunged hundred of feet if we fell, just dozens of feet, maybe breaking an ankle rather than our whole spine. At this point I thought our colleagues were wondering if we were total losers, so I shimmied right up that next wall face ahead of them. Then I remembered how my travel pal Ilean and I had shimmied up a giant rock outcropping on the beach in Brazil, only to find ourselves unable to get down until a group of surfers rescued us. And there were no Brazilian surfers up here.

So sweat beaded up on my face, and our colleagues decided they weren’t going any higher since they had done this many times. They said, “You know the way back, right?” and of course I said yes and smiled and then threw up a little in my mouth as they bounded over the tree branches back to camp. When they were out of earshot I yelled for Jamey who was taking photos from a lower level. I told him I was stranded and he suggested I scoot down on my butt, ever so slowly. Now I don’t want to be dramatic but had I taken a little tumble I would have rolled off a really tall cliff and my death would have been the stuff of legends. But scoot scoot scoot I did, leaving a little skin and cotton material along the rock face as I made my way back down. I was shaking a bit, and I could hear my heartbeat in my ears, but I was alive. And of course you guessed already that we got a little lost going back but eventually we made it back acting like this had been a hike up an easy trail, just like they told us.

Jamey makes like Spiderman and scales a wall, except without using the web-stuff that squirts out of his wrists.

So how do we follow up this act of bravery? By rock climbing of course! Jamey started it by agreeing to scale a vertical rock wall, and doing so with relative ease. The climbers were all clapping and saying how manly and adventurous he was. Well damned if I was going to be the big weenie sitting on a rock filing my nails! So I also harnessed up, put on the tightest-fitting climbing shoes, and made my way up the same wall. Yes I scuffed my knee and knocked my head on an outcropping, and maybe almost peed myself a little at the top when you have to lean backwards and trust that the rope doesn’t break and the person holding the rope doesn’t trip or sneeze, and you zip downward toward the ground. But we both have to admit that it was a pure adrenalin rush and we totally see why people do this. Jamey wants to do more, and maybe even I do too.

Finally we headed to the waterfall, which also required a perilous walk up and down slippery trails full of sharp stones jutting upwards. Again the colleague with the baby on

Jamey (red trunks) and me (orange trunks) get pummeled by the falls.

back was ahead of us so we endured the hike. And goodness was the payoff worth it. The water fell from hundreds of feet above. There wasn’t an idyllic little pool of water below like in Blue Lagoon where we could swim naked like Brook S. and Christopher A., but rather sharp rocks covered in slippery moss. But even that anger didn’t stop us from maneuvering to those cascades of water where we let it slam down onto us, chilly but refreshing.

We ended the evening all gathered around a big table in the courtyard of a local restaurant that looked exactly like something I saw in Disney’s Animal Kingdom except real.

Dinner at an outdoor restaurant in Siby, illuminated by a single bulb powered from the battery of a parked motorcycle. Not flattering for the complexion.

We ate delicious couscous, chicken, and a great sauce and talked for hours. Back at the compound we sat in chairs under a big mango tree and sang songs as a colleague played the guitar. Sleeping was okay at first since the fan kept us cool. But the electricity stops at midnight in the village so I awoke to a hut with air so close and still I was thinking I had been laid to rest in a tomb. Not much sleep, but the mug shower the next morning woke me up.

The next day, on the drive back home we stopped at a village hut where they were baking bread, a bread different from what we get in Bamako.

Bread going in the oven…

It’s denser and even more delicious, not that I thought that was possible. We bought 5 baguettes for 500 CFAs (1 dollar!) and immediately started chewing on one like a dog with a rawhide.

…and the bread out of the oven and ready to go into our mouths.

Next we visited a place where women were making shea butter from the nuts, and where I performed a little magic trip for a group of little boys outside. (I’m pretty sure they think I am the king of the village now). Finally we spent an hour walking through their Saturday market where they sell fruits, vegetables, machetes, grappling hooks, live fish in a bucket, cloth, pans, delicious fried

Saturday market in Siby, much more exciting than the U.S. mall and a tastier food court.

dough and potatoes, baskets, and where Jamey and I bought boubous, the traditional robe/pants set that we will sport on Africa Day at school. Pictures to follow.

I do some street magic for the kids, and they think I’m a sorcerer.

Rock climbing, hiking across crevasses, mug showers, huts…have aliens taken over our bodies? I did spend a fair amount of time buffing my nails once we got home as all of that adventure took its toll, so I haven’t gone completely to the dark side yet. But there’s always next week….

Chapter 10: Kids…Watch Out for the Boiling Water and Caustic Chemicals

On Thursday I took my class on the first field trip of the school year. We visited a women’s cooperative where they create bazin, a hand-dyed polished cotton unique to Mali and known worldwide (well, except I had not actually heard of it, but I don’t get out much).

Rocking a bazin on the runway in Mali

Bazin is the mainstay of Malian fashion, used to make the boubous, which in my opinion is the best name ever for a robe and could provide much fodder for a sitcom:

Man: Those are some extremely nice boubous, ladies! And they hang so nicely on you.

Girls: (Recoiling in horror) What?! How rude!

Man: I meant your traditional Malian robes made of bazin, silly.  (CUE LAUGH TRACK).

Anyway, this fabric is absolutely stunning and I was dying (pun alert) to see how it was made as I heard the process was fascinating and backbreaking. My American Embassy contact who is the Community Liaison Officer–or CLO (pronounced “cloh” for those of us in the know) hooked us up with a local woman who owns a facility just across town. This resourceful gal started a small bazin operation a few years ago with just a few workers and now has more than 100 people working for her.

Fabric to dye for…

I knew I could work this in with some cultural lessons so we set a date, and thankfully my colleague who teaches grades 2/3 did a lot of the paperwork and organizing so I would just basically show up with my class. Before we went I found a couple of YouTube videos about the local bazin industry, and at this point I’m thinking there is a YouTube video on everything ever invented or mentioned since the dawn of time. My students were chomping at the bit after seeing these videos, especially knowing that this would be a participatory experience–although the details of that were a little fuzzy (more on that in a minute). I also found a great song in French by Malian singing duo Amadou & Miriam that talked about bazin. I used Google translate to put the lyrics in English so we could analyze them but the kids made more sense of them in French. I, of

where the action happens (owner in foreground)

course, nodded and moved my lips as if I was reading and comprehending the French too though I’m not sure they bought it. Then I gave them an assignment: On the field trip they should document their experience with photos, videos, and writing so that next week we can create a music video about bazin, using the Amadou & Miriam song as a background. We will incorporate their photos, video clips, and poetry they will write once we return. They were quite hip to this idea, as well as the fact that we would be out of school for a large chunk of the day (that thrill is a universal one). On the day of the trip we loaded up 26 second through fifth graders, 4 teachers, 6  parents (2 Belgians, 1 American, 1 Canadian, 1 Japanese, and the Malian Prime Minister’s wife) into two small buses.

boiling water, sulphur fumes, campfire smoke, and lovely dyed fabric

Now in terms of prior field trip experience, I am a seasoned chaperone of jaunts to high quality art museums, fancy theatre venues, and turn of the century Palm Beach mansions. I’m used to dealing with fancy docents, exhibitions of Renaissance art, and Broadway touring companies. So keep these lovely images in mind as I describe our day at the bazin business. After a quick lunch on the grounds of the American Club, the buses dropped us off on a moderately busy, unpaved road. Which was the venue. Seriously. We stood in the road for a large part of the afternoon, dodging motos and taxis and SUVs and

freshly dyed and waiting for the drying line

the occasional donkey and making sure the students were not run over/trampled. The bazin facility was on both sides of the dirt road. On one side was a building with not many windows or interior lights and a really long hall that the kids disappeared into. I believe this was where the white cotton material was stored or folded or something, but I accidentally left my Ray-Bans on so I couldn’t see a thing.  Somewhere in there I did score a free ink pen with the company’s name on the side. I don’t think I stole it, but it’s a possibility. The exciting part of the visit (and by exciting I mean like when a hungry tiger escapes into a zoo packed with visitors) took place across the street. This was the open air dyeing

Mr. Fessler! My hands are melting! My eyes sting!

grounds filled with Malian women hunched over giant black cauldrons heated by smoky wood fires. The cauldrons were full of boiling water, a sulphur chemical that bonds the color to the fabric, and various rich hues of bubbling dye. Everywhere there were stacks of freshly dyed wet fabric, plastic packets of that sulphur-based white powder, and lots of muddy puddles in many different rainbow colors. It was a massive beehive of colorful activity. The women wore elbow length rubber gloves and were constantly dunking brilliant white cloth into the water, or lifting out the colored results, or wringing it out, or pouring dye from one pot into another, or dumping the remaining dye onto the ground where it went into, um, the groundwater. Aside from the fact that smoldering campfires on their own produce one of my least favorite odors, there was the added scent of sulphur. So it wasn’t exactly like a romp through a lavender field in Provence. And really, what better place for a group of 7 to 10 years old to play for the afternoon?

Each woman actually specializes in a single color.

The owner, a tall stately woman, was resplendent in a fancy boubou and head wrap. She began explaining this whole scene, albeit in French. One of our parents started to translate, saying, “So she says that this is like a training school as well as a bazin business.” Before he could finish his French-speaking son, one of my students, offered his own version of the translation. He piped in, “She takes in women who don’t know how to do anything AT ALL!” Kids say the darndest things. Despite the dangers of third degree burns and various respiratory illnesses, I still have to say this was an amazing site to see. The women folded the fabric into intricate shapes, triangles, squares, wiggly lines, and whatever. Then they dipped parts of the folded fabric into different dyes. It ends up in a color that looks like a cross between vomit and chili—until they dunk it in water and then it turns into a completely different brilliant shade. When it’s unfolded it has crazy, repetitive patterns that you can’t even begin to figure out.  The kids were dumbfounded (or maybe woozy from the fumes). One of my students said, “There is so much action here I don’t know what to write first!” I wondered, writer’s block or chemical-induced brain damage?

Clothes drying never looked so artful

Next they hang the freshly dyed fabric on lines across the street to dry, which makes for quite the beautiful scene. After that they are stamped with some sort of resin and taken to two huts in the back of the property where a group of six guys place the fabric on a curved piece of wood, then pound the hell out of it with a mallet that looks like something Wile E. Coyote would try to hit the Roadrunner with. They slam those mallets down one after the other, never hitting each other (at least while we were there) but coming awfully close.

The pounding guys…it gave me a pounding headache

And oh yes, in case you’re wondering the kids were inches away from this action and also got to pound things with the mallets. But wait…there’s more! Each student received a piece of white fabric and a pair of gloves. Then they got to dunk their fabric into really hot dye-filled water. I held my breath this entire time, mostly because it smelled really bad but also because I was super nervous I would witness a scene from Final Destination 6. Thankfully there were no horror movie-like events, and we all made it back to the buses in one piece, skin intact (I did a head count of the kids twelve or thirteen times to make sure nobody had disappeared into a vat of orange dye).

Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble….

All kidding and caustic chemicals aside, this was an incredible experience that really showed the kids how self-empowered African women use their artistic talent to rise above poverty. In a country like Mali, one of the poorest in the world, this is a big deal. Of course my students were worried about the health concerns these women face, as well as the environmental impact of the dyeing business. I told them these are exactly the kinds of problems they will be solving when they are adults, balancing human and environmental needs, and they better do their darn homework so they are well-equipped to deal with these pressing issues (hello teachable moment!). Plus it’ a great way to pass the buck to the next generation.

My student Milo and his brother Oscar use the pounders on something other than cloth

Today, a day later and the odd smells finally gone from our skin and hair, we are still marveling over everything we saw. The kids started writing their poems today and I have to say they didn’t miss a sight, sound, smell, or texture (I had reiterated that a sense of taste would NOT be part of this assignment). I’ll post a link to the finished music video when it’s complete—it should be quite the masterpiece. Obviously breathing in caustic chemicals did wonders for our creative abilities.

Chapter 9: Maid in Mali

Me and Fati, the best maid and cook in the whole wide world.

Last week we negotiated a salary and a list of responsibilities for Fati, our Malian maid. The school had paid her through August, and it was up to us if we would keep her for the remainder of our time here. So basically, did we want to clean our own toilet and slave over a hot stove and wash and iron our muddy clothes and mop the expansive white tile floors and grocery shop and scrub the shower and pack our own lunches and clean our muddy shoes and make our bed and feed the cats…or have a full time maid do it all for us for $1 an hour? After an agonizing 2 seconds of discussion we decided to welcome Fati into the family.

Here’s me in the Indian restaurant, posing in front of a sign advertising vaginal cream.

Fati doesn’t speak English and we can say about six French sentences so far–none of which are useful in negotiating a contract unless it involves “I am allergic to garlic,” “Where is the toilet?,” and “Want to watch me eat this entire baguette at one sitting?” The Malians in Bamako also speak a local dialect called Bambera, and Jamey and I are learning a few phrases a week from the school guards who have made it their mission to teach us. But we still can’t say enough. So our fluent-French-speaking colleague Robin kindly offered to help us out.

Now the Malians are extremely gracious and mannered, and under no circumstances

Me and Niambele, our day shift house guard.

would they ever express negative feelings toward you, even if they were offended by something you did. So it was hard to tell if Fati was happy with our salary offer (which was pretty much what she was paid by the last family, and they had a 3-year-old that she watched in addition to everything else she does for us). Plus we were also a little concerned that working for a male couple might freak her out a bit since Glee and Will & Grace aren’t exactly must-watch TV here in Bamako. But when Robin translated Fati’s comment, it was something about how nice we were and how happy she is to be working for us and how she looks forward to getting to know us better! These are my kind of people.

Ami and me. She’s the woman who runs a fruit & vegetable stand on the corner outside our house. She stores her produce in our carport t night and we haven’t stolen a single banana (yet).

Our teaching career in the US did not afford us the luxury of household help. Or meat. Or name-brand toilet paper. (NOTE: Our Republican legislature in Florida actually did cause a change in our teacher salary in 2010 for the first time in 6 or 7 years. But it happened to be a decrease of 3%, requiring us to choose between getting rid of HBO or skipping a 6-month dental check-up.). So suddenly having a staff devoted to our well-being—a maid, a gardener, and 2 guards (as well as a driver at our disposal) is a little disconcerting.

Yesterday our house guard Niambele washed our car and today he opened the car door for me when we pulled in. Oumar the gardener was tending the vegetable garden he planted for us, and Fati had a freshly baked quiche waiting on the counter. The house was spotless, and the dirty clothes from yesterday were clean, pressed, and stacked on the dresser (If I could get these wonderful helpers to write lesson plans I literally wouldn’t have a thing to do aside from personal hygiene and grooming.). I will say that we do not take this all  for granted as it makes us fully understand how damn lucky we really are. It would take Fati, mother of five, 22 years to earn what I made in a year as an “underpaid” Florida teacher.

Sunset, time for a G&T and a spritz of Deepwoods OFF

Speaking of many kids, our school is slowly growing since the U.S. Department of State just announced that the families of Embassy employees can return to Mali. That’s a good sign that coup-related worries are fading and that Bamako is safe. Although “safe” is relative. I just heard about these grotesque flies that lay their eggs in laundry that’s on clotheslines. Then the eggs hatch while you’re wearing the clothes and the larvae get into your skin, and supposedly that’s why the maid irons everything because the heat kills the eggs. That’s far from “safe” in my book. And thank god Fati irons like a demon.

Anyway, in just a couple of days our school received confirmation that 11 American

My Bennetton-commercial-worthy class

students were returning in the coming weeks. I already had an American kid come today (American mom, doctor dad from Niger who specializes in malaria…yay!). And the wife of the Nigerian ambassador popped in today to tell me her child was on the way as well. (Politically speaking, that so far gives me the children of 2 ambassadors, the prime minister, and an official of the African Union–and here I thought I was going to be tucked away in a little school in the middle of nowhere)). And because some other countries as well as many NGOs rely on the opinion of Uncle Sam (USA #1!) they may also decide to allow their employees and their families to return. So I may receive a few more little whippersnappers but it’s all good. I spend my days trying to decide which

Jamey with two of our school’s guards. We are first to arrive each morning, and they give us a little lesson in speaking Bambara.

creative activity to do next and the kids (and their $30,000/yr tuition-paying parents) appreciate it all. No piles of test data looming over my desk, no threats that I’ll lose my job or get a lower salary if my students don’t test well next April, no directives from on high telling me what/when/how to teach, no dread, no stomach aches, no FCAT pep rallies or FCAT reward parties to plan. And we have THREE recesses and as much bottled water as we can gulp down (I’m up to 2 liters a day!) This doesn’t seem real.

What also doesn’t seem real is this what happens when it rains. It doesn’t rain for long…maybe 30 minutes tops. But it pours buckets and because the ground is very clayish, the water doesn’t drain.

This is the “road” to our house after a big rainstorm yesterday afternoon. It flows like a river. Oh look! Here’s comes Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn on the African Queen!

And the “roads” have no drains (or curbs, or stop signs, or lines painted down the middle, or smooth surfaces). So the rain doesn’t just puddle up. It makes a river, a flowing river with rapids right down the middle of the road. It’s almost like a scene from The River Wild, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Kevin Bacon and Meryl Streep came rafting right down the centerline (if there was in fact a centerline on the “road”). And did I mention that the motos are still driving in this mess?

Another unreal experience happened last Saturday night when the U.S. Ambassador to Mali, Mary Beth Leonard, hosted a BBQ for our little faculty at her very sassy residence

Partygoers do a synchronized number as I hurriedly leave the dance floor feigning an injured achilles tendon.

(might I mention that this is the second time I’ve dined with her in the 25 days we’ve been in Africa). We dined outside to the music of a live African band and some dancing even ensued (and no it did not involve either Jamey or me doing African dance moves so get that picture out of your head). The food and drink was fantastic, but not as fantastic as she is…a down-to-earth, unassuming firecracker who is full of energy and spunk. I hope all of the U.S. ambassadors are representing us as well as she is. She even got into her bathing suit and swam with some of the faculty members’ kids. Later she came out with a bin of kitty litter for a teacher who had mentioned how hard it was to find that product in Mali. I was going to mention how I couldn’t find a 60” flat screen TV anywhere in Mali either.

I gave a reading assignment last Friday in which the students were to interview 2 adults about the concept of “perfect,” as in “What makes a perfect life?” It connected with the theme of a novel we were reading. When I was reading the assignments today I saw that one of my students, the daughter of a teaching couple at our school who also attended the BBQ, apparently interviewed the Ambassador while they were all in the pool!

The quilt-like art we presented to the US Ambassador at the party.

We presented her with a New England quilt-themed piece of art my class made (well, mostly me because I waited until the last minute) and had everyone in the school sign. She loves quilts and is from New England, and she said she was going to have it framed. What a night…a kitty litter giveaway, dancing under the stars, swimming and interviewing with the kids, a fullish moon, compliments about our art, and DEVILED EGGS! I almost forgot to mention that she had her cook make deviled eggs for us! And I bet that cook was smiling the whole time!