Chapter 30: You’re Lookin’ Swell Mali: Saying Goodbye to Our Bamako Adventure

daktari

Clarence (right) with the goo-goo-googly eyes.

As a kid I was obsessed with Africa, mostly fueled by what I saw on TV. There was the TV series Daktari starring Clarence the Cross-Eyed Lion, who made me feel both terrified and super sad at the same time (“Watch out! He’ll tear your head off with those powerful jaws…ohhhh, poor thing…what lioness will hook up with that walleyed creature?”).

There was the based-on-a-true-story movie Born Free, where we all boo-hooed when captive animal Elsa the lion is finally set free (in slow motion, of course) into theborn free Kenyan wilds as that sappy, Oscar-winning Born Free song plays: Born free, and life is worth living, But only worth living, ’cause you’re born freeeeeeee. This is not to be confused with Kid Rock’s Born Free song in which he defiantly sings, “You can knock me down and watch me bleed, But you can’t keep no chains on me, I was born free! While technically those lyrics could apply to a freed African lion, poor grammar ruins the mood.

I can’t forget the classic film The African Queen where Katharine Hepburn manages to look glamorous in the Tanzanian jungles amidst the tsetse flies, high humidity, and a lack of toiletries. Glamour and jungle adventure all in one? Sign me up!

african queen

Ms. Hepburn…why don’t you sweat?

And then there was my favorite Abbott and Costello movie “Africa Screams,” where a male gorilla has a major crush on Bud Abbott and eventually saves him from being boiled up for dinner by some hungry cannibals. I used to think the whole cannibalism thing in this movie was horribly stereotypical until I read that in the 1890s the town of Ngandu in the Congo paved its streets with the leftovers from supper, in this case 2,000 polished human skulls. Oh well, they always say two (thousand) heads are better than one.

africa screams

Despite the fact that I grew up in the Midwest, literally next to a cornfield, I fantasized that I lived in the wilds of Africa. The forest in the nearby park became the jungles of the Congo, and I would hack my way along the deep jungle trails with my trusty machete (well, it was part of a high rise handlebar that broke off of my Schwinn Stringray bike, you know, the one with the banana seat?). Now, I’m pretty sure that the jungles of the Congo didn’t have a Dairy Queen across the street like my jungle did, but a boy’s gotta have his Mister Misty and Dilly Bar after all of that jungle trekking.

jungle cruise

A hungry, hungry hippo in lifelike plastic.

I even wrote a story in junior high about two boys who find an old map in their algebra book and stow away to Africa in search of treasure. Clearly I was doing some daydreaming during math class. I also daydreamed about the time I rode the Jungle Cruise at DisneyWorld, my nirvana. A ten-minute dose of pygmies, pythons, and gorillas, all while gliding along a refreshingly clean “river” with our experienced African guide (actually, an 18-year old high school dude named Jason from Fort Wayne, Indiana wearing a pith helmet). What more could an Africa-obsessed kid crave?

Cairo

Hope there is some Pepto-Bismol in that bag….

So imagine my delight when I first actually stepped foot on the African continent, on a big detour during a college-era backpacking trip through Europe. Four of us had just arrived in Athens, saw a poster advertising cheap flights to Cairo, and within two hours were at the airport—despite the fact we didn’t have a visa for Egypt. After a weird chat with authorities at the Cairo airport in which we signed some papers that were all written in Arabic that might/might not have promised them my firstborn or my corneas, we were allowed in.

We enjoyed a weeklong adventure exploring the pyramids, riding camels in the desert, and learning that inexpensive, hole-in-the-wall restaurant food, while economically sensible, can cause explosive diarrhea two days later. But I was in Africa. AFRICA! It was as exotic and every bit as exciting as the Jungle Cruise, even though the Nile river water seemed a bit cloudier than the Disney “river.” But despite our watery stools, it was one of the best experiences of my life.

Marrakesh

Just like the movie Casablanca, except actually filmed in Casablanca.

Some years later I got to experience Africa yet again. This time Jamey and I traveled to Morocco for a few weeks on a tour around the country, wandering the souks of Marrakesh, having tea with a Berber family in the Atlas Mountains, and seeing the hotel where the Marx Brothers filmed A Night in Casablanca. It was also here that we learned that Humphrey Bogart’s classic film Casablanca was not filmed in Casablanca, but rather in the exotic locales of Burbank and Van Nuys, California. Here’s lookin’ at you, California kid.

But it wasn’t until three and a half years ago that the idea of living in Africa presented itself to us. By that point we had abandoned hopes of continuing our teaching career in America, which had become about as pleasant as swallowing a mouthful of sulfuric acid-coated glass shards. Instead we were looking for international teaching jobs that would take us far, far away from the test-obsessed mess in the U.S. While there were international teaching jobs available in many countries, two openings fitting our exact skills popped up at a school in Bamako, Mali.

Mali! We pictured ourselves in pith helmets and khaki jackets, just like Jason the Jungle Cruise guide. We saw ourselves living in this exotic place of golden sands that was once home to a grand kingdom twice the size of France–so wealthy it made European royalty look like trailer park trash. We emailed the school and interviewed by Skype a few times, and after a couple of months received the news that we were hired. Surprisingly, safari fashions were not part of the conversation, but we were thrilled just the same to know we would soon be living and working in the exotic lands of West Africa.

Now granted there were a few bumps in the road in our journey. And by bumps I mean those speed bumps at the rental car places that are covered with sharp iron spikes. Because just a month after signing our contract Mali experienced a coup d’état, then a counter coup. The school closed, and we were offered the chance to cancel our contracts. But then it reopened and we went to Mali anyway because really, we figured, how much worse could it get?

Well, maybe a little worse. Within a couple of months Islamist rebels took over the northern half of the country, followed by a massive intervention by the French Army (who, by the way, wear really, really short camouflaged shorts). In the two years that followed there was a terrorist attack at a nightclub in Bamako, as well as an outbreak of Ebola. But other than that, things were dandy.

Aside from the troubles and a fluctuating student population that waxed and waned

french_unit

Who wears short shorts, we wear short shorts, if you dare wear short shorts, Nair for short shorts… Source: http://ricorant.blogspot.com

depending on which countries evacuated their people, and the security advisories from the American Embassy cautioning us to avoid lots of places, we loved just about every minute of our time in Bamako. I realize that probably makes a few folks shake their heads, along the same lines as “Other than that Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?” But believe me when I say that Mali is so much more than rare viral outbreaks and military skirmishes in the desert by short shorts-wearing men. These will not be my takeaways from three years in Mali (okay, maybe I’ll remember those crazy short shorts).

So what will I take away from our three years living and working in Mali? What will I fondly remember? Here’s what:

The Colors

Nothing is dull-colored in Mali. Everything from the clothes to the carrots dances with vivid color. Even the dirt is fabulous, a sort of earthy orange hue that would look great on the walls of a Parisian apartment or on a gown going down the catwalk. Actually most of our light-colored clothes and linens turned this shade of orange, so we really will remember this tone for years to come.

dirt

 

The People

We had to arrive at school early because it took at least ten or 15 minutes to get through the greetings and joking with the school guards at the gate. Sure, there were teachers who blew right past these guys with a clipped “bonjour,” but they missed out on one of my favorite parts of the day. This is when we learned to speak rudimentary Bambara, including the basic greeting that can take about five minutes (How are you? How did you sleep? How is your family? How is the village chief? And so on).

guards

This is the time where we began to comprehend the Malian sense of humor, in which they make fun of you but you don’t really feel insulted because they are so damn nice and have the most genuine smiles ever (“Your belly looks big. Did you eat everything in the house?” or “You look tired. Too much whiskey last night?”). We bonded with these guys, and plenty of the other local staff who we took the time to get to know, and saying goodbye to them was heart-wrenching.

We once visited a remote village with a colleague and his Malian friend who originally came from this village. Even though the villagers didn’t know us and we weren’t exactly dressed well (sorry Katharine Hepburn) we were treated like VIPs, always offered the good seat in the shade along with a welcome speech about how they felt so privileged to have us there. We even met the chief who welcomed us and told us we could return any time. Throngs of kids followed us as we walked back to our car. All I could think of was, “So this is what it’s like to be a member of One Direction!”

chief

 

The Expats

It takes a certain kind of person to knowingly choose to live in a landlocked, developing, sub-Saharan country where kids still poop in the road and shirts are sold from tree limbs on the roadside, where embassy advisories pop up on our phones warning us to steer clear of public places. These are people with a sense of adventure, a bit of grit, an intense interest in culture, a humanitarian spirit, lots of passport stamps, and definitely a touch of insanity. And I loved meeting every one of them.

We met a UN filmmaker who shot a documentary about artists in Afghanistan. A former colleague organizes music festivals in remote areas of Mali in order to promote peace among different tribes. Another friend worked with transgendered prostitutes in various countries around the world. We met male and female Marines who, still in their 20s, have already worked in several countries most people couldn’t point out on a map. We even socialized with the US Ambassador and the British Deputy Chief of Mission.

 

The Weather

road

Our road turns into the Jungle Cruise.

There really should be a TV show about the weather in Mali (hey, there are shows called “Treetop Cat Rescues” and “Wives With Knives,” so a meteorological-based Mali program isn’t too farfetched). The wet season involves torrential downpours that dump so much rain in an hour or two that if there actually were storm drains they couldn’t handle it. So the roads turn into rivers–I actually saw fish swimming down on our “street” one afternoon. The hot season is so blistering hot and dry that it sucks the moisture from your eyes and makes blinking a chore. On the bright side (pun intended), it’s nearly always sunny so you are always cheerful as you slowly melt into the pavement. Surprisingly I must have adapted to the climate because a few weeks I actually found myself saying, “No, it’s not that hot. it’s only 100.” I guess to me, 100 degrees is the new 80 degrees.

 

The Arts

We took an African dance class our first year in Bamako, practicing on a patio outside our school, overlooking the Niger River, with live drummers who pounded away like there was no tomorrow. In our own minds we moved like the newest members of the Alvin Ailey maskAmerican Dance Theater; in reality we looked like two guys with some sort of nerve damage. But it didn’t matter because we were having fun and feeling a part of the culture—a culture that is steeped in the arts. We saw just about every top Malian musician in concert (Habib Koite played at one of our school’s graduation ceremonies), watched puppet shows, learned how to decorate mud cloth, and purchased enough masks and pottery and statues to open our own museum.

 

House Calls

Does the cat need shots? Car need a tune up? Feel like buying some Malian crafts? If so, keep your lazy butt on the couch because in Bamako everyone makes house calls, from the vet, to the mechanic, to the crafts guy. I did go to a dental office to get a root canal because I didn’t want blood and saliva to get on the couch.

 

The Simplicity

Bamako has a couple of million people, but is still referred to as a “big village.” I would add a “big DUSTY village.” There is about one high-rise building, and not many stoplights or cowsidewalks or paved roads. On the other hand there are plenty of farm animals gallivanting around the city, and you can buy most of what you need at the roadside. It’s a busy, crowded sort of place, but uncomplicated and not stressful.

Sure there are a gazillion vehicles/animals/people in the road, but you seldom move faster than 25 MPH. So it never feels like a crazy death-defying ride down I-95 like I was used to, with obnoxious drivers two inches from my bumper, honking at me to go faster when I was already ten miles over the speed limit. If you’re trying to pull onto a busy road in Bamako, people actually stop their cars and flash their lights to let you in.

Nothing seemed to rattle my Malian friends. If I was fried at the end of the day from trying to accomplish too much and not getting everything done, they would say: “Dɔɔnin-dɔɔnin, kɔnɔnin bɛ a ɲaa da.” (Little by little, a bird builds its nest). When the war in the north was raging and we were preparing “to go” bags in case of evacuation, they just said things like, “That’s life” and “It will all work out.” When our plane was delayed for hours and I paced the airport trying to find out what was going on, the Malian passengers stretched out across three seats and slept. I rarely heard a Malian complain, except for my janitor at school who felt the school cat didn’t deserve the canned food and imported Whisker Lickin treats I gave her because “she doesn’t really do any work.”

 

The Adventure

Listen, I won’t lie: Jamey and I like fancy places too. Provence in the south of France is divine…we enjoyed buying lilies at the outdoor flower market and eating at swanky sidewalk cafes and buying lavender soap and very expensive suede shoes (that did not work well in the aforementioned hot season in Mali). Venice was enchanting as we strolled over the Bridge of Sighs with a gelato and drank wine in Piazza San Marco and watched the gondolas drift by on the Grand Canal. Barcelona, Lisbon, Berlin, Budapest, Vienna, Paris…we’ve visited many proper cities and had enjoyable times.

Paris august 2012 - 066

Being fancy at a fancy Parisian sidewalk cafe with our fancy sunglasses.

But unless you are Jason Bourne being chased through Europe by CIA operatives and Interpol, these fancy places don’t involve a whole lot of adventure. You eat good food, you see pretty churches, you visit an art museum with Picassos and Monets. Pleasant, but for me not so memorable.

That’s why Mali struck such a cord with me. A simple Saturday drive through Bamako to the grocery store was more memorable than any stroll down the Champs-Élysées or the Ramblas. Right in the center of town a herd of longhorn cattle might cross the road in front of your car (which makes a unique excuse as to why you are late to something).

We always played played “What’s on the Moto?” in which we tried to find the most bizarre

thing being carried on a moto, the small motorcycles that inundate every road in Bamako. Some of the contenders:

  • A guy driving his moto with three tires over his body (I think Wile E. Coyote did that once)
  • two guys carrying three live sheep (a very interesting ménage à cinq)
  • a guy carrying a 20-foot-long metal pipe (jousting never goes out of fashion)
  • a guy clutching a large pane of sheet glass (what could possibly go wrong?)
  • a guy balancing a 55-gallon steel drum on the seat behind him

You might also have an encounter with a Malian police officer in his royal blue shirt and police-nationale-agents-service-securitejaunty black beret. If you’re new to town and stupid like we were, you actually pull over when they blow their whistle at you. Then you go through a long, drawn out ordeal in which they take your auto registration card, you tell them you don’t speak French, they speak louder and more forcefully, they mention that you can pay a “fine” on the spot to avoid a trip to the station, you try to figure out why they pulled you over in the first place, you call the American Embassy and hand the phone to the officer, he yells some more, he walks away with your registration card and phone, you get out and chase after him, and he either tells you to leave or you give him a couple of dollars.

What’s more convenient is to pretend you don’t see or hear the policeman at all, and just blow right on past him. It feels very Bonnie and Clyde, without the machine guns, thankfully. Speaking of guns, my first taxi ride in Bamako had four of us smashed in the back along with a Malian soldier in the front seat, his gun over his shoulder and pointing pretty much at my head. Every time we hit a bump in the road (in other words, every 3 seconds), I cocked my head in another direction to avoid an accidental discharge. All that adventure for a $1 taxi fare.

Adventure is at every turn in Bamako….a village on an island in the middle of the Niger River, right in the middle of town, that makes you feel you went back in time. A boat ride puppeton the Niger in a pirogue loaded with cold beer, seeing people living in corrugated metal shacks next to mansions along the shore. Shopping at the Grande Marche outdoor market, a never-ending maze of stalls full of locals buying and selling everything from colorful fabric to toothpaste to soccer balls to warthog heads. Musical concerts in which waterfallan audience member always jumps on stage to dance with the musicians and the rest of us are on our feet dancing right along. Hippos. Crocodiles. Having a sheep ritually slaughtered for Tabaski right outside my classroom window. Massive peace rallies. Outdoor parties in the sweltering heat where your clothes are soaked with sweat but you dance anyway. Malian puppet shows where massive, bigger-than-life creatures dance to the beat of African drums. A horse and rider galloping down the main road, dodging the cars and trucks. Boarding your plane from a stairway from the tarmac like they did in the 1950s. Standing under a tall waterfall in the bush just outside of the city.

I like pretty, but I like adventure more.

 

Au revoir, Mali. K’an bεn. Thank you for fulfilling my childhood fantasy and better yet, for making me a better person. Until we meet again…

bush

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Chapter 24: Sheep in the Penthouse/Mutton on the Plate

IMG_0536

On the way home from school last week I saw a ram—a really huge one with those giant twisty horns like you see on Satan in foreign horror films. That’s a fairly normal sight here in Bamako (sheep, not Satan) where these goat-looking sheep probably outnumber people.

But what made this sighting unique is that Mr. Sheep wasn’t in one of the normal locations,

photo: mali anta on flickr

photo: mali anta on flickr

e.g. lounging roadside a few inches from speeding traffic, crossing a busy road in a herd during rush hour, draped over the lap of a guy riding a moto down the street, or strapped to the top of a sitroma—the local vans used as a public bus.

CHEVRE

photo: bamada.net

Nope, this ovine guy was peeping out of a SECOND story window, in someone’s home. He had a rather relaxed look on his face, like he had just finished taking a long soak in the tub while sipping a glass of merlot. He certainly behaved as if he had always lived on the second floor, and spent his afternoons with bearded chin on the sash, watching the world go by.

Well, first of all I didn’t know that sheep did stairs. We could barely get our dogs to go up a few stairs and they didn’t even have hooves. Made me really wonder. Had he slipped into the house and tappity-tapped unnoticed right upstairs? Or did this homeowner suddenly think one day, “Why should living in the city keep me from having sheep? They can simply live in the guest bedroom upstairs!”

Whatever the case, it was only amusing for a moment, as I knew this ram’s penthouse

photo: mali anta on flickr

photo: mali anta on flickr

arrangement was short-term. Sadly, in just a few days he would be the featured entrée for a dinner on the Muslim holiday of Tabaski.

Also known as Eid al-Adha, this holiday celebrates Ibrahim/Abraham’s willingness to follow God’s orders to slit the throat of his young son (this warm and fuzzy tale is also recounted in the Bible and makes me understand why I always had nightmares after religion class). This bedroom sheep would join an estimated 100 million other animals (cows, camels, goats, and sheep) worldwide also meeting their maker as Tabaski dinner

photo: Linda Padolini

Banks offer Tabaski loans so you can buy a sheep too. photo: Linda Padolini

on October 15th. Because, according to many religions, nothing honors your supreme ruler more than slicing the jugular vein of a farm animal in his honor. I mean seriously, wouldn’t a deity be just as happy with, say, a big plate of carrots? We have lots of those here, and most folks don’t get emotionally attached to root vegetables.

At least this lucky sheep on the second floor lived the life of luxury beforehand. I’d like to think that at night he slept on a king-sized bed with a Tempur-Pedic mattress, snuggled in 1200 thread count Egyptian cotton sheets, listening to Adele and reading Star Magazine on his iPad (though I haven’t quite figured out how hooves would work with a swipe screen). I mean, you might as well go out on top, right?

willyI’ve always had a soft spot for animals, and I mean that in a “Free Willy” sort of way where I would totally free a captive orca from SeaWorld using a pick-up truck. I’ve protested with PeTA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) outside of the circus, the greyhound racetrack, and a cosmetics industry meeting (my sign at this last one said, “L’Oreal: Blinding Bunnies for Beauty!). I really, really dislike any activity that harms animals, like hunting, bullfighting, or when the Roadrunner drops an anvil on Wile E. Coyote from the cliff above.

protest 2

I protested annually at our local greyhound torture track in West Palm Beach, FL (race track).

It’s the reason I was a vegetarian before coming to Mali. It started when I discovered that veal production mirrors the plot of a horror movie: yank a baby from its mom right after birth, confine it in a crate the size of a big beach towel so it can’t exercise and stays “tender,” feed it iron-poor gruel to keep it anemic so the flesh is pale, and kill it after 23 weeks so some fat human can gulp down its meat. Didn’t something like that happen in Saw IV?

Me with Wayne Pacelle, CEO of the Humane Society of the United States. I was 2010 Humane Society teacher of the Year.

Me with Wayne Pacelle, CEO of the Humane Society of the United States. I was 2010 Humane Society teacher of the Year.

Don’t get me wrong–I savor the taste of a crisp slice of bacon. And a hamburger on the grill dripping with pepper jack cheese is nirvana for me. But in the U.S. it was always easy for me to satisfy these cravings and not think about a slaughterhouse worker cracking the skull of Bessie the Cow or gutting Babe the pig. Why? Two words: mock meat.

It’s everywhere in America—fake burgers, hotdogs, crab cakes, chicken—all made from things without a face, like soy, wheat gluten, and pea protein (http://www.fakemeats.com/default.asp). In the U.S. I could still eat like a caveman without spearing the wooly mammoth and hacking off its meaty loins. For years I traced my open hand to draw cute turkeys, only to gobble down Tom Turkey at Thanksgiving dinner a few days later. Thank goodness Tofurkey allowed me to have a guilt-free holiday honoring the English prudes who were total bitches to the American Indians.

But now I’m in Mali, a developing country where the ethics of food have less to do with animal cruelty and more to do with how to feed the five million people that are starving...about a third of the population. Every day nearly 40 Malian children die from malnutrition–and I’m going to worry about whether or not my eggs come from free-range chickens? I’m pretty sure a hungry kid doesn’t debate the merits of Tofurkey vs. Tom Turkey.

I really wish the whole humane-treatment-of-animals issue here involved only food-related

matters. Unfortunately I don’t think life for any animal in Mali is so great. Take dogs, for example. There are a few dogs here, but I guarantee that they aren’t being pushed around in baby strollers or getting therapeutic canine massages or sleeping in $75/night doggy spas where their vacationing owners can watch them on a live web cam. Here dogs run loose in fields scrounging for scraps in ditches, or get picked up by one leg by the neighborhood kids.

Our next door neighbor here—let’s call him Michael Vick—has a German shepherd guard dog. One Sunday morning I heard it barking continuously so like any concerned neighbor I went to the roof deck to spy, er, I mean investigate by secretly peering down into his yard. There I saw whatever is the opposite of the Dog Whisperer—maybe the Dog Screamer–some guy lunging repeatedly at the animal with a stick that he also used to bang a metal pan just inches from the dog’s ears, all while the owner held the dog in place with a piece of rope around the neck. Ah, the special bond between man and dog.

I also grimace when I see a skinny horse pulling a wooden cart overloaded with rocks right

photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/superbebito/854382475/lightbox/

Chickens know what Bamako looks like upside-down. Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos /superbebito/854382475/lightbox/

down a traffic-filled road. Or when a kid is beating the side of a sad-looking donkey to make it go faster. Or when a guy on a bike is laden with tiny, rusty, wire cages stuffed with live chickens, and he unloads them by tossing them to the ground. Or when longhorn cattle walk along the busiest road in town, crossing in front of speeding cars and motos that seem to miss them by mere centimeters.

Now I’m no Pollyanna. I know that animal cruelty happens in the good ol’ U.S. of A. too, and probably on a much larger scale (factory farm tour anyone?). It just doesn’t seem as horrific because I know there are animal rights organizations doing their best to stop awful things from happening. Nearly every week I receive an action alert from PeTA or the Humane Society asking me to email someone, and I do. Last week I emailed the University of Wisconsin/Madison, asking them to stop experimenting on cats (http://www.peta.org/features/uw-madison-cruelty.aspx). The email included this lovely description:

“According to records obtained by PETA, one cat was subjected to invasive surgeries on

photo: People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals

photo: People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals

her ears, skull, and brain. In the first operation, a stainless steel post was screwed to her skull so that her head could be immobilized during experiments. In the next surgery they cut into her head and skull and then applied a toxic substance to her inner ears in order to deafen her.”

Seriously though, what had to happen to that researcher as a child to make him okay with drilling into the skulls of live cats? Was he thinking, “I’m sure Fluffy won’t even notice this” as his Black & Decker cordless drill began to grind skull bone? Who knows, maybe he goes home and sits on his couch made of kitten fur and baby bald eagle feathers. I just hope his lamp made out of panda cub bones falls on him some day.

While farm animals aren’t exactly coddled here, at least Malians aren’t drilling kitten skulls or filming crush videos (in which women crush tiny animals with their stiletto heels—no lie—that’s really a thing). I can understand why a country with a 28% literacy rate wouldn’t grasp the notion of humane animal husbandry. What I can’t grasp is why a country like the U.S., with a 99% literacy rate, needs an animal rights organization to remind a university that it’s not cool to pour poison into the opened skulls of live cats.

school sheep

Mr. School Sheep #1 (the closest I came to naming he-who-would-be-dinner)

At school we had two “pet” sheep this year, munching grass in the distance while kids played on the swings. One had the biggest bluest eyes, and the other the loudest bleating I’ve ever heard. I didn’t let on to the kids that these were Tabaski sheep. Little did they know, one would be sacrificed right on the playground by a special Muslim man who is sanctioned to do this sort of thing (“Keep your classroom curtains closed between 8:30 and 9:00 AM!” our director reminded me). I was pleased to discover that this butcher guy had a hard time getting past the school guards as he brought an array of shiny, sharp knives in all shapes and sizes.

Our school sheep visit the cafeteria.

Our school sheep visit the cafeteria.

Supposedly the process is a quick thing done in a dignified manner and that’s what I’ll keep telling myself. Anyhow, this sheep would be served at the school’s Tabaski feast, and the second sheep would be raffled to a staff member (custodian, driver, gardener). This is a big deal as the sheep this year were frighteningly expensive, and continued to get more expensive as the big day drew closer. Since every family is expected to buy one, and the average worker’s monthly salary is $125, it becomes a hardship when you shell out $150 or $200 for a single sheep. So winning a sheep is a good thing. Even my cell phone service, Orange, sent a text saying that if I added minutes I would be in a lottery for a free sheep.

The following Monday I glanced out my window, and it was a little sad to see the Niger River without the school sheep prancing along in the foreground. I thought it was best not to mention anything to my students so as not to upset them. That morning I had them do a writing exercise about point of view. They took on the role of various people/objects/animals and wrote a paragraph on the same topic, a rainy day at school. I purposely did not include the sheep, as I didn’t want to call attention to their absence. I mean, what they don’t know can’t hurt them, right?

I did include the school tortoise though. Here’s what the student who was assigned the tortoise’s point of view read aloud:

Rainy days are the best at school. I have the whole field to myself because those loud kids

School tortoise; slow but enduring

School tortoise; slow but enduring

are inside. The only thing I have to worry about is sheep poop all over the ground. I have to crawl through it! I’m so glad it’s almost Tabaski and somebody will be eating those sheep and I won’t have to deal with that poop anymore.

And the class exploded with laughter and revelry while I pretended our school sheep had really escaped and were frolicking in a field of lavender in the south of France.

Chapter 21: Star Spangled Banter: How Grits, a Bidet, and a Tea Wench Helped Me Understand America & the World

Last year, just a few weeks before we left our old stomping grounds in Florida to begin a new life in Mali, we decided to pay a final visit to the West Palm Beach GreenMarket (yep, all one word, capital M…very fancy).

Fancy GreenMarket in West Palm Beach, Florida (Photo from Palm Beach Post)

Fancy GreenMarket in West Palm Beach, Florida (Photo from Palm Beach Post)

Unlike the outdoor markets we now frequent here in West Africa, the fancy GreenMarket is a tad different. It has no sheep heads, no ladies carrying gigantic baskets of bras or yams on their head, and requires about a week’s salary if you want to buy a slice of carrot cake. Seriously, for what I spent on a cup of Bob’s Fresh Squeezed Lemonade at the GreenMarket, I could buy a donkey cart full of lemons at our outdoor market in Bamako. And that would include the donkey.

loose leaf tea

photo from tealeafreview.com

But overpriced, hand-squeezed citrus beverages aside, we did enjoy strolling around the Greenmarket every week, gazing at the scenery, meeting friends, and taking out loans to buy slices of carrot cake. On this particular farewell visit we popped into a booth selling loose leaf tea, mostly because they had free samples of iced tea and we were thirsty. As we looked among the many exotic tea flavors (mango-mint-papaya, or black pepper-Listerine-garlic-hairspray, etc.) the fifty-something proprietor lady drifted over and began the hard sell. You know, the old “If you buy 4 packs you get the fifth for half price and that’s the best price you’ll ever pay for tea of this quality that’s handpicked by toddlers with each leaf individually hand-knotted blah blah blah” kind of stuff.

But this time we had a good excuse not to spend $47 on a bag of dried leaves that makes about 5 cups of mediocre tea. We explained that we were moving to Africa in a couple of weeks and couldn’t fit one more thing in our luggage—not even one, single, solitary, hand-knotted tealeaf.

“Africa? Why would you move there?” the tea wench blurted out.

“We have jobs teaching at an international school,” I answered.

“Ahhhh, so you’re doing it for the money. It figures,” she said.

"What am I going to do with all of my millions?" said no teacher ever.

“What am I going to do with all of my millions?” said no teacher ever.

I paused in stunned silence, only coming to my senses after gulping another shot of free iced tea. The money? Did she really just equate teaching with money? Because everyone knows that Donald Trump and Bill Gates made their gazillions by teaching, right? Because when I planned my future goals I said to myself, “Self, you’re going to make your first million by 30 in the highly lucrative and cut-throat world of elementary school teaching.” Because every teacher is so flush with cash that we use it to stuff our mattresses or store it in secret bank accounts in the Cayman Islands—right next to Mitt Romney’s vault.

“Um, I will say money wasn’t a huge factor in our decision,” I replied, biting my lip. “We are going for the adventure and because we love learning about other cultures.”

“Well, I’m sorry but I love A-MARE-EE-CUH,” she responded. She heavily accented each syllable in “America” for added effect.

Huh? Was this tea hag now implying that we were unpatriotic because we were moving abroad? For pete’s sake I was nearly born on the 4th of July and I once owned Old Glory-themed boxer shorts.boxers I was so flabbergasted I actually couldn’t think of a witty retort (I really, really hate when that happens). So I just walked away–with a last cup of free iced tea, mind you. We rich folks still like our free samples.

Of course 20 minutes later as we ate supper nearby, I thought of dozens of great comebacks. And was I ever ready to return and give her piece of my mind. But Jamey, wisely, prevented me from doing so because I’m pretty sure tea leaves would have been flying.

It's "offical." Tea Party members lack 3rd grade spelling skills.

It’s “offical.” Tea Party members lack 3rd grade spelling skills.

We decided it would be a waste of time though, because more than likely she was (ironically) a Tea Party freak who loves America/guns/telling people how superior her religion is, and hates anybody not possessing her pale skin, her heterosexuality, and the English language. Plus she had really bad hair and a cloying aroma of drugstore perfume that had irritated my nasal passages.

This got me to thinking, though. If I had to guess, I’d say she’s never left the U.S., and that her idea of a cultural experience is a trip to Disney’s EPCOT Center where she can have breakfast in Norway, lunch in China, and supper in Mexico–all in the same day. She probably couldn’t point out Mali on a map, or Africa for that matter. Wouldn’t even want to. I mean how can someone understand the world

Dining under the stars, well, I mean the plaster ceiling and twinkle lights, at EPCOT's Mexican restaurant.

Dining under the stars, well, I mean the plaster ceiling and twinkle lights, at EPCOT’s Mexican restaurant. (photo : attractionsmagazine.com

we live in when the only non-American she’s probably ever met is the cashier at the Chinese take-out place where she gorges on crab Rangoon?

I’m lucky that from an early age, I learned the world didn’t end at our city limits. My parents bravely took my siblings and I on driving trips across the country where I learned about people I’d never encountered before (cowboys, American Indians, southerners, surfers), food I’d never before eaten (grits, trout, oranges right off the tree), and things I’d never experienced in the Midwest (rodeos, chameleons, mountains). I also learned what

My family on our trip to the western U.S., stopping roadside for an ice cold Shasta orange soda in the cooler.

My family on our trip to the western U.S., stopping roadside for an ice cold Shasta orange soda in the cooler.

those quarter machines in the men’s bathroom were for, but that’s a different story.

I am sincerely grateful that my folks cautioned us not to demean things just because they were different from what we were used to. That’s an important lesson to learn if you are a Midwestern kid whose idea of exotic food is a Chef Boyardee homemade pizza with canned mushrooms and Velveeta cheese.

Kiss my grots.

Kiss my grits.

On a family trip to Florida I distinctly remember putting a heaping teaspoon of grits in my mouth for the first time at some roadside diner, and feeling like I was eating the stuff at the bottom of my goldfish aquarium. As I was about to say something to that effect, my dad said, “Keep it to yourself. Grits are a famous southern dish and you can’t hurt their feelings by saying you don’t like them.” So I ate goldfish poo-flavored mush and learned to be respectful. On the bright side, I do like grits today, especially when a half pound of cheese and butter are melted in with them.

When I was 16 they even allowed me to travel 3500 miles to live as an exchange student in faraway Peru. Imagine, a naïve teenager plucked from the cornfields of Illinois and plopped down into a country with stunning beaches, abject poverty, thousands of years of history, and a language I didn’t speak.

My 16-year-old self, hiking in the Andes for several days, wishing I had my Clairol Herbal Essence shampoo

My 16-year-old self, hiking in the Andes for several days, wishing I had my Clairol Herbal Essence shampoo.

I’ll admit that for a while I saw (and judged) everything through my sensible Midwestern lens. Don’t businessmen in suits know better than to pee in the street? Would it kill anyone to put a few ice cubes in the Coca Cola? What is that stupid extra toilet in the bathroom without a seat? Why do they have guinea pigs in the food section at the market instead of the pet section?

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Sitting on the 1000-year ruins of Saksaywaman near Cusco, Peru, wondering if there is a McDonalds nearby.

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“One of these things, is not like the other….” Me and my Peruvian host family.

But as the weeks passed I found that when I actually appreciated and valued the differences in the Peruvian way of life–instead of mocking or questioning them–I was a much happier teen. I also learned not to be too swift to judge. Each morning in the shower I remember thinking how totally stupid it was that Peruvians didn’t use shower curtains. I would shower, water would pour onto the floor, the cockroaches would do the backstroke, and afterwards the maid would come in and put newspaper all over the floor to soak it up (as she gave me a semi-dirty look). A month or two later I mentioned this to the other seven American exchange students living in the same town. “Can you believe it hasn’t dawned on Peruvians to use a freaking shower curtain?” I said. They looked at me like I was insane, and promptly told me that they all had shower curtains in their Peruvian homes. Okay, okay, so you don’t judge an entire nation on the peculiar habits of one family….I get it, I get it.

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Finally made it to Machu Picchu, happy to have checked off “hiking” from my bucket list so I won’t ever have to do it again.

My experience also improved as I practiced and practiced my Spanish until I dreamed in it. Life became a little more meaningful, the world a little more interesting, and I no longer had to mime holding myself and grimacing to get directions to the bathroom. For the first time I started to think globally rather than midwesternly (probably not a word, but you get the point), and I was digging it big time.

Now to be truthful, I wouldn’t say I fully integrated into Peruvian culture. I still went out and bought ice cube trays because I couldn’t stomach warm Coke, though the warmish Pisco Sours were never a problem for me. And if I had to relieve my bladder I still bypassed the curb to use an actual enclosed bathroom. Bringing that particular curbside custom back to Illinois would have resulted in a hefty fine anyway.

I left Peru and returned to the States, starting my senior year in high school just two days later. While I’m sure I looked very international and jet-settish on the outside, I was a discombobulated, cultural mess on the inside. I mean, just a few weeks earlier I had hiked three days on an ancient Incan Trail to Machu Picchu, at one point traversing a landslide by inching across a rope. Now I was hanging out at McDonalds and watching HBO.

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Me looking surprisingly chipper despite having altitude sickness, high in the Andes.

Not to say one of those experiences is better than the other–I mean a 15th century Incan village nestled on a mountaintop above the clouds is impressive, but I seriously craved McDonalds fries the ENTIRE time I was in South America. It was just that my mind had been opened so wide to the challenges and joys of another world and then magically I was back in my comfort zone, nestled in my percale sheets (I had not yet discovered the wonders of 1200 thread count, Egyptian cotton sheets).

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The Great Pyramid of Cheops, The Sphynx, an unruly camel, and sunburned me in Cairo, Egypt.

But while culture shock had set in, culture obsession had too. Peruvian culture had merely whet my appetite. I spent a lot of time staring at a world map taped to my wall, trying to figure out how I could experience all those other countries. This time I set my sights on Europe and before my senior year in college I had arranged for a summer internship in Nuremberg, Germany followed by a few months of backpacking through a dozen countries on two continents. It was another life-changing experience where I discovered things like:

  • transvestite cabarets exist
  • the Great Pyramid of Cheops in Cairo is stunning but inside smells like urine
  • cute gypsy kids aren’t shaking your hand but picking your pocket

    Trying to look Italian in Venice by wearing a gondelier shirt.

    Trying to look Italian in Venice by wearing a gondelier shirt.

  • London punks spit on you if you take their picture

    192 London

    My first exposure to live punks and my first experience being spat upon by punks.

  • a gondola ride in Venice costs the same as a night in a fancy hotel, and the gondoliers didn’t seem to be doing too much singing
  • the beaches in Nice are full of pebbles and exposed breasts
  • drinking dark German beer is like eating a Thanksgiving meal
  • one shouldn’t climb all the way to the top of the Acropolis in Athens if one has diarrhea
167 Nice

The beaches of Nice, full of pebbles and breasts galore.

And I haven’t ignored my own country either. I’ve experienced 41 U.S. states, and let me just say that some places in America can feel as exotic/bizarre/challenging as foreign lands. For example, Flat Lick, Kentucky, nestled in a dry county, chock-full of evangelical churches and dollar stores, and whose claim to fame is that Colonel Sanders built the first Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant here). I was a tad outside of my comfort zone to say the least.

But really, when it comes down to it, I strive to exist outside of my comfort zone, whether it’s mingling with Elvis fans at Graceland, or with a Buddhist monk in a cave in the jungles of Thailand, or with evangelical teachers at a Cracker Barrel restaurant just off the interstate, or with Kuna Indians on an island just off the coast of Panama. For me it’s an adrenaline rush as well as a way to broaden my horizons. I saw this quote the other day by a poet/painter/musician named Ching Hai that perfectly summed up my philosophy:

“This world is a school, the best university. One suffers too much in hell, and one is too happy in heaven. Only in this world we have happiness, anger, sadness, and joy, which make us reflect, learn and discipline ourselves everyday. The more we are disciplined, the stronger we will become.”

PatrioticHorse11-01-300

I’m proud to come from a nation where even horses are patriotic.

And this is where Mrs. Tea Bag and, sadly, quite a few Americans fail. They use Fox News, rather than the world, as their teacher. Their viewpoint is so limited, constrained, and xenophobic that they equate moving abroad with defecting. I’ll admit, I’m not a flag-waving-Yankee-Doodle kind of guy who sings Lee Greenwood’s “I’m Proud to Be an American” in the shower every morning (with a shower curtain, of course). And I’ve never felt the need to profess that my country is better than another. Jingoism isn’t my cup of tea.

foxI remember walking down the street in Lima, Peru marveling at how every home flew a flag on Peru’s independence day—until I was told that it was required by law to do so or you’d be fined. Fast forward to a couple of years ago when the Florida legislature passed a law requiring an American flag in every public school classroom, or else you’d be drawn and quartered (well, maybe not quartered). Forced patriotism is so, well, unpatriotic.

real-housewives-of-atlanta-season-5-480x320But I do appreciate many things about the U.S., such as our amazing arts culture, our incredibly diverse population, and Bravo’s “The Real Housewives of Atlanta” (which, thankfully, we can still watch in Africa). I really am glad I was born in the USA, particularly in the wholesome Midwest where I learned to be wholesome. On the other hand, there are many things about the U.S. I don’t appreciate so much right now, like a public education system hijacked by profiteers, people insisting that our country operate under the rules of their particular religion, and American Idol (please somebody, put that show out of its misery). Oh, and Walmart sucks too.

When Jamey and I gave up our old life in America for the sub-Saharan landscapes of Mali, it wasn’t because we hated America. Our life in the States wasn’t horrible at all, but even worse….it was routine! The Jersey Shore kids had their GTL schedule (Gym, Tan, Laundry) but we had our WGDFAIFOT schedule (Work, Gym, Dinner, Fall-Asleep-In-Front-Of-Television). I kept thinking of that darn Teddy Roosevelt quote and fearing the gray twilight approaching:

“Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure… than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.”

Always give the right-of-way to animals with built in weapons. (photo: Nathan Kennedy)

Always give the right-of-way to animals with built in weapons. (photo: Nathan Kennedy)

A gray twilight! What could be worse! We strove to be daring and not let old Teddy down. So, to the consternation of some of our friends, we purposely looked for international schools in developing countries—third world countries—because, well, we like that vibe. We get excited about chaotic streets full of donkeys and cars and long horned cattle and motos and sheep and people hawking jumbo packs of toilet paper. It makes our day to see a dude balancing a dozen trays of eggs, a sheet of plate glass, and a live guinea hen on his bicycle. We actually get a thrill trying to talk the police out of a “fine” for some false offense they pulled us over for. Last week when we were pulled over for our “dark window tinting” we spoke to them in Bambara and they called us their brothers (although we still had to give them some dough, it was amicable).

We understand that this kind of environment disturbs/scares/repels many people, just as

These are not really chipmunks. (sorry to ruin the Disney magic)

These are not really chipmunks. (sorry to ruin the Disney magic)

trips to Disneyworld or fancy shopping malls disturb/scare/repel us. As we were pondering our final choices for schools, one of our best friends said to me point blank, “I’m fine with you going to any place except Mali.” While not exactly a vote of confidence, we realized that if our first choice actually frightened people, it was probably just the place for us. Fortunately our parents, while nervous, are nothing but supportive of their wayward sons carrying on in Africa.

bamako-city-centre-market

Shopping in Bamako….

The advantage to living life while possessing an enormous worldview is that you understand and appreciate the differences in people. Some of us like living in developing countries with dusty roads and questionable infrastructure, while some of us opt for swanky, glittering cities where the electricity actually

Shopping in Paris

….or shopping in Paris? What’s your pleasure?

stays on throughout the day. Some of us return like clockwork to our favorite vacay spots year after year, while some of us wouldn’t think of revisiting a place until we have seen the rest of the world first. Some of us live for theme parks, casinos, or Carnival Cruises, while some of us, um, don’t. So I don’t expect everyone to love (or even understand) our decision to relocate to a place that featured a coup and counter-coup in the couple of months before our arrival. We have our reasons, and that’s really all that should matter.

Ol’ Teddy would be happy to hear that our life in West Africa is anything but routine now, down to the air we breathe…some days there’s a spicy smell in the wind,

Some U.S. schools don't have swings because they are deemed too dangerous. Our school has a zip line.

Some U.S. schools don’t have swings because they are deemed too dangerous. Our school has a zip line.

other days it smells like fresh produce, and other times it smells like acrid burning plastic. And every day at school is an adventure, thank goodness. It’s actually routine to have a prime minister or a foreign ambassador attend the school play or attend parent-teacher conferences. Last month U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s second-in-command (with his posse and bodyguards) popped into my classroom to say hello.

One of our school tortoises assists Robin in teaching the finer points of gothic fiction.

One of our school tortoises assists Robin in teaching the finer points of gothic fiction.

One of the school tortoises found its way into the English classroom the other day. The Dutch parents are throwing a Queen’s Day party at school on Saturday with prizes for the best orange outfit. The teachers had Thanksgiving dinner at the U.S. Ambassador’s house. We don’t have to teach to a test, so we can integrate the arts and do service learning projects and have recess and teach social studies without feeling guilty and not get stomach aches just thinking about teaching. At school festivals they rig up a zipline from our school water tower to the ground, and even kindergartners partake in it. And there’s a French bakery in our lobby. Hell, I can’t top that last one so I’ll just stop.

Best of all, since our new life began abroad, I’ve yet to run into someone even one-tenth as offensive as that small-minded, large-mouthed wench pushing overpriced tea and insulting strangers with her warped version of patriotism. I won’t ever, ever, ever live someplace where that kind of behavior is acceptable, much less applauded. Not for all of the citrus-peppermint-licorice-boysenberry tea in China.

Meeting the chief of a nearby village, as he chills in a hammock.

Just another routine day in Mali, meeting the village chief as he chills in a hammock.

Chapter 20: Feelin’ Hot, Hot, Dead

Spring has sprung, all 110 degrees of it.

Spring has sprung, all 110 degrees of it.

As a boy growing up in Illinois, March meant Spring was just around the corner. I was always alert for tiny hints, like the sprouting of a crocus from the half-frozen soil, the sighting of a robin fluttering in a dogwood tree, or the sweet sounds of a mother screaming, “Get the hell outta this house with those muddy shoes!”

Now that it’s March in Mali, I’m training myself to be aware of the coming of “hot/dry season” through subtle signs, like the gentle tug of your inner eyelid as it adheres to your dry cornea, the forming of scabs in your nose as you inhale oven-like air, or the distinct sounds of a student vomiting from heat exhaustion during recess (a sound I was serenaded with in my classroom just last Friday).

Jamey and I survived the wet season (June-Oct) like it was nobody’s business. Roads that resembled the mighty Mississippi? We could have pulled a water skier behind us the way

The river/road in front of our house during rainy season.

The river/road in front of our house during rainy season.

we barreled down the middle of these rushing rapids in our Toyota something-or-other (we’ve had that vehicle for 7 months and I still can’t remember what it’s called, but I think it’s silver—or maybe grey?). During this season a monsoon wind blows from the southwest, bringing with it dark, ominous clouds and severe rainstorms with some wicked lightning and thunder. Obviously coming from South Florida, we are accustomed to this type of meteorological event, though I must admit that during the storms here in Bamako there are no old people driving at a snail’s pace with their hazard lights blinking.

The cool/dry season (Nov – Feb) was a dream. This is when the northeasterly Alize wind, the French name for trade wind, blows relatively cool air upon Bamako. Our windows stayed open to let in the refreshing breeze–and maybe a burning plastic smell if the neighbors decided to burn an old suitcase, which they did–and you could actually wear a long-sleeved shirt without passing out.

As we gloated about successfully making it through each season, our colleagues never failed to remind us about what was coming. “Oh, you just wait until March when the hot/dry season starts….bwah-ha-ha-ha-ha,” they quipped, about four hundred times or so.

Soft focus photography? Nope, just a lot of orange dust. Photo: http://polifaso.wordpress.com

Soft focus photography? Nope, just a lot of orange dust. Photo: http://polifaso.wordpress.com

Seriously, I’m actually glad it’s March so they can’t use that line anymore. But then again, the hot/dry season has its downsides. To quote Britannica.com, beginning this month “the harmattan, a dry, hot wind that blows from the east out of the Sahara, sweeps the soil into dusty whirlwinds and is accompanied by daytime temperatures of about 104 to 113 °F (40 to 45 °C).” Anyone for a noontime run?

This is our first experience with a dry climate. And when I say dry, I mean a chunk of the sun fell next to you and sucked every milliliter of liquid from your pores—no sweat, tears, snot, saliva. I sometimes wonder if I still have blood flowing. If it wasn’t for moisturizers I

The Sahara Desert, or my forehead in h

The Sahara Desert, or my forehead in hot season?

would look like the father of the chameleons that crawl all over the place here. Fittingly, the best protection against dry skin is shea butter, or karite as they call it here, which is made from ground-up nuts that grow here. It’s not greasy or smelly, and it makes your skin soft as a baby’s bottom—the perfect remedy for lizard skin.

It was also this month when we first noticed that the master bedroom AC unit (known by the exotic sounding name “climatiseur” in French) didn’t make the room quite as cool as it had previously. We reasoned that the hotter temperatures outside made the AC a tad less effective, but then we woke up a bit sweaty one morning when it was actually cool outside and decided to have it checked.

Now the great part about our housing here is that the school handles all maintenance issues, so we simply put in a work order and someone visits the house the same day and when we get home everything is magically repaired. Except for this time. That evening welinda blair didn’t notice a bit of difference, even though our facilities guy said it was. And then in the wee hours of the morning the AC imitated the possessed Linda Blair in The Exorcist, letting out a sort of “You’re going to burn in hell” scream (I think it was in French, or Latin maybe) and grinding to a halt.

So we dragged ourselves to bedroom #2, which features only a twin bed with room for one. That meant dragging in the twin mattress from bedroom #3 so one of us (and that would be me) could sleep on the floor. We clicked on the small AC unit in that room and tried to return to REM sleep. An hour later at 3:00 AM, when normal people are dreaming or snoring, we were still wide-awake in a warm, stuffy room. Obviously the demon from the master bedroom climatiseur had possessed this unit as well.

So we dragged both twin mattresses to bedroom #3, poured a line of holy water across the threshold to keep out the broken AC demon, and cranked the AC unit to its lowest setting as we crossed our fingers. By 4:00 AM I was nearing frostbite stage, so I assumed all was well with this climatiseur and wrapped another blanket around me.

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Oh you just try and look all pretty after scorching us all day, Mr. Sun.

The next day we filled out another work order, this time for both AC units, and explained the problem to one of our maintenance guys. The trouble is, it’s a little uncomfortable to bellyache over AC temperatures to a guy who not only doesn’t have air conditioning in his own home, but doesn’t even have electricity. I felt like a pampered Palm Beacher complaining that my caviar was too salty or that my Lamborghini looked spotty because someone didn’t dry it after it rained.

Living a good portion of my life a stone’s throw from Palm Beach—one of the wealthiest enclaves on the planet–I’ve had plenty of exposure to pampered rich folks who feel that

the world resolves around them. To earn extra cash I worked a few weekends at a Palm Beach garden shoppe (you have to spell shop like that if you’re catering to the wealthy). One of my tasks was filling palatial mansions with flowers and plants to welcome the homeowners who were about to jet in for the weekend from their estate in Fancy Pants, Connecticut or their penthouse apartment in NYC. We would bring in thousands of dollars of orchids, roses, apple blossoms (or whatever other flowers were not naturally blooming at this time of year) and place them throughout the house.

bathOnce I had to position 30 potted Phalaenopsis orchids around a giant, sunken, white marble bathtub without leaving a single fleck of bark or a spore of moss on any surface or “the wife would go nuts.” I’m telling you, I had all kinds of ideas what I could leave in that bathtub that would really make her go nuts.

Another time, as we were filling a mansion with two vans full of flora, the owners arrived without warning, their private jet having landed an hour early. We were always told that, in the event the homeowners were present, never ever to address them. The husband passed us in the foyer (pronounced “foy-ay” of course) and my friend Mike—against all rules– bid him a good afternoon. Without a word or even a glance in our direction, he went into the master bedroom and slammed the door.

Fill my house with flowers, now!photo: afloral.com

Fill my house with flowers, now!
photo: afloral.com

But we were in a dilemma…we had not yet adorned the gymnasium-sized master bathroom with Norwegian pussy willow or Icelandic edelweiss or whatever ridiculous endangered plant they had requested. And the only way to access the bathroom was to go through the bedroom where Cashy McCashpants was watching TV–which, BTW, rose from a slit at the end of the bed, with just the touch of a button.

The choices were like an old episode of Dynasty: leave the bathroom unembellished and suffer the wrath of the beautiful but cruel socialite, or interrupt the serious mogul/tycoon who was tired after a long day of closing factories and putting hundreds of people out of work. We opted for option two, being slightly less afraid of the husband, but still got a hateful “Don’t interrupt me again” as we left the room.

The only viable outdoor option during hot/dry season.

Jamey poolside, the only viable outdoor option during hot/dry season that doesn’t lead to heatstroke.

This is what I think about when we approach our humble maintenance staff with requests like “Our AC doesn’t seem as cold as usual.” I don’t want to be the evil Dynasty character, even though our modest salary nearly puts us in the wealthy realm compared to what the average Malian earns. I don’t need pampering when our security guard pedals his bike an hour to get here each day, then remains outside in the heat for 12 long hours while inside we watch Downtown Abbey and whine that the AC is not chilly enough. I’m not that guy!

So we were careful to explain the “problem” to the maintenance guys, trying our best to make it sound like a very, very minor inconvenience that we barely noticed. And to be

This is what a 106 degree day looks like...deceptively pleasant.

This is what a 106 degree day looks like…deceptively pleasant.

clear, the maintenance guys always take our “complaints” seriously and are gracious about getting the repairs made…Malians would never think to roll their eyes or call us wimps. Again they spent a portion of the day at our home tinkering with the AC units, changing parts, testing, and so on. Well, you probably guessed that nothing had changed by that evening. Despite their assurance that all ACs were working fine, the climatiseur produced air that was neither hot or cold, just kind of like someone’s breath blowing down on us.

We let this go for a week, hoping that our purchase of a swamp cooler would improve our interior climate. This contraption, a sort of tall fan on a stand with a water reservoir at the

Our cat Zil Zil shuns the sun.

Our cat Zil Zil shuns the sun.

base, puts moisture in the air. Moisture is not a word you hear much during the hot/dry season, unless it’s someone saying, “Look, the sun has desiccated this cat, removing all of the moisture from its body.” So we welcomed this invention into our home, as Jamey assured me that adding moisture to the air would also make it seem cooler (some scientific principle, I think).

Two things, though. (1) When we turn it on, it sounds like an army helicopter full of special ops is hovering inside the room, so TV viewing or conversation is out of the question. And (2) the moisture feature is so effective that if we leave it on for too long, it feels like we are back in Florida in mid-August when the humidity makes it feel like you are walking through a swimming pool.

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During the hot/dry season the sun makes for both excellent photos and excellent heatstrokes.

I finally mentioned our dilemma to Caroline, our school director, who promptly called in the facilities guy and someone to interpret and had me explain the whole ordeal. The end result was that—in one day–they completely replaced two of the AC units. The one in the master bedroom works so well we are considering opening an ice skating rink in the bedroom on weekends to make a little extra dough. The unit in the living room, not so much—human-breathy air at best. We will eventually get up the nerve to report this as well.

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Here the orange dust waits patiently before entering our home.

Fortunately we have not been visited (yet) by the whirlwinds of powdery, orange soil that leave the air hazy and put everything into soft focus. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still dusty. If it wasn’t for all of the daily dusting and floor mopping we do (and I mean “we” as in our maid Fati) everything inside the house would appear to be made of orange soil. And that’s after leaving the windows and doors closed all day.

Clothes and shoe dye, otherwise known as orange dirt roads

Clothes and shoe dye, otherwise known as orange dirt roads

We’ve decided that any clothing or footwear we buy in the future will be in shades of burnt sienna only, since that’s the color everything turns eventually anyway. Sadly even our 1200 thread count Egyptian cotton sheets are taking on an orange glow. I’d like to think it’s because they gather dust when they are hung out to dry, but I fear we are transferring orange soil each night from our skin. Soon we will be the color of John Boehner. Wow, come to think of it, if he was nude

Has John Boehner rolled in the dirt in front of our house?

Has John Boehner rolled in the dirt in front of our house?

he would totally disappear into the scenery here.

We really only have to endure the H/D season for 2 more months, and then school’s out for the summer. And honestly, what does it matter what the temperature is when we go from our air conditioned house to our air conditioned Toyota something-or-other to our air conditioned school. It’s not like I’m tarring roofs or laying asphalt roads…I teach in a classroom with two large AC units and five ceiling fans. Poor me.

And frankly, hot weather is not such a big deal here. Unlike the States, there are no weathermen harping on and on about record-breaking heat and showing lists of way you can survive the heat….because it’s always damn hot here this time of year!

People still go about their business working in the fields, selling stuff on the roadside, and living in homes without AC. This time of year Malians often sleep on their roofs in little tents made of mosquito netting. We still get our daily exercise in, doing a run every evening (we even ran to the store to buy olive oil to save a car trip), though we finish a bottle of water during the actual run and don’t produce sweat. And in your daily comings and goings, the weather forces you to slow down and chill out, and that’s a skill we need to learn, stat!

heatwave

On our three-minute drive to school last week, after our night-of-the-broken-AC, I said, “I’m exhausted. This is going to be a looong day.” Just as I finished saying this we passed two guys sleeping on a blanket on the side of the dirt road, next to their semi-trailer truck, clouds of orange dust drifting over them as each vehicle passed. “But I think we’ll survive,” I added as I cranked the AC down another notch and clutched my tin of caviar.

Chapter 19: In the Sweet Buy and Buy

Generally speaking, I was one of those odd kids who looked forward to going to school every day. I loved almost everything about elementary school, especially that old school smell in the halls–a curious mix of floor wax, cooking meat, semi-gloss institutional green paint, mimeograph ink, Windsong (by Prince Matchabelli For Women), old building, and sharpened pencils.

 

Greece was made of dough back then

Greece was literally made of dough back then.

I also liked writing the first word on a fresh sheet of notebook paper, getting nauseous on the merry-go-round at recess while we boys chanted “All the girls get off and push, All the girls get off and push!” (I believed in women’s equality even as a 5-year-old), drinking ice cold chocolate milk in a carton through a paper straw that slowly sealed up with each sip, making salt and flour dough relief maps of foreign countries, and peeking into the teacher’s lounge to see them having a chuckle at our expense while they took a loooong drag off of a Benson & Hedges.

dizzy, in a good way

dizzy, in a good way

In junior high, where supposedly most kids suffer their most humiliating years, school got even better for me. I was accepted into a new program called PIE (who can argue with a pastry-themed acronym) which stood for Project to Individualize Education. It was so

Me (left) with schoolmates Charlie and Matt, spending the afternoon in an upholstery shop making pillows (I've appreciated a good damask ever since)

Me (left) with schoolmates Charlie and Matt, spending the afternoon in an upholstery shop making pillows (I’ve been crazy about damask ever since)

far out of the box at the time that I can’t imagine how the folks in my somewhat conservative Midwestern town ever approved it. It was sort of the first version of “differentiated instruction,” which today is the latest buzz phrase in education. Our assignments catered to our interests and abilities, involved hands-on projects, took us out of the school building to learn in the community or at a campground, and made the teachers more of a “guide on the side” rather than the “sage on the stage” like they were in the traditional classrooms in the school. We PIE kids were a cool mix—lots of educators’ kids, some hippyish kids, artsy kids, out-of-the-box kids, and a few entertaining wackadoodles.

High school was better yet as I found my niche as a theatre/glee club geek with a circle of friends I still stay in touch with today. We explored haunted houses, went on scavenger hunts, snuck into the drive-in in the car trunk, and spontaneously broke out into 4-part harmony at the pizza place.

Our high school glee club, with the much sexier name "Swing Choir"

Our high school glee club, with the much sexier name “Swing Choir” (I’m 2nd from the bottom)

But there was a part of school that I absolutely dreaded—even more than needing to use the doorless toilet stall in the high school boy’s bathroom (which, just to be clear, I never used). And that was being involved in fundraisers. Especially stupid fundraisers that required me to trudge door-to-door selling crap. Every year I had to sell candy bars labeled “World’s Finest Chocolate” and I certainly didn’t think they were the finest because they were the exact size and shape of a turd.images

And of course there were those awful magazine subscriptions sales, which would inevitably lead to one of my potential customers saying, “I’ll order as long as ya got Playboy.hahaha!” Another time I was forced to sell “gourmet” candy canes with flavors like cotton candy and hot buttered popcorn because we all know how gourmet carnival fare is. Selling things, especially crappy, unhealthy things that nobody needs, is not a pleasant task. I’m certain Chick fil-A employees would agree.

I went through an annoying and somewhat uncomfortable ritual every time I started one of these fundraisers. First I’d hit the easy targets—immediate family, then extended family, then neighbors. They look at you with that dammit-I-feel-obligated-to-buy look and you really do want to tell them that they don’t have to buy anything. But then you remember you can’t let down your school and their effort to fund new playground equipment/a field trip to Six Flags theme park/polyester choir robes/a mini bar in the teacher’s lounge/etc. and you wait for them to open their wallet.images (1)

Next I’d swallow my pride, lace up my Earth shoes, and head out to do those awful door-to-door sales. Going to the homes of strangers is creepy and uncomfortable for any reason, let alone trying to sell them crap. I would inevitably encounter angry, anti-public school people railing about all of the school taxes they are forced to pay, or super-duper large folks coming to the door in all states of undress, or old people with all their old people smells drifting out of the house as the door swung open.

Footwear perfect for door-to-door sales

Footwear perfect for door-to-door sales

Granted I had plenty of new experiences in these forced travels. Once when I was in 5th grade I went to the guy’s dorms of our local college and sold many, many chocolate bars in rooms filled with clouds of what I thought at the time was heavily perfumed incense. One of the college dudes said something like, “Whatcha sellin’ little man? Go on, shoot.” Aside from firing a weapon I had not heard that word used to describe anything else, but I quickly incorporated it into my vocabulary back at Webster Elementary School (TEACHER: Jeff, we need to discuss the grade on your last science test. ME: Go on, shoot.). Surely that made me even more popular.

Another time I was selling the gourmet candy canes in the middle of winter, just after two or three feet of snow fell. As I tried to hike up someone’s icy front stairs I took a tumble and my box shot from my gloved hands. One hundred gourmet canes flew through the air like tiny candy missiles, landing in a deep snow bank, leaving only tiny pencil-sized holes in the surface. Let the Arctic treasure hunt begin.

Where did those canes go....

Where did those canes go….

Eventually I would end up either eating my entire stock of wares (hello, acne), or begging my parents to buy me out (hello, no-allowance-for the next-year). It made me feel weird to make other people feel weird about buying something they really, really didn’t want. It also helped me realize that I was certainly not cut out to have any career requiring me to hawk anything. Avon or Amway just wasn’t in the cards.

Which brings me to Bamako, a city chock-full of people selling everything, everywhere, all the time. I’m not sure there is a square foot of dirt along any road here that isn’t occupied by a vendor selling things from dawn to dawn. They stand behind piles of rusty-colored

Wanna buy a sheep without leaving your car?

Wanna buy a sheep without leaving your car?

dried fish (I hold my breath when I pass these piles), mounds of what looks like bundled weeds (sheep food I think), little tables of soda bottles filled with gas, large Styrofoam panels holding sunglasses (though I rarely see a Malian wearing sunglasses, despite how freaking sunny it is), racks holding bike tires wrapped in gleaming gold cellophane (never had rubber looked so sexy), or mounds of produce—including the most orange cartoon-looking carrots you’ve ever seen.

strong necks, really orange carrots (photo: http://everythingspossible.wordpress.com/ )

strong necks, really orange carrots (photo: http://everythingspossible .wordpress.com/)

Or the vendors walk right down the middle of the street carrying their wares, selling to people stuck in traffic. It’s amazing how much shopping one can do from a car here. You can buy soccer balls, plastic inflatable Santas, laminated maps of Africa, Malian flags (and right now, French flags too—for chasing off the bad guys), cell phone accessories, fist-sized plastic sachets of water or juice that you bite the corner off of and sip (it’s best if visitors abstain from this practice, unless you fancy a case of dysentery), those really orange carrots, electric mosquito zappers that look like a tennis racket, phone cards, Chinese folding fans like those that Geisha girls hold, and gigantic toilet paper multi packs. And that was at just one intersection.

P5234999

$10 phone card available at a zillion locations near you!

Bamako is the only place I’ve been where there’s more to buy in the grocery store parking lot than in the grocery store itself. The last time we exited Supermarche La Fourmi (which translates as The Ant Supermarket, and has a logo of a shopper with a woman’s body and ant’s head pushing a cart) we encountered the following in the parking lot:

  • the fake Polo shirt vendor
  • 5 or 25 phone card salesmen
  • a tiny guy with a huge box of green apples
  • the basket maker guy
  • a lady with twin girls who wanted a little cash (apparently it’s good luck to tip the mother of multiples)
  • the bootleg CD/DVD seller
  • several produce vendor ladies (one with extremely mannish hands who may or may not be a lady at all).

And all of this happens in a parking lot that is exactly 7 cars wide and one car long, and that requires you to back out into two lanes of heavy traffic. This is why my shopping trips are always preceded with a wine or gin tasting (don’t worry, I’m not the driver).

Not quite Macys

It’s not quite Macys, but then again you just pull over to get what you want.

All of this selling-mania got me to thinking about my aversion to selling stuff. Do these Malian vendors actually enjoy what they do, or just put up with it because they have a family to feed? Do they wake up in the morning and look forward to going to work, even if it means dodging cars in the middle of a dusty road or sitting in the blazing sun behind a pile of smelly dried fish? Can selling an inflatable Santa or a plastic pouch of water bring inner satisfaction?

Sunglasses that apparently nobody buys.

Sunglasses that apparently nobody buys.

When they see me are they thinking, “Cuh-ching! Here comes Mr. Moneybags with his fancy Nike sneakers. He can afford anything!” (It’s worth noting than even though my 2-year-old Nikes are from a discount place in Florida, they still cost more than our maid makes in three weeks, and we pay her at the top of the scale.)

Maybe they dread it too. Maybe they can see that look of anxiety and embarrassment on my face when I utter a quick, “No, merci” and fumble for the car door handle (which of course takes me ten times longer than usual to open). Because in all honesty I do feel guilty. After all, things have not been easy since the coup almost a year ago. Ex-pats left in droves and tourists have stopped coming. The pool of buyers is a shallow one.

A lot of times I just cave and buy something I don’t want, (never gourmet candy canes though—I do have my pride). I bought apples from the tiny guy carrying that massive box in

Roadside lumber

Roadside lumber

the grocery store lot, even though they were more expensive than the apples at the fruit stand literally right outside our home’s front gate. And at home I discovered they were sort of mealy and without that crunch I like.

Another guy sometimes comes door-to-door selling Malian crafts—woodcarvings, masks, jewelry and the like. He walks a long way and is always sweaty and smelly, but as kind as ever, never pushy and always smiling. But on one visit where I was determined not to buy anything since I didn’t NEED anything, he mentioned he was trying to sell enough to get the tuition for his kids to go to school. So I quickly picked out several carvings that we really didn’t need but that would enable me to sleep that night. I knew his story was real, but was he sharing it in a marketing sort of way (like Sally Struthers on late night TV showing us impoverished African children so we would donate to a charity)?

roadside rotisserie chicken in a stand named after the local bullion cubes...mmmm

roadside rotisserie chicken in a stand named after the local bullion cubes…mmmm

We spent the winter break in a rented beach house in Senegal. It was a dream—a fancy house with an oceanfront pool, gazebo, and our own beach area—elevated and separated from the rest of the beach. But it was reasonably priced–our share of the cost was barely $300 for the whole week.

But to the locals all around us and on the beach, we were the wealthy Westerners with money to burn–an odd spot to be in when you are a teacher used to being at the bottom of the salary scale in the U.S. As we sunbathed on our private stretch of beach, reading from our iPads and Kindle Fires and sipping G&Ts, the vendors would peek their heads through the ornate balustrade that separated us from them.

They would nicely ask us in French if we wanted to buy whatever they had in their basket

carvings aplenty, boobies included

carvings aplenty, boobies included

(scarves, carvings, paintings, tote bags, snacks) and then give us that gentle but pleading stare. Again we would try the polite “No, merci” comeback and continue reading. But if I glanced at them for even two seconds it was like my heart was ripped from my chest. Visions of their crumbling hut and their hungry kids and their hours of peddling stuff in the sun washed over me. Then visions of me as a teen traipsing through a snow-covered neighborhood, trying in vain to sell the last of my World’s Finest Chocolate. Selling just sucks, whether or not I’m the seller or the sellee!

fresh chicken by the road...what's the big deal about refrigeration anyway? (photo: news.bbc.co.uk)

fresh chicken by the road…what’s the big deal about refrigeration anyway? (photo: news.bbc.co.uk)

Actually, when I think about it, the vendors here are not really hard sell at all. They don’t follow you around, begging you to buy–like I’ve experienced in other countries including my own. For example, my last experience in a U.S. furniture store went something like this:

Clerk: Welcome! What are you looking for today?

Me: Nothing in particular, just browsing.

Clerk: Well people don’t come in furniture stores to just browse. Surely you are looking for something in particular.

Me: Nope. Just looking.

Clerk: (following us through store, then noticing my hand brush across the arm of a leather sofa) That’s a GREAT couch, right? Lots of interest in this model. Very modern. Are you thinking about a new couch? This one pulls out to a queen bed. Did you need a sleeper sofa? Traditional or contemporary?

Me: Leave me alone or I’ll use a Sharpie to draw your caricature on this GREAT leather sofa.

Clerk: Actually this sofa is completely resistant to stains. Do you have children? This one is

hope those darn brakes work (photo: ingur.com)

hope those darn brakes work (photo: ingur.com)

perfect for families, stain-proof really. It has a matching loveseat and sofa too. Cash or credit?

I haven’t had a single Malian act like that yet. And besides, they literally sell sofas on the side of the road here so you can shop from your car without vendor involvement. But honestly they aren’t hucksters here, just industrious and quite productive—I mean c’mon, they sell the weeds they cut in ditches!

The people here work hard, really hard. Even though they aren’t making a whole lot of money, it’s about a thousand degrees outside, and their job doesn’t come with health insurance or vacations, they don’t complain. Not even the guys welding metal in the full sun, in an open sided hut about 8 inches from the edge of a dusty, busy road. Or the guys cutting metal rods with a hacksaw, again in the full sun next to the road. Or the ladies carrying large tubs of bright orange carrots or mounds of sticks on their heads with their babies tied to their backs.

dried fish...no extra charge for the odor!  (photo: cuboimages.it)

dried fish…no extra charge for the odor! (photo: cuboimages.it)

But here’s the crazy thing. When you don’t buy from these folks, they still smile and wish you well. No dirty looks. No condescending remarks. These guilty feelings I have around them are really my problem, and I probably need to realize that my decision to buy/not buy is not that important to them in the grand scheme of things. And when it makes sense and the mood is right, I’ll buy stuff from them. Just not gourmet candy canes. Ever.

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.

griot2

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:

mad sci

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.

Unknown

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?

Unknown

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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