Teaching in Bamako

Oh my Lord! What have I gotten myself into? I stood at the front of the room facing fifty-four grade nine girls. Three bodies crammed into each desk meant for two, they stared at me solemnly.

I took a deep breath. “Good morning.”

“Good morning, Miss.” The chorus of lilting voices encouraged me, but I was soon to discover that learning English was not high on their list of priorities. Sent to the school by some of the wealthier Malian families, they were putting in time until husbands were found for them.

Some of the girls lived in Bamako and rode their bikes or walked to school. Out-of-towners boarded in the dorms on the second level of the building.

I rode my mobylette to school and parked it amidst the girls’ bikes under the huge mango trees. At the end of the first morning when I went to retrieve my motorized bike, I found the girls poking at their bicycle seats with sticks.

“Qu’est-ce que vous faites?” I asked.

“Serpents, madame. Il faut toujours faire sortir les serpents.”

I found a sturdy branch on the ground and poked under my bike seat. I wasn’t about to share a ride home with a snake.

The next morning, armed with a few English as a Second Language textbooks that I’d been able to scrounge from the store room, we began language learning in earnest.

Chapter One: Sounds of the City.

“So girls, what are some of the sounds you hear in a city?”



“Bicycle bells.”

“Dogs barking.”

I glanced down at the textbook. The lesson referred to machinery, buses, sirens…. However could these young ladies relate to a North American city? I explained as best I could about my city and we did manage to complete the lesson over the next few days, but baffled looks told me I’d lost them.

I turned the page. Chapter Two: The Sahara. I sighed with relief.

The morning of day three of working through that chapter was cold. I had brought a light cotton jacket from Canada and actually had to wear it. The girls, wrapped in what looked like every pagne they owned, shivered and huddled together.

“Mademoiselle, does it get this cold inCanada?”

I checked the thermometer outside the office door. 82F. “Oh, much, much colder.” I drew a rough map on the board to show them where I lived and tried to explain the cold of Alberta winters and the Arctic. As I discussed the Great Canadian North and its inhabitants, I heard snickers and stifled laughter each time I said the word “kayak.”

Finally one of the girls put up her hand. “Miss, that word sounds just like a word in Bambara. A very, very bad word that a lady would never ever use.”

“So girls, let’s see what chapter three is about, shall we?”

Pagne = a rectangle of cloth worn as a skirt or shawl with a matching blouse.


10 comments on “Teaching in Bamako

  1. Hum, I am now curious to know what ‘kayak’ means in Bambara…All the best with your teaching venture/adventure in Mali anyway! I am going to follow you from afar.

    With love, from Kenya.

    • I never did find out what it meant. Where are you in Kenya? I was there a couple of years ago for a safari – the best ever trip of my life and one I’d wanted to do ever since I was a child.

  2. I’ll have to gather intelligence on the matter of kayaks and get back to you some time soon. Worry not, I have my sources! 😉

    I’m glad to hear you loved Kenya! I live in big bustling Nairobi…not the most beautiful place in the country but the city does have its hidden gems.

  3. We spent a little time in Nairobi – were lucky enough to stay in the Stanley. I have more Mali and Kenya stories on my blog. If you are interested check, Photo Phanatics, Business Acumen, Mali-Kenya and the Raymond stories.

  4. Yes, I can read French. Not surprised at the meaning as that was pretty much what I thought. Check out a story on my blog called Kamsack. It’s about an experience I had in the Sahara. I think you would get a kick out of it.

  5. This story reminds me of how the names of some of the characters in our elementary school primers are now not only out of date but have aqcuired other meanings. Interesting how our languages change, and funny when we think of foreign words as if they were part of our own language. Playing with words can be such fun!

    • Not only words in foreign languages can get us into trouble, but gestures too if we don’t know the cultural meanings.

  6. Pingback: The Mali I love – as it was then | EMANDYVES

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.