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?”
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.