Among sad international news accounts last week was one from the impoverished African nation of Mali, a landlocked country among the poorest in the world.
The disaster this time was a boat filled with pilgrims headed up the Niger River to Timbuktu to celebrate a Muslim holiday. The overloaded boat sank, drowning some 50 people.
There was no student from Mali when I arrived on the Fort Leavenworth scene in 1978. After I'd been there a while, learned some of the fascinating history of the historic old fort, and become "certified" as a post tour guide by the Fort Leavenworth Historical Society, I was often asked to take visitors on a tour of the fort. Glad to, anytime duty allowed. Now I'm retired and am never asked.
Sometime in the 1980s I was asked to take three officers from Mali on the tour. They were coming to the fort to make a recommendation whether a student from Mali should come to CGSC or not. The bad news was that none spoke English, only French and their language, Bambara.
The group was to visit other posts on the trip, so the Pentagon had assigned a female major who (allegedly) spoke French as their travelling interpreter.
I met the three, an army major as the leader, an army captain, and a female air force lieutenant. I thought it strange that an air force lieutenant would be in the group, until I found out she was the sister of the president of Mali. Then it made sense that she wanted a stateside boondoggle.
The first thing I noted were the tribal scars on the captain's face. I'd never seen such prominent scars on an African student before, or since. The brief biography of the three said the captain had attended a German military school for captains.
We did pretty well until we got to Memorial Chapel. I said the stone had been quarried by inmates from the recently arrived military prison in 1878, and were limestone. I waited for the translation, but no words came.
The interpreter said she didn't know French words for quarried, inmates, or limestone. The major, weary after days of travelling, was nodding off. The president's sister looked plain bored.
Then I recalled the biographies, and said "Herr hauptman, sprechen sie deutsch?" That is German for "Captain, do you speak German?" I knew he had to speak it, having gone to a German military school.
He brightened right up and said he did. I'd recently arrived after three glorious years in Germany, where I'd learned to speak German almost as well as a Bavarian.
At that moment it became the most interesting tour I've ever given. I spoke in my Bavarian dialect, which he mostly understood, and he translated not into French, but into Bambara. The major immediately became coherent and even interested, as did the lieutenant.
Page 2 of 2 - The only ones in the van who had no clue what was being said were the driver, who could not have cared less, and of course the almost-French speaking interpreter, who immediately became bored and nodded off in the back of the van.
Sure enough, two classes later the first ever student from Mali arrived. I tracked him down and introduced myself and asked if he'd heard about the rather strange post tour that had helped bring him to the fort, but he had not. We became friends anyway, and more about him Saturday.
And lo, in the next class came a new major from Mali, a tall slender man with tribal scars across his face who spoke French, Bambara, German, and now English. He remembered me, but chose for us not to become friends as had his predecessor.
Haven't seen a student from Mali in a while. There is not one in either current class, nor one on the in-bound list for January. It might be time for another tour for visitors from Mali.
John Reichley is a retired Army officer and retired Department of the Army civilian employee.