What to Know About Teaching English in West Africa

Things I wish I had known before working as a teacher in an international school in Abidjan, Ivory Coast

To be honest, there aren’t an enormous number of opportunities to teach English in West Africa. I’ve come across a few jobs in Africa but most are in the northern regions of the continent, particularly Morocco and Egypt. Aside from these very few options, most other teaching positions in Africa are for volunteer gigs with an occasional stipend thrown in.

But I’ll assume you’ve come across a job in West Africa, likely in one of the French-speaking countries of the region, maybe in Senegal, Benin, Togo or, like me, Cote d’Ivoire—the Ivory Coast. And so now you’re wondering if you should pursue the position, or maybe you’ve even taken the first few steps and have been offered a job in Dakar or Abidjan and you’re looking for help making that final decision to accept or pass.

Awright, I’ll do what I can.

First of all, which bank will you be using?

This may seem odd but, based on my experience, this is the very first question you should ask. If the school will be paying your salary directly into your bank account back home, say in Canada or the US, then read on. If, however, you’ll be required to open an account at a local bank, honestly, you can stop reading because my advice would be to refuse the position, just run the other way and never look back.

I know what you’re thinking: when teaching English abroad it’s pretty standard to have to open a local bank account into which you’ll be paid your salary. You’re right, absolutely. In Thailand I taught at two schools and so had to open two separate accounts with two separate Thai banks. In South Korea a debit card for a local bank was included in my welcome package. It’s normal stuff and rarely causes many issues. West African banks, though, are an entirely different beast. A catastrophically inefficient and inept beast that seems intent on making things as complicated and time consuming as possible.

Let’s just put it this way: during the first three months of my stay in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, I had to visit banks on ten distinct occasions. Each of these visits took, I estimate, an average of an hour and a half. Sometimes as little as 45 minutes, sometimes as much as three hours. That’s an average of one hour and fifteen minutes spent at a bank every single week over the course of three months. I’m absolutely positive I’ve never spent that much time in banks in a period of a year, let alone three months. It took me over two months and four visits to obtain a debit card. It took me two visits to two different locations to get a PIN code registered to said card. And, by the way, as of this writing, the card still isn’t officially activated as I have to actually use it in an ATM at least once to fully activate it and, thus far, every time I’ve tried the ATMs for my particular bank have been out of order.

On one occasion, I stood next to a local woman who was on the phone with the bank’s customer service. While we were right there, inside the bank. Try and imagine it: a woman, standing in a bank, in front of an empty teller desk, on the phone with customer service. That’s how terrible the service can get in West African banks. On another occasion I had to call upon my school’s chief accountant to first call the bank, complain on my behalf to the bank manager, and then accompany me to the bank so as to allow me to skip the hoops they typically make you jump through. And what was I trying to accomplish, you ask? I was simply trying to cash a cheque. That’s it. The most basic of asks and it took the presence of a local accountant to get it done.

And, mind you, I speak French fluently but, for most English teachers coming from the US or Canada, French will be a second language and so having to use it will only add to the frustration and exhaustion inherent in dealing with West African banks.

So, again, before accepting a job teaching English in a West African country, ask if you’ll be forced to open a local bank account and, if the answer is yes, simply say thanks but no thanks. No matter the salary or the opportunity, it is simply not worth it. Trust me.

But, you might ask, what other option is there? How could you possibly use your own bank accounts back home? Well, in French schools in West Africa, teachers from France can have their salaries paid directly into their French bank accounts back home. And this brings us to the second thing you should know (if, that is, the first thing hasn’t already convinced you to stop reading and look for other teaching opportunities).

You’ll likely be teaching at a French school

At the time of writing I’ve been living and teaching in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, for about four months. I work at a Lycee, meaning a French high school, though this one also includes what we might think of as middle school. This is very much a French international school where they operate within the French system so that students here get the same education they would if they were attending school in, say, Lyon or Montpellier. I teach in a separate department within the school, however, called SIA, or Section International Americaine. As you might have guessed this program, which students have to apply to enter, mimics the North American system as opposed to the French curriculum and is aimed at students with advanced English skills and the intention to eventually study in the US, Canada or possibly the UK.

Okay, so what does this mean? Well, it will differ from one school to another, of course, but you will likely have to deal with the idiosyncrasies of the French educational system. Some of these are great, such as an absolute boatload of vacation time that will have you singing La Marseillaise with gusto. Your contact hours will also be quite low compared to most TEFL contracts; I teach only eighteen hours a week, for example. The rest of the time is typically for lesson prep and you’ll likely be using it all, especially at first. Keep in mind, however, that these schools will not give you time off to deal with any administrative issues, such as getting your resident card or visiting banks. So, all those trips to the bank I did? Those were all done while I should have been prepping lessons. But those lessons still have to be prepared, so I did so on the weekends. The banking issue truly permeates absolutely everything (and will come up again and again throughout this article).

As for the actual teaching, well, in my experience it’s pretty great. The SIA program at my school however, was designed by one particular (and excellent) British teacher and then further developed by a fantastic team of foreign teachers hailing from Canada, the US, as well as Lesotho and Cameroon. So I lucked out in that respect. I’m given an enormous amount of flexibility and mostly left to my own devices (which could be stressful and overwhelming for a teacher with little to no experience) but support and help is always close at hand. The students are quite advanced and capable, with a good mix of local students and kids from abroad.

These students, however, often have to be broken of habits they developed within the French system but do not translate well to the American or Canadian way of doing things. This can mean anything from the fact that they are overly and overtly motivated by grades and so it can be difficult to get them to take ungraded work seriously, to the methods they use for writing essays. This, though, can be a fun challenge rather than a hindrance.

If you’ll be required to teach a la francaise, however, meaning within the French system and using French methods, this could be a reason to reconsider. The system can be an indecipherable mess of acronyms and the methods are different enough to require an Alpine learning curve.

And speaking of learning curves…

You’ll want to be comfortable with speaking French

The fact is, if you’ve come across a position teaching English in West Africa, it’s almost certainly located in a French-speaking country like the Ivory Coast, Senegal, Togo or Benin. If this is the case, at least some facility with French will be necessary. Living in West Africa can be complicated enough for a myriad reasons, but doing so without being able to communicate effectively with locals would make it just that much more difficult, frustrating and wildly exhausting. From negotiating the price of a taxi ride to dealing with the aforementioned banks, nearly every facet of life will involve speaking to locals and very few will speak English. Nor can you depend on your school to help. For example, I had to find my own apartment, buy my own furniture, open my own bank account, deal with getting a resident card on my own, buy my own internet data (I skipped getting wi-fi but if you prefer it you’ll have to deal with that on your own as well), all of it entirely in French. Using taxis as a further example: people here don’t use street addresses. If your taxi driver doesn’t know your intended destination by name (a well-known mall, say) then you’ll have to describe it in general terms and using nearby landmarks (well-known schools or churches, for example). This is difficult enough when you don’t yet know the city well but trying to do so without ease with the language would be an absolute clownshow.

Then there’s the fact that, if you are working for a French school, as is likely, all official communications will also be wholly and exclusively in French. A meeting you’re expected to attend? The notice will be in French. Day off tomorrow? You won’t know if you can’t read French. Student caught with drugs and expelled? Hopefully it wasn’t one of yours as you won’t know why they’re no longer in class without functional knowledge of French.

The thing is, 95% of employees at any French school will be either local and francophone or from France and francophone, and so the school simply assumes that they all speak French and so can deal with these issues easily enough on their own. Their mentality and approach in that regard doesn’t change for the remaining 5% of their staff, regardless of where they might come from. So, you can’t expect much more assistance simply because you speak little or no French. Your colleagues might help (mine did) but there will be limits to what they can help with and they’ll have their own stuff to deal with. To be bluntly honest, if I wasn’t fluent in French I likely would have left already as this would have amplified all the issues I’ve had to an unmanageable degree.

Salaries can be good but the cost of living is high

Generally, regions that are typically thought of as “less developed” also feature a lower cost of living. In Southeast Asia and Latin America, for example, the US or Canadian dollar will go a long way and cheap everything can be found nearly anywhere. You might think that West Africa, also a “low-income” region, may be similar. And in that you would be very, very wrong. It’s not to say you can’t find street food for the equivalent of a dollar or two, that you can’t take public transport for a few cents, or that you can’t buy interesting souvenirs and gifts on the cheap; this is entirely possible. Day to day and month to month living, however, adds up quickly.

Whereas in Bangkok or Mexico City I could, would and in some cases did live off street food, I would never try to do so here in Abidjan. There simply isn’t enough variety and, as I said, it would add up over the weeks and months. So doing groceries is essential. Local fruit and vegetables can be had for a very reasonable price if you’re willing to buy them from street stalls and local markets (and if you aren’t willing I’d suggest skipping on West Africa entirely—as well as Southeast Asia and Latin America). For most other items, however, you’ll want to go to a grocery store and here you’ll find that prices aren’t that different from the ones back home. In fact, given that many items will be imported, they may be more expensive than they would be back home. I’d estimate that my weekly grocery bill is about the same as what I paid when living in Montreal, for example.

I was lucky with rent. I found an apartment for about $300 a month, and it’s far larger than I need—I actually have a bedroom and bathroom I never use—so I could get a roommate if I wanted to (which I absolutely, categorically do not). But before coming I was told to more realistically expect to pay between $600 and a thousand a month. Then there’s the fact that apartments are typically unfurnished. Again, I’m lucky in that I am a minimalist in that regards and so quite comfortable with only the basics (though this would make having guests over a bit awkward and embarrassing). Other teachers were fortunate enough to take over a departing teacher’s fully furnished apartment, though they would have bought those items off the former tenant. But all these things you’ll need are not cheap. A small fridge cost me the equivalent of $300. Air conditioners cost between $200 and $300 each (though I passed on these and went with a floor fan, instead—about $40). A laundry machine will be another $160 to $200 (I share one with a neighbour). You’ll also be expected to pay at least one month in advance and a security deposit equivalent to another month—some places demand the equivalent to five months in advance (the first two months, the last month, a security deposit, and a fee for the agent if you used one) though they technically aren’t supposed to do so.

All of these initial expenses will come about at least a month before you receive your first paycheck so, if you’re considering a job in West Africa, be sure to ask about any settling allowances offered. Without it, you’ll need some healthy savings even before you arrive.

Travelling in the region is also very expensive. While living in Bangkok I would leave on weekend trips to Cambodia or Malaysia on flights for less than $100, return. Here, most flights to neighbouring countries will run you at least $300 but more commonly $500 or more. And that’s without the cost of visas, which can be pricey but also a pain in the neck to acquire. Once at your destination, the choice of accommodation can be limited as these countries get comparatively little tourism. Then there’s the time required to explore, which can be substantial as you’ll either rely on local transport, which is slow and inefficient, or you’ll pay a guide, which is a further expense. In all my travels, my trip to Senegal was the first during which I not only didn’t keep to my budget but it was left behind in a smouldering heap.

Look, I’m not trying to dissuade you from taking on a job in West Africa. There are certainly some benefits and I know teachers who have been living here upwards of a decade and have no regrets or intentions of leaving any time soon. Working in the region, though, does come with its own unique challenges and some of them can be a deal-breaker or are at least more easily dealt with if forewarned and forearmed. There are some wonderful aspects of living in West Africa but I’ll say that everything I’ve enjoyed has been down to 1) my ability to speak French and thereby interact with the genuinely friendly locals, and 2) my minimalist and no frills lifestyle that has allowed me to remain comfortable without spending too much. My experience with the banks, however, has negatively impacted every single aspect of my time here thus far, from taking up time and energy that I would have spent exploring my new home, to making frustration and annoyance my default mood. Unfortunately, this has been my defining experience in the Ivory Coast, which is why I simply cannot recommend working here if, like me, you would be forced to use local banks.

But! Let’s say you would be able to use your own bank account or some other financial arrangement was made so that you could avoid using local banks (the new CFO at my own school, for example, is working on finding a way to pay me directly into my Canadian account—updates on that soon, hopefully). Let’s say you have a good working knowledge of French. Let’s say you have some savings, have been offered a good settling in allowance, or have no qualms with taking on a little dept for a month or two. Then, I’d say it would be worth considering a job teaching English in West Africa. It’s a dynamic region that feels as though it’s in a constant state of growth—for better or worse is debatable but witnessing it is undeniably fascinating. People are friendly and welcoming, while the culture is unique, diverse and immeasurably rich. The teaching experience itself can also be of enormous value, both for professional growth but also simply by adding such a unique location to your CV.

So it’s certainly not all bad, but there are important things to consider before taking that proverbial plunge. And just one more time: if you’ll need to open a local bank account, run away fast and don’t look back. Screaming is optional but appropriate.