Lake Norman & Mooresville

Retired banker invests his time in Mali

For decades Dick Brigden's job involved building financial wealth for his clients.

Now retired and living on Lake Norman, the former investment banker is looking to help those living under some of the most primitive conditions more than half a world away.

Brigden, 67, of the North Shore II neighborhood off Brawley School Road in Mooresville, returned in late January from his third visit in the past two years to aide remote villagers located in far-reaching rural areas of the West African nation of Mali.

The trips are facilitated through an Ohio-based nonprofit, the Tandana Foundation.

Tandana, formed by Anna Taft in 2004, took nine volunteers, including Brigden and Taft, to be the guests of villagers living in the Dogon Country region of Mali, a designated U.N. heritage site near the country's eastern borders.

The Republic of Mali, one of Africa's few functioning democracies, is on the southern border of Algeria and east of Niger. Nearly half the country's population live below the international poverty line, considered $1.25 a day.

Brigden and fellow Tandana members have worked alongside villagers to construct storage buildings, plant trees and complete assorted service projects while enjoying a dramatic cross-cultural exchange.

"The beauty of this specific nonprofit is that they don't enter into an engagement or problem-solving case where they try to bring Western solutions to a local problem. You want a new well? It's not a gift, it's a collaborative effort. The contribution of the beneficiary is at least as great as the nonprofit," said Brigden.

Brigden and Tandana volunteers worked with villagers in January to create a cotton bank in a region where cotton is the cottage industry. Villagers spin and weave cotton into strips for sale as raw materials and to create textiles.

In January 2009, Brigden and his brother, Bill, who lives in Ohio near Taft's family and first introduced Dick to Tandana, helped villagers construct a stone building with a metal roof to serve as a grain bank for storage.

"We're not Daddy Warbucks in all of this. They've got skin in the game. The projects incorporate all able-bodied persons in the village," said Brigden.

In 2010, Dick and his adult daughter, Beth, 42, of New Orleans, joined Tandana volunteers to help villagers plant some 300 trees and erect a stone wall near a historic well in the village of Kongsongo.

"Dick's travelled a ton in his career and personal life and I think it's really neat to see how he's gotten into this. He loves the Mali people, and is very interested in new ideas and new ways of thinking. He's very sweet with the kids and he's formed some special bonds over there," said Taft.

Caleb, 11, and Issaka, 12, are just two of the village children Brigden has connected with.

"Dick has two young friends in one of the villages. They started out by drawing pictures; he taught them how to use a saw. They became friends. They like to carry his backpack for him through the village when he's over there," said Taft.

Tandana, a Quechua (Ecuador) word from an Incan language meaning to "unite" or "bring together" connects people of different cultures to promote cross-cultural and educational exchange through service projects and volunteer vacations, said Taft.

Cost for a Tandana Foundation "volunteer vacation" to Mali averages approximately $5,000. Similar service trips are made each year through Tandana to Ecuador. No one has ever been turned away, said Taft. All ages, close friends and family members are encouraged to apply.

Brigden got involved after 30 years of being a financial advisor to civic organizations, churches, schools and hospitals. Brigden previously served as a board member at The Pines of Davidson, an extended care and retirement facility.

"This is not for everybody. You don't look for this work. It was not on my bucket list of things to do. It finds you. It either trips your trigger or it doesn't," said Brigden.