Retired investment banker Dick Brigden of Mooresville had been to all the continents except Africa when he went on his first Tandana Foundation volunteer vacation to Mali in 2008.
He went on his fourth trip with the foundation early last month.
Participants who travel with the Ohio-based foundation for volunteer vacations end up experiencing rich culture and forming cross-cultural friendships with people they would never have met otherwise, Brigden said.
His group visited and worked in two different villages.
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"This trip to Mali ... does not change my life or the world in which I live," said Brigden, 68, "but the experience certainly changes the way I look at the world and increases my respect for others."
The Tandana Foundation began as the brainchild of Ohio resident Anna Taft, 32, in 2004. The nonprofit's purpose is to offer volunteer opportunities for Americans and provide funding for highland Ecuador and for the Dogon country in the African nation of Mali.
The foundation organizes the work projects for the volunteer vacations in advance. Mali is one of the poorest countries in the United Nations, Brigden said, and most villages have obvious needs. It is Taft's responsibility to negotiate with the chief and elders of each village to determine what project the foundation's volunteers will work on, he said.
After flying to Bamako, Mali's capital city, Brigden and 13 other volunteers traveled to the village of Kansongho, with a population of about 800. Brigden's first trip to Kansongho had been the first time a group of white people had spent the night in the village.
Brigden described Kansongho's people then as being mesmerized by the volunteers from America. They observed the group's actions as if it were the greatest show on television, he said.
The weather is mild in Kansongho in January. The main industries there are spinning cotton and subsistence farming; their principal crop is millet, a grain that grows on a stalk and has protein, fiber and complex carbohydrates.
Communication depended on a smattering of French, a few words the Americans learned in the villagers' native language, Tomo So, and hand signals.
This year, the volunteer group's task was to build a permanent latrine for the village, the first it has had.
Before construction of the latrine, people relieved themselves either in the woods or in the corners of their houses. The volunteers spent their days hauling and cutting sandstone to build the facility.
The new latrine is 8 feet square, consisting of a concrete slab with a hole in the middle and sandstone walls. It is placed strategically near the village's cotton bank, which was built previously as a project of a different Tandana Foundation trip.
Besides building the latrine in Kansongho, Brigden and the other volunteers participated in a soap-making class, observed a literacy class and taught village women to spin cotton using spinning wheels and carders that the volunteers brought along.
"The biggest challenge of the trip is acceptance of the different," Brigden said. "The different is neither better nor worse. It is simply different."
In the past, Brigden has brought tools and left them in Kansongho for the people to use. This year he brought a bit brace (a hand-cranked drill); in another year a hand grinder.
"Tools that are 100 years old these people have never seen before," said Brigden, "and it makes their tasks so much easier."
The volunteer group also visited the village of Sal Dimi, where their main project was to build a grain bank. The grain was provided by the Tandana Foundation.
Volunteers stayed in a compound designated for their use, slept on cots and ate food similar to what the villagers were used to. Bathrooms were unavailable, but some participants on the trip found a way to use a 5-gallon pail to their advantage.
Brigden said he keeps going back to Mali because he thoroughly enjoys the trip and because the people of Kansongho have embraced him as one of them.
He highly recommends the cultural experiences he has had on his Tandana's volunteer vacations to Mali.