Volume 95, Issue 26

Thursday, October 18, 2001
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The international volunteer experience

Kenya adventure

Mali: A warm, welcoming village

Starting the search

Mali: A warm, welcoming village

By Leena Kamat
Gazette Staff

Can you imagine spending three weeks of your summer vacation under the sun in Mali, building a dormitory for a school? Living there with no electricity or running water and sleeping under a mosquito net?

While this may not compare to staying at a five-star hotel in Cancun, two Western students travelled to Africa last July and helped build a dormitory.

Amy Caldwell, a fourth-year health sciences student and Simon Wang, a fourth-year kinesiology student, volunteered with Hands Across the Nation, a non-profit, Toronto-based agency.

How can a group of inexperienced people, led by only a couple of instructors, build an entire building in just three short weeks?

"We built the walls, put up the tin roofs, [installed] doors and windows and a porch," Wang explained. "We stayed in existing dorms at the school, on the cement floors on air mattresses," Caldwell added.

The team members were divided into three groups and each group was responsible for either cooking the team's meals, cleaning or bringing in water from the wells.

Wang said some of the school's other dormitories were built by previous teams from Hands Across the Nation. They had a chance to see the good this organization has done for the community and the impact this particular group would have, he said.

A typical workday in Mali began at 6 a.m., when breakfast was served. "We would be at the site by 7 a.m. and worked until 10:30 a.m., when we took a break and continued working until noon," Wang explained.

"Between 12 p.m. and 2 p.m., we did not work outside, as it was just too hot," Caldwell said. The workday would end at about 4:30 p.m. and the sun sets around 7:30 p.m. there, so the days were really short, she said. "You'd be in bed at 9:30 p.m.."

The children of the village seemed to love having foreigners in their community Caldwell said. "They loved to get in the pictures with us."

"It was a bit of a culture shock. Mali is the third poorest country in the world, but they don't act like it." Wang noted, adding the villagers seemed to feel an obligation to each other and their families.

He was also surprised at the incredible generosity of Mali's citizens and their friendliness.

"Just seeing the people going to church was emotional," Caldwell explained. "To see people who have nothing, but still come together. I was sad to leave the people I had met in Mali."

What advice does the pair have for students thinking about embarking on a similar journey? As long as people are willing to work hard, they should have an amazing experience, Caldwell said.

"It is an experience that will affect everyone," Wang suggested. "Go if you get the chance."

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Copyright The Gazette 2001