Mali’s Dogon country and the highlands of Ecuador are approximately 5225 miles apart. However, these two regions share a common bond. Since 2009, The Tandana Foundation has been organizing Volunteer Vacations to both regions.
Some volunteers have been fortunate to visit both countries. While some aspects of volunteering in Ecuador and Mali are quite different, some are remarkably similar. For Hope Taft, who has gone on three Health Care Volunteer Vacations to Ecuador and three Volunteer Vacations to Mali, the similarities are apparent.
“These trips made me realize again that poverty can take many forms. Although the people we work with in these countries have varying degrees of economic poverty like you would not see in the USA, they are much richer in social and spiritual matters and have a higher happiness quotient than most people in the United States,” said Hope.
Volunteers have seen other similarities as well. Jack Krueger, who has traveled once to Ecuador and once to Mali alongside his wife Marilyn, loved seeing the villagers’ excitement when the volunteers arrived. Also, whether they are providing health care to community members in rural villages in Ecuador or helping villagers in Mali build a grain bank, they always returned home with the satisfaction of knowing that they have helped people achieve their goals.
“That people in both places from different parts of the world, with totally different projects were all excited with what the Foundation had come to do for them,” said Jack.
Julie Lundquist, who was part of Tandana’s first volunteer vacation in Ecuador and its first in Mali, shares the joy Hope, Jack, and Marilyn felt while lending a helping hand in the communities they visit. The four of them also found that whichever country or community they visited, the people they meet are kindhearted and appreciative.
Julie commented on other similarities. Volunteers are excited to meet new people in a foreign land. Marilyn noticed how nicely the people of both countries were dressed in their country’s traditional style.
The differences of volunteering in both countries also stick out. The cultural differences are probably the most striking. Julie found the Ecuadorian culture somewhat familiar, but she found everything in Mali including the culture, language, and religion — radically different from anything she had ever experienced before. Marilyn was also shocked, when she visited the villages of Kansongho and Sal-Dimi, by just how different everything was. “I found it hard to wrap my head around,” she said.
They all agree that the volunteers’ accommodations in Mali are not as grand. When they visit Ecuador volunteers stay in a luxurious inn, while in Mali they stay in the guest houses of the villages.
“I so appreciated the experience of staying in the village [in Mali] as a family guest instead of staying in beautiful resort style accommodations in Ecuador. I feel as if we had more of a chance to experience life in Kansongho,” said Julie.
Marilyn also felt that she got to know the villagers in Mali better than she did the villagers in Ecuador, because organization of the trips is different. When the volunteers travel to Ecuador, they visit a different village each day. When they travel to Mali however, the volunteers usually visit few villages and stay in those villages for a longer time. Marilyn was surprised to find that while the families in Mali live in a tightly-clustered village, families in Ecuador were more dispersed throughout the countryside.
Another factor that can influence a volunteer’s experience is the dynamic of the group of travelers. Julie loved traveling to Mali with a multigenerational group, with the volunteers ranging in age from early teens to mid-60s. She also thoroughly enjoyed traveling to Mali with her then 13-year-old son Mick.
“Since I traveled with my son in Mali, his child presence opened more doors to me with the people of the villages. His youthfulness broke down barriers and drew more people in. We were able to play more, listen more and have better discussion because of his presence,” said Julie.
No matter what country they visit, Tandana’s volunteers are left with many memories. In Mali, Hope realized — much to her surprise- that she could carry water and rocks on her head without falling. Jack, Julie, and Marilyn all picked out a similar moment as their most memorable experiences in Mali. They loved sleeping outdoors and seeing the vast abundance of stars overhead.
“I’ll never forget lying on my cot and watching the stars at night and falling asleep,” said Marilyn.
Hope’s most memorable moment in Ecuador was when she realized that most of the people receiving medical care from Tandana had never had their feet on scales or had their temperature or blood pressure taken. Julie will always remember hiking in the surrounding mountains and seeing the condors fly overhead. The beautiful countryside will always stick out to Jack.
No matter what similarities, differences or surprises volunteers encounter on their travels, one fact will always remain the same. These trips have a strong impact on their lives.