For Utah children who sit in crowded but modern classrooms and drink cool water from hallway fountains, it's hard to imagine a country where education is as scarce as water.

During his recent two-week visit, Modibo Diarra talked with hundreds of Utah students about the differences between life in the African villages of Ouelessebougou in Mali, West Africa, and life in Utah.As Modibo and his wife, Ami, dressed in their traditional African gowns, enter the Draper Elementary auditorium, the children become unusually quiet and attentive. Their faces reflect curiosity and a sense of awe as they stare at this large man with a beard who is "wearing a colorful dress" - not a common sight in their rural community.

Modibo, father of five children, enjoys interacting with youngsters. He extends his hand in a handshake and greets them with a hearty "Hello." The children know that this man, who seems to come from a planet far away, is their friend.

The auditorium darkens and photographs illustrating the daily life of an African family are illuminated on the wall.

Modibo talks about his modest home where goats and chickens roam freely inside an enclosed yard. Because Malians take care of their extended families - aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews and grandparents - there are 24 people living with Modibo in an adobe compound much smaller than a classroom.

The students react with "ahhhs" and "ooooohs" when they see a picture of a village woman carrying a heavy bundle of long tree branches on her head - firewood to be used for cooking. And they ask how the women in the photos shown balancing buckets of water and loads of laundry "do that without dropping everything all over?" African women place a braided piece of cloth, like a rope, on top of their heads to create a flat surface. Girls learn how to balance heavy objects on their heads when they start helping their mothers with chores at age 5, Modibo explains.

The children giggle when they see African youngsters with their little brothers and sisters strapped on their backs. "I would never give my sister a piggyback ride - no way!" responds one student.

Only a handful of students in a village of 100 "are lucky to go to school," Modibo tells them. There isn't much paper to write on. The few worn books must be shared.

In Ouelessebougou, the children eat millet, a grain, for all their meals. But many don't have enough food to eat or clean water to drink. Three out of five children die very young from curable diseases such as measles and diarrhea. Mali is one of the world's poorest countries.

The lives of many African children are being saved because "Utahns are kind to give money to buy materials to build wells and metal fences to keep goats and cows from destroying gardens." Modibo thanks the children for helping his people.

When Modibo finishes answering questions, the Draper students applaud. As Modibo and Ami leave, a young boy asks if they are driving home to Africa in a chariot.

In addition to talking with schoolchildren, the Modibos met with Salt Lake Mayor Palmer DePaulis and community groups during their September visit. Although there are other non-profit charitable organizations helping drought-stricken Mali, Modibo says the Utah Alliance is "very, very good because the alliance helps the people trust in themselves."

"When someone has come from a far place like Utah to plant trees and give concrete to dig wells, the people think, `Ah, this is very important. We can do this ourselves and make our village better,' " he said.

In the past year, more than 35 wells in Ouelessebougou have been built by Malians using materials purchased through alliance donations. The alliance raises funds through activities such as the 5K race on Sept. 15. This year, Modibo ran the race alongside Utahns to raise money for development projects.

"My people first need to build wells for water. After that, they trust themselves to build fences and to learn better health ways," he said.

In April, a health-care expedition led by Utah ophthalmologist Phil Hale established primary medical-care programs in six villages. Alliance contributions now support a full-time Malian physician who administers simple medical assistance and trains village health-care workers, elected by the people, in basic health care. Primitive dispensaries are being established in each village, supplied with tools for examinations and a few drugs to treat common illnesses. The program will be expanded with the ultimate goal of becoming self-sufficient - villagers giving whatever they can afford for the life-saving care.

In August, University of Utah students Rebecca LeCheminant, Dan DeGrooyer and Benedicte LaGore traveled to Mali to plant "live fences" made of thick bushes to keep animals out of vegetables and help reforest the dry, sub-Saharan land.

While Americans feel stress to "buy more and more," Malians "wake up every day and wonder if they will survive," Modibo said.

By African standards, Modibo calls himself an old man. "Age 45 in America is young. In Africa, if you are 45 you are old.

"Anyone can die too quickly. If you get a mosquito bite and if you get sick and there is no medicine, you die. It is not happy to watch people die. All families in Ouelessebougou have someone or many who died."

Modibo said he and wife are "very, very glad to come to Utah and see people who are smiling to us."

In Mali, the Utah Alliance is spoken about with kindness and gratitude, he said.

"It is very emotional for me to hear Malians say, `May the Ouelessebougou Alliance be blessed.' They know when people from Utah say they will do something to help, they will do it.

"Visiting Utah gives me courage to work with my heart and my hand to fight for my people's good lives."