When a small group of Utahns arrived in the drought-stricken village of Ouelessebougou, Africa, in January, the native people performed a jubilant dance of thanksgiving.

The Utahns were part of the Ouelessebougou Alliance that has aided the villagers this past year by digging five wells in surrounding villages, helping to construct a medical clinic and supporting a center to teach women sanitation and child-care skills.The villagers were happy to see the Utahns they consider friends.

No doubt if the villagers could have been present at a benefit auction held Saturday evening at Little America, they would have performed a similar joyful dance.

More than 300 Utahns were generous in their bids on donated items, which included African crafts, a grand piano, a basketball signed by the Boston Celtics, original paintings by prominent artists Earl Jones and Trevor Southey and two tickets to the Michael Jackson concert in London - airfare included.

The $36,000 raised in the auction will go toward building more wells, completing the medical clinic, providing medical supplies and supporting the women's center.

Some 72 villages and 35,000 people are in the region of Mali, located in northwest Africa. It's a region where water, the most precious resource, is scare - available only through wells too deep for villagers to dig without assistance. The natives use crude hand tools to dig wells, cultivating land that is recovering from two decades of drought.

The uniqueness of the assistance project is found in the relationship between Utahns and the African villagers, project director Christin Holbrook told the Deseret News.

Holbrook was among those who visited Ouelessebougou in January.

When Americans saw photographs of starving African children years ago, they responded by sending money to help.

But the community-to-community program has been successful in helping the people help themselves on a long-term basis.

In May 1986, government officials announced the establishment of a friendship between Salt Lake City and Ouelessebougou.

Since then, this relationship has been nurtured. The Salt Lake effort has spread throughout the state and hundreds of Utahns are supporting the continued friendship.

The project, sponsored by the Ouelessebougou Alliance and the Community Service Council, is not a one-time handout or welfare, said Holbrook. It's an on-going commitment, based on a relationship of interaction and caring, to help the people become self-sufficient.

When Holbrook visited the village in January, she was gratified to see a well that had been built through Utah funds being used to produce vegetable gardens. Previously, the villagers had to walk miles for scarce drinking water. Now, they exchange their vegetables for desperately needed goods and supplies at the market.

"What we've accomplished is great, but we have much more to do," she said.

James B. Mayfield, chairman of the alliance board of directors, said the goal in 1988 is to send Utah doctors to Mali to train native physicians. The villagers have proven their dedication to their health clinic by constructing most of the building themselves. Every family sacrificed some of its minimal income to the clinic.

The need for improved medical care is urgent. One in 20 women dies in giving childbirth because of the lack of medical supplies or sanitary facilities. Two of every five children born die of malnutrition or other deadly diseases. There are no antibiotics to fight infection.

The jolting contrast between the lifestyle of Utahns and the villagers of Ouelessebougou jars the conscience.

The Ouelessebougou project gives Utahns the opportunity to provide needed resources for an improved life - water wells, medical expertise and supplies, agricultural training - and friendship.