After completing their morning chores, the children begin the long walk from their village huts to the schoolhouse many miles away. Instead of lunch boxes and books, they carry cumbersome desks.

Their desks are their tickets to education.Those whose parents cannot afford a desk remain in the village.

Clusters of children can be seen lugging desks to and from school across land parched by decades of drought. The young students also carry their own chalk and slates, to be shared among 10 of them, because vandals break into unsecured school structures.

Only a handful of specially chosen children from a village of hundreds attend school. The desks they carry grant them an opportunity to learn Mali's official language, French, and to write their native language, Bambara.

Most of the youngsters' parents have never been taught to read or write.

As in Utah's early pioneer days, children of all ages are taught in one crowded room.

Their school does not have colorful bulletin boards, drinking fountains or swing sets. Books are scarce, art supplies unheard of.

After school, in between their chores, the students practice writing new words by using sticks to sketch in the crusty earth.

"How can these children get beyond where they are?" asks Addie Fuhriman. "So much of their potential is lost."

Fuhriman, educational psychology chairwoman at the University of Utah, has traveled to northwest Africa as part of the Ouelessebougou (waa-lessa-boo-goo) Alliance women's board. The group strives to ease villagers' burdens by providing tools and medicine. For the children, they have brought new jump ropes and soccer balls donated by Utah students.

When alliance members arrive at the Ouelessebougou school house, the children cheer.

The normal order of the classroom erupts into excited chatter and giggling. Pulling faces and showing off, the children are pleased to have their photos taken holding gifts sent by their Utah friends.

As they leave, the students sing a rambunctious French march - clapping their hands and stomping their feet so enthusiastically that tin shelter shakes.

Their teacher, a graceful young woman, hands alliance members a thank-you note addressed to Brookwood Elementary School students in Sandy, Utah. The note expresses sincere gratitude and wishes for happiness to the American friends the Africans have never met.

Standing in the midst of the students' cheerful faces, it is easy to forget - at least momentarily - the life-threatening conditions in this Third World country.

Returning to the village, the Utahns are reminded of the poverty and disease that will rob many of these youngsters of the opportunity to grow up. Many will die from measles, malaria, dehydration and diarrhea. Most have seen a brother or sister die. Some of have already lost their mothers.

A Malian mother's greatest hope is to see her children live past the fragile months of infancy into childhood. And, if Allah smiles upon her, to enjoy the company of her children into her old age.

Childhood is regarded as a gift. Adulthood, a miracle.

"It breaks my heart that I could save these children - if I had the medicine. Their poverty denies them a fighting chance at life," laments alliance member Dr. Joan Hulme, pediatrician, Primary Children's Medical Center.

But living with death teaches these youngsters to relish life.

Their inquisitive faces reflect their spunk and vitality.

Their self-created toys reveal their ingenuity.

Wire scraps are artfully bent into miniature cars and motorcycles. Rocks become marbles. Long grass is braided into jump ropes. And an old bike tire becomes a hoop.

Using their imaginations, these children enjoy life - even without Nintendo.

While they possess very little, the Malian children are remarkably generous.

A young girl given a piece of candy - a rare treat - takes a lick then passes it on to her friend to taste. This friend tastes it and gives it to her pal. And the candy is handed from friend-to-friend until it has vanished.

The children's patience impresses Kathryn Lindquist, writing instructor at the U. and mother of four.

As she distributes small toys, the youngsters stand politely waiting - without grabbing. After receiving a Match Box truck, a boy calls his friends to form a circle. They take turns playing with the truck.

Lindquist notes the open affection children show each other. Girls hold hands with girlfriends. They spend hours braiding each others' hair. Boys walk with arms around their buddies. Children carry younger children.

"The children seem to have more a sense of community than of self. They seem attached to the group. They know they are not alone."

The friendship shared among families, some with as many as 18 children, is a quality many American families lack, believes Chris Nelson, an alliance volunteer and mother of eight.

"I would like to see my own children show more companionship to each other. In our society there are so many obstacles - peer pressures, material possessions. We can learn from the African children. In the things that matter most, they win; we lose."

For children living in this survival-of-the-fittest world, the carefree years of childhood are fleeting.

At the age when Utah youngsters begin kindergarten, these children work by their mothers' sides - sweeping huts, gathering firewood, carrying water jugs on their heads. By age 15, the girls have learned all necessary domestic and farming skills. Their parents arrange for them to marry.

At the age when Utah teens receive their drivers'licenses and attend football games, the African girls pound and cook millet three times a day, their newborns strapped on their backs.

The young men are in their early `20s when they first marry. In accordance with village custom, most men will later marry two or three other wives.

Brigham Young University home economist Patricia Ormsby, who studies families of different cultures, notices an unusual maturity in Malian children.

The villages are relatively quiet - even though the majority of their population are under age 18. Children seldom cry or throw temper tantrums.

In interviews with village women, conducted through an interpreter, Ormsby asks mothers how they discipline their children.

"When they help, we tell them, `You're a good child. May Allah bless you,"' answers one mother. "If they are bad, we spank them with a stick."

Because their work directly affects whether they eat each day, work brings self-esteem. They enjoy contributing, knowing their jobs are important.

Seventy Utah schools contribute to the Ouelessebougou Alliance, a project of the Salt Lake Community Services Council. Through "Ouelessebougou-Boogie" dances, races and personal donations, Utahns are helping African children live healthier lives. Their money builds wells, fences and provides farm equipment and life-saving medicine.

Christin Holbrook coordinates these acts of kindness.

One Utah student sent a package of Kool-Aid complete with two cups sugar. Others have mailed peanut butter, stickers and their favorite T-shirts, she said.

"Through their laughter and their smiles, the African children tell me that their friendship with Utah brightens their lives in ways that can't be fully measured. We're making a significant difference in a world 6,000 miles away."