The ” world’s volunteer ” who builds schools, clinics and houses out of mud
The love for travelling, in itself, has the power to lead you to discover magical places, cultures and civilisations that are far from what a citizen of the western world may experience in his daily life. And when this love is combined with a love of service and humanity, it can bring out a personality that is an example to be modelled. One such case is Dimitris Katsantonis.
“Ever since I was a young boy travelling around Europe at first, I wondered what life was like for people living in underdeveloped countries,” he says in a recent interview and continues: “I always wanted in some way to be able to help villagers in areas of the world where our comforts are not self-evident.”
The life of the retired Greek army soldier changed radically on the occasion of a trip – a gift from his father, for his success in the national examinations and his admission to the school he wanted. He has already visited 65 countries in every corner of the globe, most of the time not for tourism, but mainly to help communities in Africa, improving their everyday conditions with substantial interventions through the volunteer group of which he is an active member. A group that builds schools, clinics, closed markets and even mud houses with the help of local people.
“It all started with the gift my father gave me with my success in getting into the military school of Evelpidon. His gift was a trip to America and specifically to Boston”, explains Dimitris Katsantonis.
“To think”, he stresses, “back then smoking was allowed on the plane. After a month in America, I realised that the more I travelled in my life, the more fulfilled I would feel. Of course, while I was in the service it was difficult to take long, multi-day trips, so I chose countries in Europe.”
Many of the countries he has traveled to, he has been to more than once because, he says, “it gives you a much more meaningful immersion into the way of life of the people.”
On one of his trips to Africa, quite by chance, he came into contact with an organisation that organised outreach trips to regions of Africa and Asia. So he participated in a trip to Tanzania and the village of Gongo.
“The work of the organisation was amazing, they had built a school, a clinic, a closed market, so our team, with the help of the locals, built mud houses and a greenhouse. The work was very hard, but the happiness was immense,” Dimitris Katsantonis notes and continues: “All they could offer us was a smile and a flower carved in the soil as a gift. The smiles and love of the locals, especially the children, cannot be captured in a few lines. It is a blessing to have the oldest village elder in Kenya come and want to kiss your hands because you just painted the school. Our goal was not only to construct some buildings, more so we wanted to educate the locals to take advantage of nature without destroying it. I hope to continue in other countries especially in “mama Africa”. Anyone who dares a service trip to any country in Africa will rethink many things about themselves, their needs and life itself.”
Describing his strangest experiences, he mentioned Bolivia, where herbs with magical properties and incantations are a reference point for people’s daily lives. He also referred to Peru and the mystery of the Inca culture and constructions, while he did not fail to point out difficult moments: “The evenings on the streets of the Vietnamese capital were incredibly difficult for me. I would walk on streets that were not touristy and motorbikes would stop next to me to sell me their merchandise, which were underage girls. It was unthinkable to me, especially when I learned that the sellers, were their own fathers. I’ll never forget those images. It was a punch to my stomach. It is hard for the human mind to grasp how degraded the role of women is in many countries, especially in Africa and this is cultivated from a young age.
Every trip he takes, he plans it for months. He has no issue with his food being from flea markets and staying in hostels to lower the cost of a trip. But to travel safely in dangerous places, one has to follow certain rules. As he points out, “In all my travels I have had one rule. Not to challenge myself with expensive items on me and not to show, as much as possible, that I am a tourist. I walk around the areas I visit as if I am one with the locals. One of my favorite places, in every corner of the world, is the flea markets. It is in these markets that you get to know the truth of each place.”