Saturday, December 03, 2005

OUELESSEBOUGOU-UTAH ALLIANCE: Opening My Eyes To The Beauty of "Utahns"

So there I was blinking at my computer screen, not sure whether to believe my eyes. But the large letters on the well-laid out Home Page read: "Ouelessebougou-Utah Alliance."

Now for those of you who may not know, Ouelessebougou is in Southern Mali, the large French speaking west African nation with about 9 ½ million people. Utah is one of the southwestern states of the U.S. with about 2 ¼ million. Both Mali and Utah are known for their deserts and distinctive geographies. Mali is very dry and stretches from the Sahara in its northern regions to the Sahel in the south. Utah has deserts as well, its most famous being the Bonneville Salt Flats . Utah is also known for its beautiful canyons and colorful rock formations, as well as its mountains.

Even though these two communities share the common experience of having some desert terrain in their area, the big question came to my mind, as I'm sure it comes to most other people. "Why did people in Utah want to go to Mali and help people in Ouelessebougou?" I surfed over to the History of the organization to see if I could get a clue. By the way, the organization is actually named "The Ouelessebougou-Utah Alliance". Anyway, when I got to their " History " web page, sure enough, I found that they had a paragraph entitled:

I had to read the paragraph three times before I finally got it. The paragraph that explained why this group from halfway around the world had decided to help the people of Ouelessebougou only talked about the need in Ouelessebougou.

It was because the people of Ouelessebougou had a need.

The Utahns (I never before realized that the people of Utah called themselves "Utahns") who founded the Ouelessebougou-Utah Alliance in 1985 were aware of the devastating drought that hit the Sahel region in the 1980s and they wanted to help. They wanted to serve a specific African community and they wanted to know that their assistance was going directly to the recipients for whom it was intended.

The Ouelessebougou-Utah Alliance is a Utah-based non-profit organization, which works cooperatively with villagers in Ouelessebougou and surrounding regions of Mali.

Founded in 1985 by a group of community leaders concerned about the devastating drought in North Africa during the 1980s, the Alliance was structured to give Utahns the opportunity to serve a specific African community, knowing that their assistance was going directly to those in need.

Since 1985, the Alliance has worked cooperatively with villagers to:

Dig drinking wells
Immunize children
Train village health workers
Build schools and train teachers
Provide books and school supplies
Make small business opportunities accessible to villagers

The goal of these projects is sustainable development--helping villagers become self-sufficient.

In Ouelessebougou, where one doctor serves the 36,000 villagers of the region, the Alliance assists the government by providing funds and staff to assist in immunizing the children in villages surrounding Ouelessebougou. This is because the government does not have the funds or ability to immunize the millions of village children in Mali. In addition to helping with the immunization of children, the Alliance helps volunteer village health workers, from many villages near Ouelessebougou teach their communities about various health concerns. Through their pharmacy, the Alliance provides these local volunteers access to medications, and an Alliance staff member trains these health workers in areas of health and nutrition. In addition to the local volunteers, doctors and volunteers from Utah donate their time and expertise to provide surgical aid to villagers in and around Ouelessebougou. These physicians and volunteers from Utah have gone on missions concerned both with eye care and with OB/GYN health delivery.

Beginning in December of 2000 and extending into January of the next year a Utah OB/GYN team performed 26 surgeries and saw hundreds of village patients.

While the government of Mali has state schools, they are few in numbers. Over 90% of the children of Ouelessebougou are unable to attend government schools. Because there are so few state schools, the government of Mali allows villages to create their own. The Alliance has subsidized 12 schools in the area, thereby affording many more children the opportunity for education. Because of its commitment to cooperative development, the Alliance's projects are designed so that the villagers initiate and contribute to the projects thereby making them sustainable. Villages work cooperatively to help fund the education projects. For example portions of the revenues generated from a harvest is sometimes set aside for the schools. Parents too contribute money for each child to attend school. The sum usually approximates $1/month, which is a significant sacrifice for the people of Ouelessebougou.

Access To Water
For decades, the scarcity of water has been a major problem in Mali and throughout the Sahel. In the Ouelessebougou, region as in many other places in the Sahel, people often have to bring water from great distances. On occassions attempts to dig wells deep enough to provide water have ended tragically when the walls of the wells have collapsed during the digging. And all to often the traditional, more shallow wells dry up.

The Alliance has been able to help with the construction of new wells in the region. The men of Ouelessebougou dig the wells by hand to a safe depth and then the Alliance brings in drilling equipment to reach clean water at depths of up to 100 feet. The well is capped with concrete rings with a cover to make it safer and more stable so it will not collapse in the rainy season. In 2000-2001, six new garden wells were dug -- four large wells and two small ones. These wells allowed one community garden to double in size, due to the increase of the area that could be irrigated. As an additional note, the sides of four wells were heightened to prevent against children falling inside. This created a safer environment within their community. Alliance has built over 35 drinking wells in Ouelessebougou and the surrounding regions.

There is also an effort to help Ouelessebougou with its gardens, but I will let you read about it on their web site.

In 1996, the Alliance teamed with a village bank by the name of "Caisse" in order to offer training and loans for villagers to start a business. Many of the villagers in Ouelessbougou villagers have the skills to earn a living, but they lack the collateral and/or capital to purchase the materials or equipment to start a small business. The lack of funding was compounded by the problem that the local bank, Caisse, had insufficient funds to meet the demand. By helping to establish Micro-enterprise groups the Alliance has fostered business development in the village and the surrounding region.

Alliance has also posted a list of its accomplishments, which may seem small to some, but they are a great benefit to the recipients.

- Each student in Alliance schools has been furnished with a notebook, pencil, and desk slate. These simple supplies greatly facilitate learning.

- Many more villagers have access to water, thanks to the construction of new drinking and irrigation wells. In addition, the walls of other wells were raised to prevent children from falling in.

- New classrooms accommodate more students desiring an education.

- 30 teacher's salaries ensure that all twelve Alliance schools are fully staffed.

- Bicycles for all Alliance village health agents increase accessibility to a pharmacy located several miles away and enabling health workers to deliver necessary medications.

- Community libraries have been established in all 12 of the Alliance schools - beginning with locking metal cabinets, French dictionaries and children's books in French and Bambara.

- A Utah medical team united with Ouelessbougou health workers to perform 26 surgeries and see hundreds of women and children.

- Utah educators visited all 12 Alliance schools, exchanged ideas, and shared creative writing methods with village teachers.

- Textbooks

- Six new classrooms

Additionally "education trunks" are being placed in every school district in the state of Utah to help students gain a hands-on learning experience. These "education trunks" were made possible by a grant from Utah Humanities Council as well as donations and support from volunteers.

As usual, I have not written about everything that this wonderful organization is doing. But I encourage each and every reader to go to the Alliance's web site and see what other great things they are doing. And perhaps you can ask them how people in your state can do the same thing.

I have always loved the beautiful landscape of Utah, but the Ouelessebougou-Utah Alliance has taught me that Utah has people as beautiful as its canyons, mountains and rock formations.

Go see for yourself. Ouelessebougou-Utah Alliance

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