In Ouelessebougou, Africa, it is common to see women carrying loads of firewood in their arms and balancing heavy water jugs on their heads, while tending the infant children strapped on their backs.

The scene symbolizes the role of women in Utah's sister community.If a water well or plow breaks, it is the women of the village who fix it. The women plant, till and reap the gardens and grind the grain.

Women are the backbone of the village in Mali, West Africa.

After visiting the drought-stricken village in January, Christin Holbrook realized the key to improving the quality of life for all the Ouelessebougou people was to help the women help themselves.

Creating a board of Utah women to friendship and assist the Ouelessebougou women seemed to be the answer to helping them in a permanent way, Holbrook told the Deseret News Saturday.

The new women's board is beginning its work this week by developing self-help programs adaptable to the role and culture of Ouelessebougou women.

"We don't want to westernize their culture or encourage them to become `women's libbers.' That's not the point," said Holbrook.

"We are sensitive to their perspective. We want to help in ways that they define themselves. We want to establish a long-term, ongoing relationship with them," said Holbrook.

The faces of the women she befriended halfway across the world remain vivid in her mind and heart. Holbrook recalls a woman who extended her hand in a handshake of friendship. The woman had no fingers on her hand. Her fingers had been ravaged by leprosy, a common disease in the area.

Another leprosy victim had carved two holes in a white stone and placed the stone in the socket where her nose, which had been destroyed through the illness, had been to make breathing easier.

"Despite their illnesses, the drought and hunger, the women remain generous and loving. They are devoted to their families and their community."

The exchange between the two cultures will benefit both groups - Utahns and Africans.

"We have a lot to learn from them. They would be happy with a gallon of water a day," she said.

The skills that the board members contribute are practical.

For instance, Dr. Joan Hume is a pediatrician with Primary Children's Medical Center. She is disturbed by statistics that show one of two children born in Mali die before age 10 from diseases that are curable - measles, malaria and malnutrition. She hopes to visit Mali and to assist women by teaching health care and obtaining medical supplies.

Several businesswomen on the board have commercial connections to provide a link for Mali women to market their colorful textiles to the United States. The money earned could be used to purchase plows, seeds and medical supplies.

Some 72 villages and 35,000 people are in the Mali region - a land that is recovering from two decades of drought. Holbrook believes the most direct way to end hunger is to help the women improve their methods of gardening.

"Gardening is considered to be too unholy and unworthy a work to be done by men. The women are the farmers," said Holbrook.

All aspects of family life revolve around women.

"If you want to prevent infant malnutrition, help the women with health practices. The women will be the ones who have the highest impact on the family."

In Mali, a woman's worth is determined by the number of children she bears.

Because survival demands that women spend most of the day working in the fields, their older children stay home rearing their younger brothers and sisters.

Improving farming techniques will give women more free time to spend with their children, said Holbrook.

Christine Durham, a justice with Utah's Supreme Court, heads the Ouelessebougou women's board.

The continued friendship with Mali women gives Utahns a chance to "look outside ourselves, putting our own problems in perspective," she said.