The Malian woman is the literal and symbolic backbone of her village.

After fostering a relationship with Salt Lake City's sister community in Africa over the past three years and observing women's roles, the Ouelessebougou Alliance recognized this premise: To improve the health, skills and education of an African woman is to improve the quality of life for an entire people.

When a woman has more knowledge and more money, she buys food, medicine and clothing for her children. As she spends less time hauling water from a distant well, she takes on projects to improve conditions for her family and community.

The goal of the women's alliance expedition to Ouelessebougou in March was idealistic: to ease human suffering in the parched country, the third poorest in the world.

Composed of a home economist, a pediatrician, educators and a professor of Third World development, the expedition focused its work and research on the needs of the women.

Observing an African woman's daily routine illustrates her role as society's backbone. She awakens at the rooster's crow and works until exhaustion, deep into the night. Pounding millet, walking miles to fetch water, hauling firewood, tending children, planting the garden, feeding chickens and goats, sweeping the huts, dyeing and spinning textiles, sewing and washing clothes and preparing meals for her family - the tedious cycle repeats itself at least twice a day every day of her short life.

The Malian men work in the fields during the three-month rainy season of the year, dig the wells and mend the huts. They are responsible for community decisions, but day-to-day sustenance remains in the blistered, callused hands of the women.

Thousands of women in Ouelessebougou die alone on rotted cots in crude clinics while in the process of giving life. They see one of every three of their babies die before age 5 from curable diseases such as diarrhea, measles and malaria. Medical supplies, even aspirin, are virtually non-existent. Many women give birth to their first child before age 15 and die by the age of 40 of causes linked to the trauma of frequent pregnancies.

One nurse serves 35,000 people.

Confronted with the seemingly overwhelming needs of Ouelessebougou women, the Salt Lake alliance hoped at least to begin to make a difference by providing a few basic tools to make life a little less rigorous for their African sisters.

The sister-to-sister community relationship was established when the Malians faced disease and death from devastating drought. Utahns wanted to provide more than a one-time handout.

The Ouelessebougou Alliance, of which the women's board is a component, is committed to a long-term relationship between the two communities. The alliance is a project of the Salt Lake Community Service Council.

While "alliance" may seem a lofty term to apply to two communities separated by more than 6,000 miles, the women of the Salt Lake Ouelessebougou board believe it applies.

As in a nurturing friendship, both sides benefit.