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Ouelessebougou Alliance
A girl attending school in one of the Ouelessebougou Alliance's 11 elementary schools.

Ouelessebougou, a rural area of Mali that houses approximately 60,000 people in some 70 small villages, is one of the poorest areas of a country that is itself considered one of the five poorest countries in the world.

For 25 years, a group of dedicated Utahns has been working in this area to help improve the lives of the people. The Ouelessebougou Alliance is now working in 25 villages and touching 25,000 lives.

Over these 25 years, the work has evolved to not only meet increasing needs, but to also provide long-term sustainability, says Jennifer Beckstead, executive director of the Alliance.

"We are extremely careful that we are not just giving handouts," she says. "We have made a lot of progress, but there is still a lot to do."

In 1985, when the Alliance was formed, the primary concern was a devastating drought in northern Africa. "The first projects were to build wells for drinking water. Then, we realized they had no access to food, so we built irrigation wells. Then, we realized they had to deal with life-threatening but preventable diseases, so we started vaccinations," says Beckstead. "We learned there was a strong connection between education and health, and in the 1990s, we started building schools. Later, we noted that if they had access to other resources, they could find better ways to help themselves."

Today, the Alliance focuses on three main areas: health, education and economic development; and it works in ways that can be self-sustaining. For example, "we now require villages to pay their teachers," says Beckstead. "We help provide training and necessary supplies, but we've found that if the villages must sacrifice to keep the program going, it means more to them. In these villages, every child that wants to has an opportunity to go to school."

That's a big change for villages where many children, especially girls, have grown up in the fields with their mothers, says Beckstead. "We've seen how education makes a huge difference for girls in their abilities to communicate, to take care of their families."

The same thing applies to economic development. Now, each village has a committee that decides which of the villagers can receive loans, based on their ideas and plans and abilities to repay them. "We've seen great returns on loans of $100 or less," says Beckstead. Loans may go toward such things as planting more crops or opening a bicycle-repair shop. "One of our first loans went to a man who wanted to open a seamstress shop. He now has eight to 10 employees and is doing very well."

Beckstead has been to Ouelessebougou six times. "I've been to other African countries, but there's nothing like Mali. You see poverty at such a different level." Most villagers have no access to electricity or running water. One in five children die before they reach age 5. They have one or two sets of clothes, worn every day until they wear out. They eat two meals of millet a day, "three if they are lucky," says Beckstead. "But if they grow vegetables, they sell them. So, they have to contend with malnutrition as well as disease. Education is so important, as is health care. And even a small amount of money can do so much."

For example, $25 in Mali can provide life-saving vaccinations for 35 children, fund a micro-loan project so a villager can feed his family for 30 days, give 17 students school supplies for a year, or provide mosquito nets to protect 16 women and children for malaria. "That's less than you could spend just going out to dinner here," says Beckstead.

To raise funds and support for the Ouelessebougou Alliance, the 25th annual dinner and auction will be held Saturday at the Grand America Hotel. The auction will feature more than 100 pieces of African art, such as wood carvings, textiles and figures from Mali, as well as more than 400 items donated by local business and including such things as travel and entertainment packages, sports events, electronics and more. Tickets are $110 per person or $1,000 per table of 10. Reservations should be made by Friday. Call 801-983-6254 for tickets and/or information, or to make other donations.

Dinner attendees will also have a chance to meet four Malian staff members who will be brought here for the dinner and will stay for two weeks of training. "We don't have any Americans on the ground there," says Beckstead. "We rely on Malians; that is the strongest way to reach sustainable development."

Since BYU student and former Utahn Yeah Samake was elected mayor of Ouelessebougou, the Alliance has another friend there. "Yeah's Mali Rising Foundation works more with secondary schools, but he has been a big help to us in recognizing how to be more effective. He's a great resource," she says.

In many ways, says Beckstead, "the Mali people are just like us. They love their families. They have a deep national pride." And one of the most important things the Alliance is doing in Ouelessebougou, she says, "is teaching people how small daily decisions can help improve their health, their education, their lives. "They are learning they have the power to make a difference."

Email: carma@desnews.com