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U-M project seeks to relieve hunger in West Africa

ANN ARBOR, Mich.—Last fall's harvest in the Sahel region of West Africa was the worst in nearly 30 years, and now a University of Michigan anthropologist who has studied the region for decades is working to save the people from starvation.

"Children and older women face the highest risk of malnutrition," said Beverly Strassmann, a professor of anthropology at the U-M College of Literature, Sciences, and the Arts and a research associate at the U-M Institute for Social Research. "So far, we've brought in several truckloads of food, but we are hoping to provide about 30 truckloads of food for 12 villages in the region."

The Dogon people of West Mali, whom Strassmann has studied for many years, are subsistence farmers who depend on millet farming for their survival, she says. They also raise onions to get cash to buy more millet. But the rains did not come in 2011, so both harvests failed, leaving the Dogon and neighboring people without food until the next harvest in October 2012.

So Strassmann and Rice University faculty members Anne Chao and Diana Strassmann have been raising money to purchase and truck in the precious grain, 20 tons at a time.

Their effort is essential to get the millet to the starving people in the region because conventional relief efforts have not been effective, for a number of reasons, Strassmann says.

"Current aid efforts don't typically reach this remote location," she said. "And a war in Northern Mali involving the Tuareg ethnic group has been consuming preciously needed government resources and decreasing revenues from tourism. As a result of high regional demand, food prices are rapidly rising, and in another month, there may be no millet available to purchase."

To make sure the food actually reaches people in need, with no possibility of diversion or resale of the provisions, the project works with Anagali Ogobara Dolo, a trusted colleague in Sevare, Mali, who purchases millet and arranges for direct delivery to the villages, where research biologist Claudius Vincenz coordinates onsite distribution.

Strassmann and Vincenz also plan to monitor the height and weight of children in one of the villages, taking measurements both before and after the hunger season, permitting evaluation of the success of the food relief effort.

For more information about the project, including how you can help, visit www.slideshare.net/UMNews/hunger-in-the-dogon-of-mali

To read a news release and watch a video about Strassmann's research among the Dogon people of Mali, visit: www.sampler.isr.umich.edu/2011/research/it-doesnt-take-a-village-u-m-research-shows.