U-M project seeks to relieve hunger in West Africa

March 14, 2012

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,” says Beverly Strassmann, a professor of anthropology at the U-M College of Literature, Sciences and Arts (LSA) and a research associate at the U-M Institute for Social Research (ISR).

“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 explains.  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 points out.

Hunger in West Africa (Photo by Kimberly Hoang)“Current aid efforts don’t typically reach this remote location,” says Strassmann.  “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 re-sale 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 Claudius Vincenz, a research biologist, coordinates on-site 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.home.isr.umich.edu/2011/research/it-doesnt-take-a-village-u-m-research-shows.

By Diane Swanbrow

Contact: isrcommunications@umich.edu