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According to time-honored custom and order, the patriarchs of the village's oldest families receive us.

Speeches are given. Live chickens and roasted nuts are presented as symbols of gratitude for a well that provides "life's most precious gift - water."The African women sit in a circle behind the men and do not speak.

But hours after the ceremony, we initiate an unprecedented exchange.

Attempting to reach beyond the textbook explanations of our African sisters' needs, we ask - through our interpreter Modibo Diarra - to meet separately with the village women to conduct informal question-answer sessions.

It's dusk. The women hesitantly abandon their after-dinner chores and gather into a curious cluster.

Puzzled by our request, the African women seem uncomfortable with the prospect of sharing ideas. They giggle nervously and look to the village chief standing nearby for approval. He nods.

To break the ice, the Utah women sing "Itsy-Bitsy Spider" animated by lively hand gestures. The village women delight in imitating their motions.

With a reluctant rapport established, alliance leader Christin Holbrook, through Modibo, tells the African women that we want to talk about their work, their families and their health.

"Your children are beautiful," says Holbrook. "How many children do most of you have?"

"Some of us have as many as 18 children," one woman answers.

Another adds, "We are proud of our children. From the time they are age 5, they work with us in our gardens. Sometimes we are afraid to count how many children we have because if Allah hears us counting, he might think we have enough and will not give us more - or more of our children will die."

As they sense our sincerity, the conversation begins to flow, prompting our translator to insist, "One at a time, please."

Most girls marry at age 15 to a companion chosen for them. There are no women in the villages over 15 who are not married. Three days before they marry, the young girls are given an herbal medicine to make them weak and submissive.

After the marriage ceremony, the couple retires to a hut for a week where they are fed by the villagers. The bridegroom is given sour milk to make him virile and the young bride eats hot cereal to increase her fertility. The couple is accompanied in their honeymoon hut by an elderly women who instructs them.

Each man may marry up to four wives. The wives live in separate huts with their children, all clustered in a larger family group. During any given week, the wives alternate nights in their husband's hut.

Speaking in a teasing voice and playfully pointing to a man standing in the distance, an elderly village woman quips, "There are sometimes three of us women to one man. So our husbands, they are our slaves."

Her joke elicits a burst of laughter.

It is possible, but uncommon, for a woman to divorce her husband. But if she does, she loses her hut and standing in the community.

If a woman's husband dies, she marries her husband's brother or close friend, who will provide for her and her children.

"You work hard. What do you do to have fun?"

"We celebrate weddings, Muslim religious feasts and the arrival of friends," they answer.

To break monotony, the women create music to make a game of their daily chores. They sweep the ground and pound the millet to the rattle of drums and clanking of tin bowls.

Because a long life is never taken for granted, Malians revere the elderly. Each woman wants to look older than she is.

The mothers express hope that all their children will someday be educated. In a community of several hundred, less than a handful of children attend school. Those privileged students must walk many miles to a two-room schoolhouse.

Next to water, their most vital need is better health.

"We eat but we don't get fat," says one woman. "When you're healthy, you're fat. We're all skinny."

Malnourished children, their bellies bloated by worms, are a disturbing but common sight.

Displaying rare trust in strangers, the women confide they worry about their incessant bleeding. The hemorrhaging is caused, in part, by bearing many children within a short period of time, beginning at an early age.

"What would you like to know about our lives in Utah?"

Almost in unison, the villagers ask, "How many wives can American men have? How many children do American mothers have?"

Throwing their hands overhead, they shriek and their eyes grow wide in reaction to the answers. They convey sadness that American women don't enjoy the companionship of other wives in marriage and that they generally have fewer than five children.

They express genuine sympathy for the women over 15 who haven't married yet. And they cannot understand leaving children at home to go to work.

As the falling sun silhouettes clay huts and the children and chickens become restless, the meeting concludes. The African and Utah sisters sense that something extraordinary has occurred.

All leave understanding a little better what binds them as women.