The French West Africa Project

a large group stands outside a building in Mali


Eight VCU faculty were in Mali between January 5 and January 29.  The French West Africa Project, funded by the U.S. Department of Education, brought a team of researchers to Mali as part of an interdisciplinary initiative that improves both French language and international studies for undergraduates at VCU.  The three-year grant (2012-15) for $450,000 brings together faculty from the fields of French, anthropology, history, geography, rural development, and African American Studies.  Four faculty also were involved with the VCU Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation grant project (initially $100,000 and subsequently $1,000,000) involving clinical trials with HIV-Positive Malian Women.

Led by grant project principal investigator and French program coordinator Dr. Patricia Cummins, eight faculty began their travel in the capital of Bamako, Mali on January 5. They included Dr. Helen Ruth Aspaas, who is an African geography expert and head of the Liberal Studies and Early Education program; Dr. Christopher Brooks, HIV-AIDS expert, anthropology program coordinator, and a member of the School of World Studies Executive Committee; Prof. Marcia Fontes, expert in the teaching of less commonly taught languages and project coordinator for the U.S. Department of Education grant; Prof. Brahima Kone, expert on Francophone West African language, literature, and culture; Dr. Michelle Poulton, Affiliate Professor in the School of World Studies, former CEO of Save the Children in West Africa, retired Vice President for International Programs at Child Fund International, and person responsible for arranging the 2014 student internships that are planned for West Africa in 2014 and 2015; Dr. Robin Edward Poulton, Affiliate Professor in the School of World Studies, author of five books on Mali, and lead expert for the grant project; Dr. A.J. Shriar, expert in rural development and environmental issues.   The faculty group was joined by Ms. Ana Edwards, the president of VCU’s community partner organization Virginia Friends of Mali.

four people outside a building with a horseshoe arch doorway in Mali

VCU faculty met with with the Malian Minister of Higher Education and Research Professor Messa Ould Mohamed LADY on January 7.  The purpose of this meeting was to facilitate collaboration between VCU and institutions of higher education within Mali. The minister introduced key members of his staff, and each explained how his office would be able to facilitate our collaboration with universities in Bamako and in Ségou, which is Richmond’s sister city.  Thus faculty were introduced to Chief of Staff Moussa KANTE, the Ministry’s technical advisor for higher education restructuring and educational exchanges Dr. Mohammed MAIGA,  and the Ministry’s technical advisor for assuring internet access for universities in Mali, Dr. Siaka DIARRA.  Partnership agreements were signed at the end of the visit between Virginia Friends of Mali, affiliated with the Richmond Sister Cities Commission, and two universities, namely the University of Humanities and Human Sciences of Bamako in the capital and the University of Ségou, located in Richmond’s sister city of Ségou.  Agreements were signed on January 14 and on January 16 by the rectors for each university, by Ana Edwards on behalf of Virginia Friends of Mali, and by Dr. Patricia Cummins in her role as Vice Chair of the Richmond Sister Cities Commission.  The Malian TV station ORTM showed the signing ceremony on national television.  As a result of these agreements, VCU and other educational and cultural organizations in Richmond will build on the ties between Malian universities and Virginia Friends of Mali that were established during this visit.

VCU faculty also met with the Minister of Health Soumana MAKADJI, his Chief of Staff Abdoulaye Chaba SANGARE,  his external relations advisor Birama CISSE.  There was discussion of how each of these representatives would be involved with VCU’s HIV-AIDS clinical trials.  There were three meetings with Dr. Fanta DIABATE, VCU’s affiliate faculty member who will oversee Gates grant activities for us in Mali.  A physician educated in Europe with experience as a faculty member in Bamako’s School of Medicine, Dr. Diabaté had worked previously at Johns Hopkins University and for USAID projects in several countries of West Africa.  The Ministry of Health has arranged for Prof SALL, Chair of the National Ethics Committee that must approve VCU clinical trials, to work closely with Dr. Diabaté.  In other meetings, Drs. Cummins, Brooks, R. Poulton, and M. Poulton met with government officials at the city and regional levels, and they visited the clinics and medical centers where clinical trials will take place.  Conference calls were held with VCU medical researchers Dr. Daniel Nixon (head of the VCU HIV Center), Dr. Susan Kornstein (head of the Institute for Women’s Health), Dr. Saba Masho (Epidemiology), and Dr. Nancy Jallo (Nursing). 

two women wearing sunglasses and shawls in front of a body of water in Mali

These two grant projects focused on West Africa are expected to lead to other projects in the future for VCU faculty and students.  Faculty would like to expand the exchange of students and scholars, the pursuit of joint research activities, and the opportunities for joint degree programs in the future.