Imam Almamy Korobara is reaching out beyond his remote corner of Mali to connect with millions of Muslims and religious leaders worldwide using the web of linked computers called the Internet, thanks to information technology donated by the U.S. government.

Korobara is imam of the Grand Mosque of Djenné, one of Africa's oldest towns. His reputation as an influential religious and spiritual leader now is being spread worldwide after the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) recently provided him with a computer and one year of Internet service.

As "one of the most important Muslims in one of Africa's most important Islamic cities," the cleric can now communicate with religious leaders not only in Africa, but worldwide, according to a document provided by USAID.

The Malian cleric and the Internet are a natural fit because of his enthusiastic support for U.S.-government-funded programs aimed at spurring development in Mali, in part through innovative technology programs aimed at connecting sub-Saharan Africa to global information infrastructures like the Internet.

USAID said the imam worked closely with two U.S. ambassadors, "advocating using new technologies to bridge Djenné's information gap," and truly deserves the new sobriquet he has earned as "The Wired Imam" of Mali.

For example, he backed the establishment of a local community radio station and learning center in Djenné-Jeno and is busy using his computer to promote Djenné's historic and cultural past, which dates to 250 B.C.

According to USAID, after Korobara learned to use the computer and access the Internet, he said: "I used to think the Internet was just for people working in offices, but now I realize it is also useful for religious leaders and their communities. I can find information for the Friday prayers and I can help others understand what's going on in the world."

Such understanding is coming to thousands of other Africans who have taken advantage of USAID's Leland Initiative, which for the past 10 years has worked to connect 20 African nations to the Internet. The program -- named for U.S. Representative Mickey Leland (Democrat of Texas), who was killed in a plane crash in 1989 while on a humanitarian mission to Ethiopia -- is a multimillion-dollar effort to bring the benefits of the global information revolution to sub-Saharan Africa.

According to USAID's Leland Initiative Web site, "Africa needs access to the powerful information and communications tools of the Internet in order to obtain the resources and efficiency essential for sustainable development."

The Internet is a good tool, it adds, because it is a "low-cost pathway that allows information to be more accessible, transferable and manageable; ready access to information is becoming the catalyst that transforms economic and social structures around the world and supports fast-paced sustainable development."

After an African nation expresses an interest in the initiative, Leland Initiative officials survey telecom policies to see if commercial Internet service providers (ISPs) already exist in the country or, if not, whether an enabling environment exists for their creation.

The Leland Initiative will help establish the ISPs, whose goal is to provide high-speed, affordable gateway access to the Internet -- which will connect users to billions of pieces of information from universities, libraries and countless databases worldwide.

Even though the initiative does not provide computer or communications equipment to the ISPs, it works with host-country officials and the private sector "to promote Internet-friendly policies oriented towards affordable, cost-based tariffing, nondiscriminating access to the information available on the Internet and the delivery of retail ISP services by the private sector."

In Mali, the initiative helped make an Internet gateway operational, and five commercial ISPs have been connected. USAID also has been busy working with partners to train people who, in turn, can familiarize others with Internet use.

Throughout Africa, the Leland Initiative "will work with the USAID mission and its partners to grow a user base of competent, dynamic individuals and institutions capable of applying the powerful tools of the Internet to the challenge of sustainable development," USAID concluded.

United States Department of State Washington, DC