Woman Focuses Efforts on Mali

Through the auspices of the United Nations Children’s Fund, Wheeling native Heidi Good is working with communities in Mali to educate people on healthier life choices.

Good, who lived in New York City for 10 years and worked for UNICEF at the United Nations’ headquarters, tranferred to Bamako, the capital of Mali, a year ago. A documentary photographer and development communications specialist, she has worked with UNICEF on projects supporting child survival and maternal health, access to safe drinking water, girls’ education and malnutrition in the West African country.

During a visit to Wheeling in November, she spoke about her work in Mali and offered a photographic presentation for a community educational program at Temple Shalom. She has built the UNICEF Mali website and has worked on the organization’s annual report. She said she uses her photographs for advocacy purposes.

Mali, which covers the fourth largest land mass on the continent of Africa, has a population of 14.5 million, Good said. French is the official government language, and Islam is the predominant religion. The government is stable and operates on a French civil system that is “very tolerant,” she said.

It is an impoverished nation in which “nearly 12 million people live on less than $1 a day,” Good said.

To put the cost of living in perspective, she said that a typical meal of rice and sauce costs $1.

“People are very welcoming and friendly, despite the conditions,” she commented.

UNICEF focuses its efforts in Mali on child survival and maternal/child health because the nation’s mortality rate for infants and children is one of the highest in the world, Good explained.

She said that one in 15 women dies in childbirth. The average woman in Mali is married at age 14 and has six children.

Almost one in five children dies before his or her fifth birthday, Good said. Half of the childhood deaths are related to malnutrition.

Pneumonia, diarrhea and malaria are main causes of death. The rate of HIV infection in Mali is low, though, and is lower than in the United States, she said.

UNICEF upholds the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The agency’s primary focus in Mali, Good said, is on child survival, education and partnerships. “We’re working with communities in Mali to educate people to make healthier lives,” she explained. “UNICEF works a lot with mothers-in-law. They make decisions for the household.”

Community health workers are volunteers elected by their villages to provide health care. “They (the volunteers) take it very seriously,” she related. The community health workers give vaccinations and distribute bed nets to prevent the spread of malaria.

However, Good pointed out, “Distribution of supplies in a country like Mali is very hard. Corruption is high.”

Regional doctors are paid $300 a month and work seven days a week, without taking a break in seven or eight years, she said. Each physician cares for 200,000 patients in a region.

To improve health conditions, UNICEF staff members teach people to dig proper latrines. In Mali, adolescent girls stop attending school because there is no privacy for them to go to the bathroom, so “UNICEF works to create girl-friendly facilities,” she added.

“UNICEF also works a lot with child protection,” Good said, noting that 90 percent of the women in Mali have been cut in some form, by genital mutilation or cutting, and the practice leads to many complications in childbirth. On a positive note, she said that a lot of communities are now banning the practice.

“Many girls marry at 14, often to men twice their age,” she said. Men in Mali are allowed to have four wives. Child slavery exists as children are born into families of slaves.

Most people work in agriculture, engaging in subsistence farming. A lot of small businesses also exist, she said.

“There are a lot of aid groups present,” she said, “Projects do function. Things get up and running. The Peace Corps is huge; it has a really big presence.”

While visiting family in Wheeling, Good wed Harouna Boncana, an attorney from Mali. They will return to Bamako, where he practices law, and she will continue her work with UNICEF.

Good is the daughter of Larry Good of Wheeling and the late Barbara Good. She is a 1995 graduate of Wheeling Park High School, a 1999 graduate of Oberlin College and a 2005 graduate of the New School for Social Research with a master’s degree in international relations.