An Interview with Mrs. Donna Demir

*This interview about Zakat Foundation of America Health Advisor Donna Demir's field assessment in Mali was conducted by Zakat Foundation of America Public Relations Coordinator, Jamie Merchant. Transcript lightly edited for clarity and structure.

Population: 17 million
Child Mortality Rate: 87/1000
Life Expectancy: 55
Literacy Rate: 39%
Poverty Rate: 44%*

Jamie Merchant: So why were you visiting Mali recently? What work were you carrying out on behalf of Zakat Foundation of America?

Donna Demir: My primary purpose was to do an assessment on the five Zakat Foundation of America-sponsored medical clinics we have there. But, whenever Zakat Foundation of America staff travel to our foreign offices, we make it a point to check out our other projects and campaigns as well. So I also did an observation of some of our wells in the area, and had a luncheon at our office in Bamako with our Mali staff members and some of the orphans and families from the community. Whenever a Zakat Foundation of America representative travels to one of our offices abroad, the community members are always excited and like coming out to meet us, and we want to make it a special experience for them, so we like hosting events like that. It really means something for people to actually see you there, knowing that you came so far to see them.
JM: Which cities/towns did you visit, and which Zakat Foundation of America-sponsored facilities?

DD: Mainly Bamako, the capital where Zakat Foundation of America’s Mali office is located, and some of the surrounding suburbs.
JM: What would you identify as the most urgent challenges facing these communities in Mali right now?

DD: From a medical perspective, it’s malnutrition that is doing so much damage to these communities, which, in theory, is easy to remedy, but it’s just a chronic, horrible problem. And it’s a problem I’ve read and studied, but to confront it in the face - it’s a great concern. It’s related to the lack of pre-natal testing as well as the prevalence of birth defects. So many children are born with debilitating, often fatal birth defects, and don’t survive as a result. That’s tied to maternal malnutrition, but it’s also because of a lack of preventative care. Many of these children are born with birth defects, but it’s so easily preventable, if people are given the medical resources they need.
JM: And how is Zakat Foundation of America helping to address these needs and challenges, specifically?

DD: We’ve had amazing growth in our sponsored medical clinics. Altogether, these clinics are now serving around 55,000 people annually, which is outstanding considering they’ve only been open a few months. And these clinics are providing basic but absolutely vital services like polio immunizations. When I visited them, they were just packed, and the people were so happy to be there. I should mention that the World Health Organization (W.H.O.)has been a great partner in this work, and knows the specific needs of these communities in detail, so their help and guidelines have been indispensable. The bottom line is that more and more women are becoming aware of the clinics, and they’re coming to them in droves.

Another recent project we did that was very helpful, and so simple, was to replace a rickety, unsafe roof on one of the clinics. The roof was so unstable and rough that the refrigerator holding the immunizations was basically exposed to the weather. When government inspectors came, they almost took away the immunization supplies, because it was hazardous for them to be outside. But Zakat Foundation of America rebuilt the roof into a much more solid structure, so that won’t be a risk anymore. It’s something simple, but it made a huge difference.
JM: Looking forward, how will Zakat Foundation of America continue to help empower people facing difficult conditions in these areas of Mali? What programs and expansions are on the horizon?

DD: Well, the Bamako office was set up as a prototype to give us an idea of what can be done in the area. As things improve there, and they have been, it gives us a sense of what will work best for these communities.

We plan on continuing to expand our clinics, but we’re also expanding our sponsored schools in the area by adding some classrooms. There are some classrooms with over 100 students packed into the same room; it’s totally unsustainable. So we’re building classroom extensions to provide better opportunities for education there.

I also have to say that we have an amazingly valuable team on the ground in our Mali office. it’s been incredibly valuable to have a competent team of expert staff there as they know the cultural and social requirements in these communities very well and provide expert advice on the best course of action. It’s absolutely crucial because a project, no matter how well-intentioned, can come to nothing because it disturbs local norms or doesn’t follow the established way of doing things, whatever they might be. In one village, a school was built, but not according to the government’s established code, so they won’t pay for teachers and staff. Now it’s being used to house goats, instead of educating children. That’s just another example of why it is so important to have trained local staff.

*Source: United Nations Statistics, World Bank, Pew Research Center