This week, actor Tom Hiddleston set off on his first journey with UNICEF UK to Guinea in West Africa. Tom will be meeting with Guinean children, families and communities. He’ll also be visiting several UNICEF projects, and finding out about our work in child protection, education, and water and sanitation.
It hits you like a wave. It envelopes you like a rolling fog. It washes over you like the tide. Heat. West African heat. Guinea. It’s hot.
I’ve come from snow. From a world of airport closures and flight cancellations, from slippery pavements, woolly hats and collars raised against the chill.
But when I landed only hours ago in Conakry, Guinea, after clearing customs I stepped outside into the evening air. The heat. The unmistakable scent of sub-Saharan Africa. Noise. Smells. Traffic. Not western metropolitan traffic, organised into lanes of air-conditioned portals of music and luxury, but the tangible, palpable energy of traffic in the developing world: human, animal, mechanical – all surging forward in a rushing tide, in an order invisible to the western eye, simply because it looks initially like chaos.
I didn’t sleep. I couldn’t. I was too excited. I stayed up the night before clearing my inbox and cleaning the house. 4:30am. A car arrived to take me to Heathrow. I met up with the team: Louise O’Shea and Pauline Llorca from UNICEF UK, Harry Borden our photographer, and my friend Luke Windsor, who introduced me to Pauline a year ago. The first leg was quick: London to Paris, where we met Julien Harneis, the UNICEF representative in Guinea for the last three years. From Paris Charles de Gaulle our Air France jet took off for Conakry.
Then I slept. When I woke up we as we were descending into Nouakchott, Mauretania, where we were due to drop a few passengers. Outside my cabin window: desert. Miles and miles of it. Massive and ancient.
By the time we had arrived in Conakry the sun had set and it was dark. We jumped into 4x4s but we’d only been in the car for half a minute before Julien asked the driver to stop. Across the road from the arrivals terminal was a car park littered with children. Islands of them. Not playing together. They were sitting on the ground: solitary and still. They were reading. Because, as Julien explained, that is one of the only safe places for them to learn. Here, there is electric streetlight for them to read by, and at night they don’t have do chores or to work. Some children walk for an hour just to sit on the ground in a car park to read.
A country like this immediately collapses the walls of your imagination and pushes them back by immeasurable distances in opposing directions. It’s mind-expanding. I have felt like this on previous occasions after landing in India. Life teems from every corner and quarter. I feel as though the cardboard box of my own reality has been flattened and blown open. Now I can see the edge of the world.
We have dinner with Julien and two more team members, Felix and Pierre. We are accompanied by wild cats and bats. Over couscous and quiche, Julien gives me a potted history of the country. What I find immediately baffling is that in West Africa, here in Guinea and in Sierra Leone, nobody teaches pre-colonial history. Here, “history” begins with the arrival of French colonialism in the late nineteenth century. This means that in the collective consciousness there is no historical knowledge or narrative detail that pre-dates the arrival and structural integration of French colonial custom. Guinea declared independence from France in October 1958. Of all their neighbouring states, Guinea was the loudest voice of dissent. They didn’t want the French way of life; they didn’t want French infrastructure, French socio-political order; or French culture. They knew what they didn’t want, but they did not know – they did not have a vision for – the country they wanted to build in its place.
Not knowing what you want is a problem of the state, but it is also a problem at a developmental level. UNICEF are here to support the vision of the country in their vision, but if they lack a vision in terms of health or education, if they lack a vision of the society they want to create, it’s very difficult to help, or to know how to help.
At dinner, Julien tells me something thought-provoking. In Western Europe, reality is relatively fixed. In Guinea, reality is open to interpretation. In the west, we process and organise information so quickly and with such immediate (possibly imprecise) rigour that we respond to events, as individuals and collectively as a society, with speed and decisiveness. The BBC, the Guardian or CNN consolidate or frame our interaction with an event: be it a declaration of war, the passing of a new law, a royal wedding or an Olympic gold medal.
In Guinea, there is no news; there is only rumour. There was a noise in the village. Some say it’s a bomb, others say it was a gun-shot, others say it was a building collapsing, other still that it’s war. Perhaps this area is too big, its disparate elements too fragmented, its narrative continuity too fluid, to be understood as a whole. Guinea has been blessed with more peace than its neighbours in recent times, and seems to have avoided being drawn into military conflict. But the same principle applies: a poor nation, with a muddled sense of itself, cannot hope to build a structure that nourishes society without literally feeding its inhabitants.
It’s become immediately clear that the problems in a developing country such as Guinea are enormous, but they can be simply defined as water, nutrition, sanitation, vaccination and education.
Above all else, the children, who will inherit the future, and shape the future of this country – need clean water, iron, minerals, vitamins, inoculation against disease, and education.
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