It’s the last day of actor Tom Hiddleston’s trip with UNICEF UK to Guinea in West Africa. Read his first, second, third and fourth posts, or follow Tom on Twitter at #tom_UNICEFUK and @twhiddleston.
Day five is the day we drive. We drive west. We are in Kankan. We have a plane to catch tomorrow, and Conakry is just under 400 miles away. There’s no three-lane freeway or motorway. It’s the same old road. The dirt, red road. We drive.
We talk, we listen, we look. Along the way we make various stops. We stop at a town to stretch our legs. We stop to sit under a tree for some shade, for bread and vache qui rit. We stop just after recrossing the river Niger, when Julien spots something on the roadside. It’s a monument, inscribed with this message:
ICI.Le 6 Novembre 1999.Les femmes ont librementsolennellementet definitivement deposéle couteau de l’excision.
“Here. On 6 November 1999, the women freely personally and definitively put down the knife of cutting (of mutilation)”. Interesting, says Julien. The monument was erected in 1999. And yet we heard about it extensively two days ago at the radio station in Bissikirima. Female genital mutilation (FGM) isn’t over. It isn’t over in Guinea. It isn’t over in many countries, all over the world. It isn’t over.
Then we’re back on the road.
Our next stop is a joyful one. With the river some 115 km behind us, we pull in to a school in Kouroussa – L’École Primaire Layiya – on the edge of the National Park of the Upper Niger, which is still in the region of Kankan. It’s greener here than before, the land is less arid and the trees are full. It smells fresh.
It’s worth bearing in mind that 74% of boys and girls in Guinea enrol in primary school, but only 63% make it to their final year. At Layiya, there are approximately one hundred and thirty children, learning how to read and write, learning French, learning maths. Their education is their freedom. I think back to those children I saw on my first night in Conakry, reading by the electric light of the car park by the airport. In Guinea, children want to learn. Education is power.
We are introduced to several classes of the most well-behaved, quiet, attentive and sweet children I’ve seen since I’ve arrived. A little girl, in a red-checked school dress and braids in her hair, is so shy and smiley that she can’t even tell me her name. I must look like an alien to her. Some brave souls volunteer how old they are, and what they’ve been studying. An even braver soul at the back tells me what he wants to do when he grows up: “Après avoir terminé mes études, je veux devenir enseignant.” He wants to be a teacher. It gets a round of applause.
It’s 12:30pm. It’s almost time to break for lunch. Julien asks who wants to play football outside before break. There are instant smiles. One young man at the front puts his hand up immediately. There is a spark in his eyes. He’s almost embarrassed by his own enthusiasm, but he couldn’t hide if he tried. This young man loves football. And he’s the smallest boy in the room.
It turns out he’s a firework. I thought we were going to play a game, but for the moment it’s clearly just him and me. He runs rings around me like Lionel Messi. He makes me feel like an ogre (I am an ogre). He’s amazing.
But then it’s time for a real game. Captains are appointed (he’s one of them). Teams are picked. The entire class is huddled in a group in the small crescent yard outside the school. Everyone is in: boys and girls. Julien and I are the last to be picked. On opposing teams. All as it should be.
It’s so fun. It’s just like any other game of football in any other school anywhere in the world: frantic, breathless, playful. The scuffling of shoes, the groaning when you miss, the laughing when you fall over. Dust rises in the yard, so thick that you can’t see the ball. It’s baking hot. And these children run like lightning. In a fitting end, Julien scores the winner as a result of terrible defending by me and an abject failure to clear my own goal line. For them it’s time for lunch. For us, it’s time to go.
Later in the afternoon, closer to Conakry, we stop to visit the École Moriakhory, inprefecture of Kindia. We are introduced to Gervais, the education officer here. A kindlier man I may never meet. The École Moriakhory, using funds from UNICEF Guinea, became a pilot for the scheme before the grant for the FTI programme began. The Programme Sector of Education in Guinea was adopted in 2008, but due to the suspension of foreign aid by major donors, its implementation was greatly hampered. Following a plea for funding, the Fast Track Initiative was established. UNICEF became a supervising entity and operator. The Fast Track Initiative has helped construct 991 classes in 300 school buildings and equip them with latrines and water points. The latrines are a work in progress. The initial design employed a separation system of liquids and solids, but it depended on human agency to clear the solids and use them as fertiliser for crops. The job was unpractical and unpleasant. So it’s back to the drawing board. But they will find something that works. That’s what UNICEF do. The Fast Track Initiative is also replacing the old school tables and lecterns, too high and heavy for children to move themselves, with lighter, more durable desks, benches and chairs. Slowly but surely, the facilities in these schools are rapidly improving. The Fast Track Initiative has also built 60 pre-school classes. These schools contribute to the literacy of 50,000 children across Guinea.
The children in École Moriakhory are obedient and alert. I enter one classroom and there’s no teacher in there. But they’re all sitting quietly. It occurs to me that it was never like that when I was at school in England. If the teacher left the room, there’d be a riot. Here, children want to learn. There’s a poem on the blackboard. It’s about Guinea. Can we all recite the poem together, Julien asks. And we do. The lyrics are beautiful. I wish I could remember them. I wish I’d taken a photograph of the blackboard. The poem was about their country. La Guinée est un beau pays. Un beau pays. Something like that.
As we pull away I feel glad that on my last day I saw such a joyful example of UNICEF’s work in Guinea. The country has many difficulties, and I have faced them in all their stark reality this week. But to see healthy children, in love with learning, and happy in their play is restorative and invigorating. It gives me a sense of balance.
Un beau pays.