Tom Hiddleston’s Guinea Field Diary: Day 3

It’s day three for actor Tom Hiddleston on his first trip with UNICEF UK, visiting Guinea in West Africa. Tom will be meeting with Guinean children, families and communities. He’ll also be seeing several UNICEF projects, and finding out about our work in child protection, education, and water and sanitation. Read his first and second posts, or follow Tom’s trip on Twitter at #tom_UNICEFUK and @twhiddleston.

To set the scene. Since we left Conakry, we have been driving east, driving deep into the most impoverished parts of the country, where terrain is arid, burned and rough. The road is red and dusty. On either side the land is dry and charred. We are heading east towards the border with Mali, which is closed and too dangerous for us to approach because of current instability. We won’t go as far east as that, but it’s instructive to see the poorest and most remote parts of the country, because child malnutrition, education and access to clean water will be at their worst out there.

The road is riddled with potholes, with deep trenches on each side, edging incrementally towards the tarmac, as if some terrifying creature from ancient myth had taken a huge bite out of the side. It’s difficult to drive at speed, in spite of the paucity of other vehicles on the road. For one hour, you just ride it out. After six hours, your back is twitching and your head is swimming. Occasionally we pass local taxis with every inch of space is taken up by passengers. Occasionally we pass a fuel truck, snaking at a snail’s pace around the scattered potholes like a minefield. I came expecting conditions to be hard – it appeals to my sense of adventure. I have no signal on my phone, I have nowhere else to be, I’m cut off from the rest of the world, and all I have are my thoughts and the great conversation of the team for company. It feels like borrowed time. Staring into the overarching sky. But of course the period of endurance is finite for me. In a week’s time I’ll be back in London, able to choose between the tube, a taxi, a car or bicycle to rush around at high speed. For local Guineans, this is life. These are the conditions they have to live with every day of their lives. These are the distances they have to travel: to get food, to get fuel, to wash their clothes in the river. It’s a sobering thought.
In other news, my French is improving. Inevitably there are many local languages and dialects depending on the region, but French is mostly the order of the day, especially when communicating with local communities and medical authorities. “Il faut parler en français. Vous êtes sur?” they say. “Oui absolument, je comprends plus que je parle, mais je comprends la plupart des choses.” Necessity breeds capacity. If I want to understand, I need to listen. And besides, it’s fun.

On the French-speaking front, I was out of the frying pan and into the fire. On the morning of my third day, we were invited to the rural radio station of Bissikirima, which reaches the inhabitants in the region of Dabola in Guinea, covering some 171, 983 people. The Bissikirima radio is financed and funded by UNICEF, who also make provision for technological equipment, but it is staffed by local authority figures of energy and eloquence. We were greeted warmly and ushered into the studio to watch a live broadcast, l’émission. The ebullient DJ welcomes two guests into the booth, and in between musical interludes, they discuss local affairs, but also broadcast important information about some of the key issues I’ve already touched on: water, sanitation, breastfeeding, childhood immunisation and education. It suddenly makes me think of BBC Radio 4 and the Today programme, or NPR in the USA. The radio here keeps people informed, in touch and in the loop.

Crucially, though, the community is engaged in dialogue with itself. The mothers listening on the other end, living in the remote parts of the country have no idea that UNICEF is affiliated to the programme. They are simply listening to their favourite radio DJ, who happens to be discussing the importance of water and sanitation, and the upkeep of local latrines. The same goes for the 10-year-old boy who has parked his bike by the river and is listening along on his portable transistor. Perhaps he overhears a broadcast about handwashing. Perhaps it strikes home. UNICEF have found a unique way of helping the local community to set themselves up to be self-sustaining and self-educating. But the helping hand is invisible, just as when the UNICEF vaccines arrive in the villages to immunise new-born children against disease, without any branding on the syringes. The mothers, nurses and doctors do not know where the vaccinations come from, but they do know for sure that they come.

Ten minutes into the broadcast, there’s a phone-in. Anyone can call the helpline, and the DJ and his colleagues are there to answer their questions. It’s a brilliant idea. (Orange, the telecommunications company, has a huge presence in Guinea. It’s the only advertising I see across the country. Many cannot sign their own names; but they all have a mobile phone). Moments later, I am invited into the booth to say hello to the listeners of the region of Dabola. It’s one thing speaking my long-forgotten and broken French when conversing with a hospital doctor; it’s quite another to suddenly be addressing untold numbers of local listeners live on air, in my capacity as a UNICEF supporter. All I can do is thank them for welcoming me, and I make a promise that I will share everything I see and learn with my friends and colleagues, that I will spread the word, and bring the problems of Guinea to the attention of the UK, and thereafter the world. The radio at Bissikirima is another tool for communication and education. It’s one more drop in the ocean, which might one day turn the tide.

Communication is the key. After the broadcast I am introduced to a kindly man with a greying beard, dressed in mauve silks. He is a ‘traditional communicator’. He has come to tell us how he conveys similar messages to those who perhaps don’t listen to the radio, nor pay any heed to the advice of the local DPS (the chief medical officer) or UNICEF representatives after they have gone. He asks if we would like a demonstration of how he talks to more conservative members of the community about their problems. I would like that very much. “Very well,” he replies, “this is how I talk to the grandfathers about the girls who cut themselves.” His last words hang in the air. I don’t quite understand and have to turn to Pauline for further clarification. He is going to tell us how he combats the continued practice of the genital mutilation of young women. It takes a moment to fully understand this. I am profoundly shocked to hear that there is such a practice. But he is already on his feet. He’s a terrific actor.

“Where do you receive the power?” he booms to his colleague (playing the grandfather). “Where do you receive the power to tell the young women what to do with their bodies? Do you want your daughters to spend the rest of their lives in pain? Do you want your daughters to spend their lives crying into the night? And do you want your daughter’s daughters also to spend their nights crying in shame?”

Ninety-five per cent of the women in Guinea are victims of genital mutilation. The practice is overwhelmingly the norm. Still more shocking is the fact that it is customarily performed on younger women by older women. It’s a rite of passage from childhood to adulthood: a ritual that is supposed to prepare a woman with a capacity to endure pain; a signal lesson that pain is a constant, and must not be yielded to.

The traditional communicator tells me the custom stems from the myth of Abraham. Abraham had two wives, one older, one younger (the younger having previously been a servant to the older woman). But his first wife was always jealous of the second wife – jealous of the love and affection bestowed upon her by Abraham. This was exacerbated by the fact that the first wife bore Abraham no children, while the second wife gave Abraham two sons: Isaac and Ishmael. In a fit of jealous rage, his first wife ‘cut’ her rival, in order to make her seem less attractive and less desirable to Abraham. But Abraham’s love for his second wife did not diminish after she had been cut. His affection for her perhaps even increased. Uncomprehending and in despair, his first wife then inflicted the same mutilation upon herself. “And that is why this is the custom among women,” says the traditional communicator.

Whether most Guinean women know this story from folk history is another question, but it’s disturbing how common the practice of female genital mutilation (l’excision) is. It’s hard for UNICEF to strike the right balance in helping educate young and older women about this issue, especially because male circumcision has been proven significantly to reduce the risk of contracting HIV. But they are working with traditional communicators, who are trusted senior figures in rural communities, to spread the word among women that the practice of genital mutilation immeasurably increases the risk of mortality and disease in their children. It may affect the pregnancy and the health of their child. These mothers need help. Il faut aider et encourager les mamans. I realise with startling clarity once more: help the mothers – and you help the children.

Our next stop is the remote village of Loppe. We park up by the road. It’s a mile-long walk to the village through the bush. Halfway along the path a distinguished gentleman in an impeccable khaki suit and tie pulls up on a motorcycle and tells me to hop on the back. On attend la delegation. Riding pillion on the back of a motorcycle through West African countryside under the midday sun delivers a shot of speed and adrenalin. It blows away a few cobwebs. It’s great.

The atmosphere in Loppe seems peaceful and happy. We are here to visit UNICEF’ssanitation programme and the latrines. The central imperative in a remote village like Loppe is to separate water sources, to keep access to the water wells clean, to protect them from run-off from the land in the rainy season, which is contaminated by animal waste, and guard the mouths of the wells from the animals themselves. We are also shown several defecation points. The UNICEF programme has helped to implement key practical design developments: providing concrete covers over the latrines to keep the flies out, building concrete walls to keep the animals away, provide kettles full of water and a bar of soap to wash your hands afterwards. If there’s no bar of soap, there’s a bucket of ash that will do the trick. This basic hygiene and good sanitation raises the standard of general health, and protects mothers and children from passing on disease.

What happened next was the most uplifting experience of my journey so far. I was invited by a young family into their home. They live in a circular hut, under which is one singular room, with a circumference of about 15 feet across. The roof is thatch made of straw. Inside I am introduced by Idrissa, the regional chief of UNICEF’s office for Eastern Guinea, to a couple and their three children, a boy and two girls. They are uniformly beautiful. The father is calm and quiet, with an open, handsome face, while the mother is shy, her skin radiant, and a smile that could launch a thousand ships. Her children are well behaved, quiet and curious. Idrissa asks if I have any questions. I compliment them on their house, for it is beautiful inside. There is a bed, which serves also as bench and table, with various tools and pots hung strategically along the walls. I say how well her children look, how strong they seem. Her elder daughter reminds me of my niece. I ask if there have been any problems at all in their upbringing and nurture. “No,” she says simply. Were they born at the centre de santé? “No,” she says, “they were all born at home.”

I ask if she had easy access to vaccinations. “Yes,” she says. “The day they were born”. She says their biggest problem is that they do not have enough food. They work hard, and still there is not enough. But they grow their own rice crop and haricots. Pauline asks if she was able to breastfeed her children. “Yes,” she says, “for six months each of them”. How did you know to do that, I ask. “I walked to the centre de santé,” she replies, “when I was pregnant. They told me I should breastfeed. Also I heard it on the radio”. That’s fantastic, I say. I tell the father I have been looking at the water situation in the village, and the new programme for better water hygiene. He replies that it’s very important. He always tells his son he must wash his hands before eating. I tell him his boy is looking strong, and that when I was a child I was always taught mens sana in corpore sano. A healthy mind in a healthy body. Idrissa translates. The father says this has made his day. It is a great honour for him. He is happy.

It is heartening and stirring to talk to a family who are doing it right, and who are taking responsibility for themselves and for their children. The team at UNICEF find it deeply inspiring, as do I. The messages are being heard. It’s working.

The residents of Loppe give us a rousing send off by bursting into song as our convoy of motorbikes rev their engines and rocket off into the low afternoon sun. Buoyed up by our visit, there’s time for a piece of bread and a slice of Vache Qui Rit cheese from the cool box, washed down with a can of coke and a tablet of malarone.

Then commences the long drive to Kankan. We pull on to the road, where our only company are the wandering cattle, who have become commonplace as traffic lights. Lethargic and listless, they look like they’ve been roaming the roads of Guinea since the dawn of time. And no doubt they will continue to long after we’re gone.

Follow Tom on Twitter at #tom_UNICEFUK and @twhiddleston. If you’d like to donate to support UNICEF’s work for children around the world, please visit this page. Thank you!