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’s sanitation 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.