In January 2013, actor Tom Hiddleston travelled to Guinea in West Africa with Unicef. Over five days, he met with Guinean children, families and communities, saw several Unicef projects, and found out about our work in child protection, education, and water and sanitation.
So that’s it.
I’m back in London. I am back in my home. Back amid the hustle and the bustle. Back amid the humdrum and the mayhem and the madness. Back to running water and the warmth of central heating. Back to a bed without a mosquito net. Back to food in the fridge and food in the cupboard and food around the corner in the supermarket.
I’ve seen things I had never seen before.
When I started writing this blog, I talked of life in Guinea as a “jigsaw puzzle, one where the pieces keep moving or changing shape, which in turn alters the picture. You might be looking at it from a different angle, or at a different time of day”. On my first night, Julien had suggested an idea of reality in Guinea as “open to interpretation”. In so many respects, that is true of all life. The view always changes with the viewer. That’s the law of relativity.
Here’s what’s not open to interpretation. Every year in the world more than two million children die of hunger. It shouldn’t be like this. Children in Guinea start life at a severe disadvantage. Those that are malnourished may survive in the end. If they are caught in time. If their mothers respond to symptoms early enough; if they make it to the centre de santé, which is often miles away; if they respond to the therapeutic peanut paste, and special therapeutic feeding milk. If their parents are able to grow crops and feed them with enough nutritious foods so they can keep healthy. If they win the fight against malaria. If they live near a good school. If they can get work. If their parents can protect them from exploitation by the military. If they are lucky. Previously malnourished children can make it. It sounds paradoxical to say it, but they are the lucky ones.
Malnourished children grow up at a disadvantage. They will be physically smaller, possibly with diminished intellectual capacity. Their brains and bodies won’t develop in the same way. Of course, there is always a chance that through hard work, education, training, and strength of will any individual can and will progress to great achievement. But these children start so far behind. The race of life – the race for life – is infinitely longer and infinitely harder. Every day there are challenges to their survival and development. Context is important. I’ve been privileged enough to have seen that context at first hand. They live in the middle of nowhere. There is no water. There is poor sanitation. There is a shortage of food. There is lack of education. Conditions are inconceivably hard: they are incredible, until you have seen them with your own eyes, until you have lived in their midst, even for the shortest while.
Before my visit to Guinea, I knew that global hunger and malnutrition was a problem. But the issue was only academic in my mind. When you’ve seen malnourished children with your own eyes and their disadvantaged start in life, a moral imperative compels you to act and becomes impossible to ignore.
In the west, we take our simplest privileges for granted. Many have said this before me; and many will say it after me. It’s still true. In the very poorest regions of West Africa you can forget about a nice shower or warm bath at the end of a long day. About flushing the loo, or even having a loo to flush. You can forget about turning on a tap. About dashing round to the shop to buy newspapers, a bar of chocolate and some washing powder. In Guinea, people walk 15 miles to the river to wash their clothes. Washing your clothes takes all morning. You don’t just ‘put a wash on’.
I am no saviour. I’m absolutely the last person on the planet who can practically help. I don’t know how to make the different types of therapeutic feeding milk. I’m no chemist. I’m no doctor. I’m no engineer. I can’t manufacture polio vaccines or organise their transportation to the health centres in Saramoussayah or Bissikirima. I can’t build schools, or design drainage systems. I can’t provide the women and children of Mandiana with water.
I’m just an actor. Interestingly, there’s no such thing as an ‘actor’ in Guinea. It simply doesn’t register as an occupation. I heard tell of the ‘griot’: the term used in West Africa to describe the storyteller, the poet, the bard. But at the schools I visited when I asked children what they wanted to be when they grew up the answers were “teacher”, “minister of education”, “plumber”, “electrician”, “carpenter”, “teacher”, “teacher” and “teacher”. Many even said they wanted to work for Unicef.
The people who are really helping are those on the ground. They are heroic, and mostly if not entirely unsung. Julien Harneis, the resident representative of Unicef in Guinea and our guide, is a man of extraordinary learning, experience, energy, curiosity and kindness. It’s his job to divide Unicef’s financial and medical resources and to make sure those plans and policies get real results in the field. It’s his job to coordinate with the Guinean government and local authorities so that advances in both the humanitarian and developmental imperatives of the country rise in parallel. He is helped by Felix Ackebo, his deputy, by women like Michele Akan Badarou, his communications specialist, by Dr Pierre Andou, his nutrition specialist. It’s people like Idrissa Souaré, Chief of the East, and Mariame Kanka Labe Diallo, the directrice professionelle de santé of Saramoussayah, who made such a lasting impression on me. I’ll never forget her face as long as I live. These are the people who are doing the work, day in, day out. This work is not morose or maudlin. It is joyful.
Then there is Pauline Llorca and Louise O’Shea, indefatigable, inspirational and ceaselessly kind, and their team at Unicef UK in London, who work so tirelessly and with such passion to promote, develop, and implement Unicef’s policies and programmes all over the world. It is to them that I owe an eternal debt of gratitude. It is they who allowed me the privilege of visiting Guinea. They made it possible.
What I learned in Guinea is that we are all responsible for the state of our world. The world – and the system by which we trade, share, cooperate and conflict – is clearly not working. We are only as strong as our weakest members. Unicef is run at every level by strong, relentlessly energetic, deeply capable people who use that strength, energy and capability to help those who need it most: the weakest, most disadvantaged women and children of our world. All I can do now is help make people aware of what is happening, of what they are doing. That is all that I can do. For now.