Tom Hiddleston’s Guinea field diary: Day 1

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.

Tom sits with performers from a UNICEF-supported school for the circus arts in GuineaTom sits with performers from a UNICEF-supported school for the circus arts in Guinea © UNICEF/2013/TH

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.

— Tom Hiddleston (@twhiddleston) January 21, 2013

 

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.

The sun rises in Guinea, West Africa.The sun rises in Guinea, West Africa. © UNICEF/2013/TH

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.

— Tom Hiddleston (@twhiddleston) January 22, 2013

 

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.

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! 

Comments

  • Pol Matute

    It’s appalling to see that the basic needs of a community are not met in developing countries like Guinea. But another thing that caught my mind is when you mentioned that they lack vision as a nation. Can you expound further how you came about that?

  • http://uma-leitora.blogspot.com/ Paola Severo

    This is heartbreaking to read, the kids walking for hours after a day of work to read. :/ Thank you for sharing this Thomas. You’re great.

  • Moňuli Klimentová

    The world closes eyes before these children. People don´t realize that somebody needs their help. I´m so glad there are people like you, who have eyes still open for everyone.

  • LadySkyfire

    That first glimpse at what feels like a different world is always fascinating. Even more so when one realizes that all our different worlds are one world. It is so important that people realize that we are not separate from each other, and what troubles one troubles us all. As Einstein said: “our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all.” It sounds like your circle got a little wider :) Thank you for letting us share in your experience!

  • Loki Holmes

    That’s interesting that they only go so far back in their history. I wonder why. I hope I get to travel one day. Your view of the world is so small when you live in the same country all your life. You don’t actually understand how big the world is until you see it yourself.

  • http://yaytomhiddlestonyay.tumblr.com @YayHiddlesYay

    I just really wish that the world and how it works didn’t operate according to profits and political/military power balances, and that narcissists were not so likely to occupy so many positions of power. :(

    Thanks for helping lots of people remember to help, and to think more widely and think about what to do, Tom. :) :)

  • Mimi

    The best place to get first hand accounts, information and opinions are always from the local people. Knowing how to gather and interpret this information is the job of an anthropologists, I wish I could hand out an anthro manual, it will make a difference at how effective we are at achieving our goals. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.