Tom Hiddleston’s Guinea field diary: Back in London

Actor Tom Hiddleston has just returned home from his trip with UNICEF UK to Guinea in West Africa. Read his firstsecondthirdfourth and fifth posts or follow Tom on Twitter at #tom_UNICEFUK and @twhiddleston

Learning about life for mums and children in GuineaLearning about life for mums and children in Guinea © UNICEF 2013/Harry Borden

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 have 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.

Thanks for reading Tom’s blogs on this trip. Your support has been fantastic. Don’t forget, you can also follow Tom at #tom_UNICEFUK and @twhiddleston. If you’d like to donate to support UNICEF’s work for children around the world, you can visit this page. Thank you! 

Comments

  • @L3STRADE

    Tom, you have inspired me to raise money for UNICEF, I really thank you, you are my idol, I know you will never see this but thank you so much :)

  • Milena

    If, by any chance or fate, you are ever going to read this, I want you to know that your thoughts have inspired me in a way no others have done before. They even brought tears in my eyes. I am now aware that the little I have is still so much more than what many people in the world have. I may only be a young girl far away from the problems of this world, but I do understand that by being a part of it I also have a responsibility for it. I have decided to do all I can to change something. Thank you for that, Tom. Although I have never met you I know that you are a wonderful person.

  • Teeka

    Tom and UNICEF, I very
    much enjoyed reading about your experiences and work in Guinea. During my nursing education I had the opportunity to spend three weeks in Guatemala. During that time we had the opportunity to teach hand-washing, oral hygiene, and sexual health. We spent time in small health clinics in the jungle and small rural communities, and saw first hand the effects of poor nutrition. With so little, the people in Guatemala treated us with such generosity–sharing everything they had with us. I learned a great deal about resiliency during those three weeks. Before I went to Guatemala, I had felt hopeless, not knowing how to be of service globally. A very wise woman said to me that the closer we move to the struggle, the more peace we find. There is a beauty in sharing the
    struggle. I hope to find more opportunities to be of service in the future, as
    a nurse or in another capacity. Bless you for taking this journey and sharing
    your story– your contribution is important and appreciated. Thanks to UNICEF
    for all your service and compassion. In solidarity. ~Teeka

    • thespyglass

      “Before I went to Guatemala, I had felt hopeless, not knowing how to be of service globally. A very wise woman said to me that the closer we move to the struggle, the more peace we find. There is a beauty in sharing thestruggle. I hope to find more opportunities to be of service in the future, as a nurse or in another capacity.”

      That’s brilliant :)
      And me too, we feel helpless and hopeless, but this has reminded me that we’re not.

      Incidentally, a friend of mine works in Guatemala a lot, primarily with local community groups that practice participatory democracy, (i.e. people coming together to self-organise in place of the state due to absence of same,) and she has very similar things to say about struggle and peace :)

  • Mary Matias

    Dear Tom,
    Same as with Milena, I myself have no idea if you are ever going to read this, but I’ll say it anyway.
    If you’re reading this right now, I just want to let you know that I wrote this in school. I’m alone right now, nobody to talk to, so that gives me more time to write my thoughts. And the thoughts I am thinking of right now are the realisations I got from you. I am very much thankful for you, letting me know everything. You have opened up my eyes. Now, I am pretty much aware of what’s happening.
    Keep up the good work, Tom. If you have inspired my heart to help people, what more if you have inspired a million with a simple, humble thing you have done by going out to Guinea and to come back telling everyone about it so that they would be aware.
    Now I know what I’m living for. I may not be only living to fight for my dream in order for it to come true, but to help others with pure heart and humility. That’s what matters the most. I wouldn’t have realised that right now if you haven’t written about your field diary.
    You gave my life more meaning and substance.
    Thank you, Tom, and also to the people who were with you in field!!!
    God bless you more!

  • Ricca

    Kudos Thomas and UNICEF!

    Methinks there is enough food or resources for everyone in the world. The problem I see lies in those few people in power who monopolize and capitalize on these resources.

    To all those children and anyone who’s suffering and in pain, I pray that your situation gets better and I hope that in my lifetime I will be able to see the said misfortunes cease to exist and these people be given their rights to live in a safe and happy world.

    After all it’s un monde merveilleux!

    :)

  • thespyglass

    I commented on the last entry to say thanks to everyone involved in this trip and to Tom for the diaries, and mention the things that struck me most about them, but just wanted to pick up on something really important:

    “The world – and the system by which we trade, share, cooperate and conflict – is clearly not working.”

    That is the vital context for the astonishing work done by Unicef and communities in places like Guinea. Poverty is structural.

    I loved the mention of the bauxite in the first entry, the red dust that’s Guinea’s primary export. Used to make aluminium, a minority of people get rich off it, rich off betting on its prices, rich off the very land the people of Guinea live in, and those people see none of the benefits. The knock on poverty and land-grabbing causes massive conflict, as well as chronic malnutrition throughout communities. And it’s the story of mineral mining across Africa, a direct result of European colonialism. We still have colonialism, now it’s economic.

    All we can do is keep connecting the dots, keep talking about the realities of structural poverty and keep supporting the energy and expertise of those working to mitigate the worst of it.

    Thanks again to Tom and the team at Unicef.

  • Jacqui

    Mr. Hiddleston,
    Someday, I want to be just like you.

  • Betico Trinchita Mahexa Espine

    Mr. Hiddleston, wonderful trip, I’ m a school teacher in Colombia South America, and Im trying to teach my kids that the world is not perfect it all, that is very important to give to others, without expecting a retribution. Colombia, my country, is a place full of contrasts, modern cities with everything and really poor places where the kids do not know anything about Loki, movies even schools. I hope you can have once in your life the opportunity to come and support some projects!!!

  • safa mohammad

    I want you to know (if you are reading it) that you have helped me make my decision to peruse my dream to work for UNICEF as a children’s Doc. Thank You

  • Tanya

    Tom, you have inspired so many people, myself included, though your work with UNICEF. You are truly an amazing individual. Thank you for sharing your experience.

  • Rita

    there not many actors like you, thats why you are special and

    and not take up on other actor in what the do ( which i know you wont )
    your personality makes you beautiful so keep being beautiful love tom

    love Rita your number one fan in the entire universe

  • Grethe Rosseaux

    Dear Mr Hiddleston,

    I do not know if you will ever get to read my comment as I am a bit late to the party, so to speak, but I felt compelled to write it here anyway. Even though I am from South Africa, where our people live lives of extremes – bustling cities AND extreme poverty, your blog posts have warmed my heart. What you have written speaks of an unspoken sense of solidarity that we share in Africa, despite all the incredible hardships many, many of our people endure. Thank you for your willingness to not only undertake this journey but to also share your experiences with so many readers around the world. I would like to commend you on your incredible kindness and generosity, something that genuinely seems to pour from your heart, instead of just something to conveniently wear as a mask for the public. Through your writing it was clear to see that this experience has profoundly touched your heart.
    Thank you, UNICEF, for the incredible work you do all around the world – there are not enough words to praise and commend the brave men and women of this organisation.

    Thank you for sharing your experience with us, Mr Hiddleston – I wish you all the best!