Tom Hiddleston’s Guinea field diary: Day 5

Tom visiting children at Ecole Layiya, in the Kankan region of Guinea © Unicef/Harry Borden/2013Tom visiting children at Ecole Layiya, in the Kankan region of Guinea © Unicef/Harry Borden/2013

It’s the last day of actor Tom Hiddleston‘s trip with Unicef UK to Guinea in West Africa. Read his firstsecondthird and fourth posts, or follow Tom on Twitter at #tom_UnicefUK and @twhiddleston.

Day five is the day we drive. We drive west. We are in Kankan. We have a plane to catch tomorrow, and Conakry is just under 400 miles away. There’s no three-lane freeway or motorway. It’s the same old road. The dirt, red road. We drive.

We talk, we listen, we look. Along the way we make various stops. We stop at a town to stretch our legs. We stop to sit under a tree for some shade, for bread and vache qui rit. We stop just after recrossing the river Niger, when Julien spots something on the roadside. It’s a monument, inscribed with this message:

Le 6 Novembre 1999.
Les femmes ont librement
et definitivement deposé
le couteau de l’excision.

“Here. On 6 November 1999, the women freely personally and definitively put down the knife of cutting (of mutilation)”. Interesting, says Julien. The monument was erected in 1999. And yet we heard about it extensively two days ago at the radio station in Bissikirima. Female genital mutilation (FGM) isn’t over. It isn’t over in Guinea. It isn’t over in many countries, all over the world. It isn’t over.

Then we’re back on the road.

Tom tries to learn the names of the children at Ecole Layiya © Unicef/Harry Borden/2013Tom tries to learn the names of the children at Ecole Layiya © Unicef/Harry Borden/2013

Our next stop is a joyful one. With the river some 115 km behind us, we pull in to a school in Kouroussa – L’École Primaire Layiya – on the edge of the National Park of the Upper Niger, which is still in the region of Kankan. It’s greener here than before, the land is less arid and the trees are full. It smells fresh.

It’s worth bearing in mind that 74% of boys and girls in Guinea enrol in primary school, but only 63% make it to their final year. At Layiya, there are approximately one hundred and thirty children, learning how to read and write, learning French, learning maths. Their education is their freedom. I think back to those children I saw on my first night in Conakry, reading by the electric light of the car park by the airport. In Guinea, children want to learn. Education is power.

We are introduced to several classes of the most well-behaved, quiet, attentive and sweet children I’ve seen since I’ve arrived. A little girl, in a red-checked school dress and braids in her hair, is so shy and smiley that she can’t even tell me her name. I must look like an alien to her. Some brave souls volunteer how old they are, and what they’ve been studying. An even braver soul at the back tells me what he wants to do when he grows up: “Après avoir terminé mes études, je veux devenir enseignant.” He wants to be a teacher. It gets a round of applause.

It’s 12:30pm. It’s almost time to break for lunch. Julien asks who wants to play football outside before break. There are instant smiles. One young man at the front puts his hand up immediately. There is a spark in his eyes. He’s almost embarrassed by his own enthusiasm, but he couldn’t hide if he tried. This young man loves football. And he’s the smallest boy in the room.

It turns out he’s a firework. I thought we were going to play a game, but for the moment it’s clearly just him and me. He runs rings around me like Lionel Messi. He makes me feel like an ogre (I am an ogre). He’s amazing.

Tom in the midst of a football game at Ecole Layiya © Unicef/Harry Borden/2013Tom in the midst of a football game at Ecole Layiya © Unicef/Harry Borden/2013

But then it’s time for a real game. Captains are appointed (he’s one of them). Teams are picked. The entire class is huddled in a group in the small crescent yard outside the school. Everyone is in: boys and girls. Julien and I are the last to be picked. On opposing teams. All as it should be.

It’s so fun. It’s just like any other game of football in any other school anywhere in the world: frantic, breathless, playful. The scuffling of shoes, the groaning when you miss, the laughing when you fall over. Dust rises in the yard, so thick that you can’t see the ball. It’s baking hot. And these children run like lightning. In a fitting end, Julien scores the winner as a result of terrible defending by me and an abject failure to clear my own goal line. For them it’s time for lunch. For us, it’s time to go.

 Tom keeps up with the football game at Ecole Layiya © Unicef/Harry Borden/2013Tom keeps up with the football game at Ecole Layiya © Unicef/Harry Borden/2013

Later in the afternoon, closer to Conakry, we stop to visit the École Moriakhory, in prefecture of Kindia. We are introduced to Gervais, the education officer here. A kindlier man I may never meet. The École Moriakhory, using funds from Unicef Guinea, became a pilot for the scheme before the grant for the FTI programme began. The Programme Sector of Education in Guinea was adopted in 2008, but due to the suspension of foreign aid by major donors, its implementation was greatly hampered. Following a plea for funding, the Fast Track Initiative was established. Unicef became a supervising entity and operator.

The Fast Track Initiative has helped construct 991 classes in 300 school buildings and equip them with latrines and water points. The latrines are a work in progress. The initial design employed a separation system of liquids and solids, but it depended on human agency to clear the solids and use them as fertiliser for crops. The job was unpractical and unpleasant. So it’s back to the drawing board.  But they will find something that works. That’s what Unicef do.

The Fast Track Initiative is also replacing the old school tables and lecterns, too high and heavy for children to move themselves, with lighter, more durable desks, benches and chairs. Slowly but surely, the facilities in these schools are rapidly improving. The Fast Track Initiative has also built 60 pre-school classes. These schools contribute to the literacy of 50,000 children across Guinea.

The children in École Moriakhory are obedient and alert. I enter one classroom and there’s no teacher in there. But they’re all sitting quietly. It occurs to me that it was never like that when I was at school in England. If the teacher left the room, there’d be a riot. Here, children want to learn. There’s a poem on the blackboard. It’s about Guinea. Can we all recite the poem together, Julien asks. And we do. The lyrics are beautiful. I wish I could remember them. I wish I’d taken a photograph of the blackboard. The poem was about their country. La Guinée est un beau pays. Un beau pays.Something like that.

As we pull away I feel glad that on my last day I saw such a joyful example of Unicef’s work in Guinea. The country has many difficulties, and I have faced them in all their stark reality this week. But to see healthy children, in love with learning, and happy in their play is restorative and invigorating. It gives me a sense of balance.

Un beau pays.

* * *

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! 

Tom outside Ecole Layiya with the pupils © Unicef/Harry Borden/2013Tom outside Ecole Layiya with the pupils © Unicef/Harry Borden/2013


  • Roxana Mariel

    I just finished reading this series of diary entries from Tom’s visit to Guinea. It was a beautiful narrative that highlighted the important work UNICEF is doing. Although late I would like to congratulate all who participate in building a future for children in Africa. And cheers to Tom for bringing this to the public’s eye.

  • Mary Matias

    What a beautiful country indeed. Un beau pays.
    I have just finished reading Tom’s fired diary and I have to thank him for opening up my eyes.
    I now began to realise how much of us live in places like this… But still they continue to strive to be fruitful and better versions of themselves.
    Thank you, UNICEF for posting this. And thank you, Tom for writing this and offering your time to do this on field.
    I wish you all, especially the people of Guinea the best! May God be with you!

  • thespyglass

    Thanks to Tom and Unicef for this series of diaries, very effective (and affective!) firsthand account of the complexities of the work in Guinea. A lot stands out but those I won’t forget are simple truths like “help the mothers – help the children” and the ex-child soldiers in training, rehabilitating themselves and their communities by proxy. “These are the technicians who build a society. And they will build their own.” Simple, if not easy.

    Also loved hearing about the radio and communication in general, how things are learned in differing circumstances. Across a couple of generations, things that work to support wellbeing can become folk knowledge, as I’d suggest they often were before colonialism. (I remember reading something about a doctor in India who teaches hundreds of women from across the region the basic science behind pregnancy and infancy, and trains them in medical techniques and procedures. They go back to their own villages as nurses and, with the proper supplies, can serve as such, teach others, and tens of thousands of lives are transformed.)

    Thanks again to all involved for bringing us this. “A community in dialogue with itself.” 🙂

  • Jumana Lipa

    I cry every time I read these things. Gosh, I don’t know why, it’s just that even though these people are wealthy and are not obliged to do this, they still participate and change the world. It’s just so beautiful. Well done Tom, well done.

  • rika m.

    Yup, An ogre. Just what we were all thinking. But seriously, thanks to Unicef for doing the best they can and making a way for us to help, and to Tom for communicating his experience with honesty and compassion. We couldn’t ask for more. (Except don’t anybody stop.)

  • toffeerenna

    Beautifully written! Thank you, Tom for your involvement in Unicef. It inspires us to do our share.
    Congratulations on the success of 3k for 333!

  • safa mohammad

    i dont know how he does it but he has this unique ability (to me that is) to describe some thing in such a way that it grabs your attention immediately.i enjoyed it a lot and hope he continues his good work.

  • Rita

    I love how you write it gives a person a sense of peace, i hope you continue your good work. i too like poems and i like the way you played with the kids, thats why you are my favorite celeb because you inspire and you understand and realize and your extremely too polite, love you lots tom !!!!