Tuesday, January 23, 2018

in Guinea with Unicef UK (2013)

January 22 - February 1, 2013:

In January 2013, Tom Hiddleston made his first mission as an Ambassador for Unicef UK. Tom visited Guinea in West Africa to learn more about Unicef's work with education, child protection, water and sanitation in the country. Prior to the trip, there was an online contest to guess which country Tom would be traveling to. Only three people were able to correctly guess Guinea. 

Tom posted several videos of himself very excitedly preparing for the trip. What do you pack for a humanitarian trip? Anti-malaria tablets. Mosquito Net. Baseball Hat. Sweets and biscuits for the children. Travel towels. Adapters and headphones. And a head torch. Tommy was very excited about his head torch. 

Tom also packed his computer. While in Guinea, he kept a field diary detailing what he saw every day. And people could follow a long with the journey using #Tom_UnicefUK. I included excerpts and pictures from each day below, and you can read Tom's full Diary but click on the subheadings. He was joined on the trip by Luke Windsor (his publicist), Harry Borden (photographer), as well as Louise O'Shea and Pauline Llorca from Unicef UK. Julien Harneis, the Representative for Unicef in Guinea, served as their guide.  

Day One: 

Tom Hiddleston arrived in Guinea on January 22. Tom writes about experiencing the heat and energy of the country, and how the excitement kept him up all night. At the airport terminal they viewed groups of children reading under the streetlights because it was one of the few safe places for them to do so. 

Tom also visited the Tinafan Centre in Conakry. Children are able to learn acrobatics, circus arts, and practical skills at the centre.

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.

On his second day in Guinea, Tom Hiddleston visited the Donka Hospital National Institute of Child Health and Nutrition where he saw children suffering from the effects of malnutrition, HIV/AIDS, and other diseases. This is the only children's hospital in Conakry. 

Any surges of adventurous adrenalin that I had previously felt about travelling in West Africa were tempered immediately by the sight of these children. The doctors and nurses were helpful and informative about the specific details of each of the children’s individual problems, but I was simply overwhelmed by the sight of so many small infants in such great need. One small ward – about the size of a single room in a two-star or three-star hotel in the UK – housed at least twenty children, some of whom I was told had slim chances of survival. Their arms and legs were indescribably thin, their cheeks tear-stained, their skin a harrowing, slate-grey. Most shocking to me was the speed and urgency of their breathing, asleep or awake, but it was uniformly unsettled and uneven. When you see a child struggling so hard simply to breathe, it makes your heart hurt. Many of these children had lung infections, and most if not all had been admitted because of malnutrition, or an inheritance of a condition due to the malnutrition of their mothers.

After the hospital they headed to Project Tinafan to watch the circus, a picture of sickness and disease juxtaposed immediately with a picture of health and well-being. 

Their performance was explosive and dizzying – acrobatics, human pyramids, trampolining, contortionists – a display of strength, flexibility and precision on a par with, if not beyond, the very best physical performances I have seen in ballet, contemporary dance, or Cirque du Soleil. They performed with raw joy. Their trainer “Prince” also teaches them how to paint, emphasising to me that how important it is for his students to understand the power of passion and positivity in creativity after the human body passes its peak.

The group then drove six hours to the rural village of Saramoussayah to meet with the elders, doctors, and local women to discuss practices to protect children from disease such as breastfeeding, handwashing, and vaccinations. In Guinea, Unicef provides vaccinations to everyone. 

Day Three:

Day Three was another long travel day. They visited the village of Bissikirima and appeared in their Unicef funded radio station. Tom also learned about Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). FGM has been banned in Guinea since 1965 but the country still has the second high prevalence of FGM in the world. More than 95% of women and girls have had this procedure. Only Somalia ranks higher.  

Their next stop was the village of Loppe to see Unicef's sanitation programme. Unicef built latrines and teaches basic sanitation steps to prevent the spread of disease. 

And Tom met an inspiration family in Loppe who have implemented all the practical teachings from Unicef in order to keep their family healthy. 

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.

Day Four: 

In Kankan, Tom Hiddleston visited a reintegration program for former child soldiers supported by Unicef's Peace Building Fund. The program provides vocational job training in fields such as woodworking, welding, plumbing, and masonry. 

They then headed to the gold mining village of Mandiana. The village is extremely rural and has the highest rate of malnutrition in Guinea. Tom learned more about how children are tested and treated for malnutrition. And how Unicef is teaching parents to recognize the signs so that children can get treatment before it's too late. 

There was an impromptu focus group with women and children outside the Centre de Santé

What is the biggest problem for you here, I ask? Water, they reply. There is no water. The statement is so basic and baldly stated it hits me like a club to the head. Can you talk more about that, we ask? One woman speaks up. There is only one well, it is a long walk from the village, and we only have access to it for certain hours of the day because it is controlled by the military. I don’t need to expand on this. They are deprived of a basic need.

Tom talked more about this moment in an appeal video he made for Unicef UK. 

Day Five:

Tom's final day, was his most fun day. On the road back to Conakry they visited several schools. In Kouroussa, he played football with a group of children from L’École Primaire Layiya.  

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. 

They then headed to the École Moriakhory in Kindia to learn more about the Fast Track Initiative. The schools in this programme are helping more than 50,000 children in 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. 

Tom closed out his time in Guinea with this thought: 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. 

Back in London:

On his return home, Tom write a reflective piece about his transformative time in Guinea.

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.


Obviously this is a post meant to focus on charity work and not what Tom's wearing so I am only going to highlight one thing. The Unicef Ambassador shirt Tom is wearing in most images can be bought online from Unicef USA/UK (or whatever you local Unicef is). The Help Spread the Unicef Message shirt is $20 from Unicef USA and proceeds will provide 64 sachets of oral rehydration salts that help children combat dehydration and diarrhea. 

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