Tommaso Chiabra, 32 yo, author of this diary, is an entrepreneur, investor and manager of numerous companies in the international arena. Since 2016 he works with UNICEF Italia as a pro bono consultant. In the these pages, he wants to share his first field trip with UNICEF in Sierra Leone.
Freetown-Rome, May 2018 - «Dear passengers, we regret to inform you that the flight has been cancelled due to a technical issue. We are sorry for the inconvenience and we are planning a new departure within 48 hours.
For the next two days, you will be accommodated in the hotel opposite the airport where we stopped off: the airport of Monrovia, Liberia.»
If I had ever been told that hearing this sentence would have not hastily set me off to look for a solution, however crazy, to go back "home" I would have never believed it. Ever.
But it was exactly what happened.
While listening to the call that Elisabetta, a member of UNICEF Italy, made to her (until then) unknown Liberian colleagues, I realized that, after all, those two days would have not been wasted. During that first late night phone call, a visit to some of our nearby projects was arranged.
And in that precise moment I understood that after my field trip in Sierra Leone with UNICEF I had really changed and what may have been a "great waste of time" to my older self was now a "beautiful important opportunity".
Actually, several great opportunities.
First of all, the chance given me to visit many of the UNICEF projects, a unique possibility to witness and finally fully grasp the reality I had heard so many of my colleagues talk about for the past two years.
Because none of their words could ever properly describe the smiling liveliness of the children's eyes I stared into, the sweet resilience showed by the numerous mothers we met, the steady determination of the UNICEF staff and the sincere gratitude with which their efforts are met by the entire community.
A gratitude that made me feel prouder and prouder to be part of the "blue cyan organization". Or "blue cyan angels" as they have been called ever since they kept working in Sierra Leone during the 2014-2015 Ebola outbreak, no matter how increasingly dangerous it became.
Group photo of Tommaso, his traveling companions and the UNICEF Sierra Leone staff - ©UNICEF Italia/2018/R.Chiabra
Words fail me as I try to explain how I have seen the UNICEF motto, "the last child comes first", being truly embodied in its everyday work, activities and members even in the farthest and most remote Sierra Leone villages, where not even asphalt has made its way but UNICEF has, and everybody recognizes and cherishes its presence.
It was in one of these remote villages, in the middle of a forest, that upon a joyful and festive welcome I met Isaia, a social worker and the UNICEF spokesman for this area.
He showed me with glowing pride, his first aid kit, consisting of a few medicines and some instruments to detect the early onset of some of the most common deadly diseases, such as yellow fever, malaria or pneumonia, in order to be able to cure them promptly and also urge families to reach for the hospital or the nearest walk in center (usually a 5 to 7 hours long walk).
I could tell from his eyes that what he showed me was his most precious treasure and his gratitude and passion arrived straight to my heart way before his words could be translated.
Isaia, UNICEF referent of the area, shows Tommaso his own First Aid kit full of medicines and tools needed to identify the most common killer diseases ... and beat them - ©UNICEF Italia/2018/S. Blasi
That same day we celebrated together with Isaia the amazing result that, since he became a "blue cyan angel", no child among those in his care has died of malnutrition.
Thanks to men and women like Isaia, UNICEF local representatives who have been selected and trained, I fully understood what being an extensive organization really means.
It is from its headquarters in Freetown that the UNICEF staff, together with its members working all over the area, has selected four valuable persons that are constantly monitored, updated and stocked with the necessary medicines, vaccines and supplies in order to keep them efficient and enable them to provide the children in their area with the best care possible.
Because most of the time it takes only a few items to save and protect the life of a child, such as vaccines, therapeutic foods or antibiotics that are within hand's reach.
Yet, every day in the world, 15,000 children lose their lives due to preventable and curable diseases.
Yet, as of today, a child being born in Sierra Leone is 30 times more likely to die before his/her fifth birthday than one in the UK, which sets Sierra Leone at the top of the under 5 mortality rate index with 114 deaths every 1,000 births.
An unacceptable amount, even more so if I think that 1 out of 5 of the children I played and sang and laughed with during this incredible stay, may be one of them.
Or maybe not, as the children I met are the lucky ones, those UNICEF has been able to look after and possibly protect, providing them with immediate care in case they were to fall ill.
Yes, I use the word lucky, even in regards to those who became infected with malaria, a disease that can be cured with a few pills, pills that I saw being given to mothers in one of the walk in centres we visited, together with an extensive explanation of their dosage and times of administration.
Because drugs alone "are not enough, it is of foremost importance to educate and inform about these diseases, to make mothers aware of how prevention works and what impact administering the pills at the right time has".
During the journey, one of the welcome meetings with a group of mothers' local rapresentatives - ©UNICEF Italia/2018/Blasi
While I stood there listening to the nurse and while I observed her doing her job, patiently teaching new mothers how to best take care of their little ones, I thought about what I had heard during my first day, while visiting a school: « we all must actively engage and give our daughters an education. Because today's little girls are tomorrow's mothers and it lies in their hands to lower the mortality rate in Sierra Leone, these girls are our future.»
These were the few wise, determined words addressed to us and to the hundreds of children and adults who came to welcome our arrival, by one of the elderly members of the community.
Words that resounded even clearer now, in front of the nurse and all those mothers.
Lowering the child mortality rate is a seemingly impossible challenge but the truth is that it can actually be done and in some places it has been already happening, as I was told at the Kailahun Hospital, next to the border with Guinea and Liberia.
The Kailahun Hospital is one of the most medically advanced and efficient health facility in Sierra Leone, recently renovated by UNICEF thanks to an important donation coming from Italy.
A structure which still lacks electricity at night, preventing it from performing urgent surgeries, where there are no incubators and a constant shortage of staff, yet there have already been hundreds of births and no childbirth related deaths.
Emi, 8, lives two days' walk from Kailahun Hospital, where she arrived in a hammock, carried by her family.- ©UNICEF Italia/2018/Blasi
«Our goal is to hold this record of no childbirth related deaths at least up until next year» has told us, beaming, the head midwife of the maternity ward, while giving as an exhaustive explanation of its work and accomplishments during the past year.
It is an astonishing result, bearing in mind that Sierra Leone also holds the highest maternal death rate in the world with 1,360 women every 100,000 live births, and it also shows us how important it is not to give up.
Each and every single contribution, from the midwives' work to the donations, is vital. It is an opportunity.
Mothers and children in the Kailahun hospital - ©UNICEF Italia/2018/Blasi
One among several great opportunities, those that UNICEF gives to children all over the world, providing them with an education, medical care, protecting them and building up their future. Opportunities they all are entitled to.
But most of all, the opportunity UNICEF gives us all to help in this process, because its strength lies in those who join in, however this happens and whatever their role, if we take part in UNICEF, we become part.
UNICEF's chance to change the world is within our grasp.