An appeal for Africa: A lesson in the benefit of aid

Fresh from promoting his latest film, Bill Nighy travelled to Tanzania to see how the G8 can help some of the world's poorest people
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Sunday: Arusha

It's late but still warm when we arrived in Kilimanjaro. I've only been to Africa once before - to Kenya for a film called The Constant Gardener where I remained confined to the set so didn't see very much at all. It has been an extraordinary three weeks: I have been to LA to launch Pirates of the Caribbean III and then to Tokyo to do the same thing. To come from Tokyo - one of the most technologically advanced and affluent cities - in the world, to Africa is an unexpected shift.

I'm not quite sure what's in store for me. I'm here to do something useful, I hope. I feel a great degree of responsibility and it's not something I'm used to, but I'm anxious to be of maximum use. Tonight we'll stay in Arusha - about 40 minutes from the airport - and probably the last comfortable place we'll be for a few days.

Monday: Arusha

One of the things levelled at people who believe in ending global poverty is they can be well meaning but guilty of oversimplification. I always worry when people tell me that - I'm suspicious. I understand it's a sophisticated problem but I don't understand how people can so quickly say the money won't get through before they even ask how they can help. The usual refrains seem to be that there is a lot of corruption. They say people in the developing world have to learn to look after themselves - which I agree with. But I also believe we need to provide aid from the international community so that they can.

Tuesday: Engare Sero

A big day and the first day I really see Africa. I see a zebra for the first time and an ostrich in the wild; the beauty of the area is inexpressible, tremendous and enchanting.

In Engare Sero, we were welcomed in the most humbling and charming manner by the entire village. They had arranged a meeting by a stream and we sat on chairs in front of about 300 villagers and introduced ourselves. I felt clumsy, stupid and self-conscious - but what's new. It was refreshing, however, to discover that the word they use for God, Nai, which the whole village chanted during the welcoming ceremony sounded remarkably like my last name.

I simply told them that I had made a film once called A Girl In A Café, which was designed to lobby a previous G8 summit and we were now wanting to remind the G8 leaders at this week's summit in Germany of the promises they made two years ago to increase aid - which most of them are failing to do.

During the meeting, the villagers were asked what today would have looked like if Oxfam had not been involved in their lives. They all unanimously said they would be dead. That really hit me.

Afterwards, we were taken to one of the most amazing, profoundly beautiful things I have ever seen - a grain bank. It might not sound like much to us but it's radical for them because it's freed them from what used to be a 10-day walk for one bag of maize, which was all they could afford a time. I met Elizabeti Lemakanga, a committee member of the women's group who is the most impressive lady and who conducts herself so modestly for someone who has - along with the other women - achieved something so radical. It was very moving to hear her story of how her children sometimes fainted on their 10-day round trip to market for maize in exchange for soda ash. That was only two years ago. For someone who has come from the hullabaloo of the film business, it's a crash course in perspective and I am grateful for that.

Wednesday: Malambo

We continued our journey through some of the most beautiful country I have ever seen in my life. A village here is completely different to what we would think it to be. Engare Sero covers a vast area between a lake, a mountain range and another set of mountains with homesteads scattered randomly and sparsely within its borders. The same for Malambo, where we were headed. On our arrival, again, we were greeted with great charm and generosity. The primary school here is a success story and is as a result largely of what has been happening with aid and debt relief. Free primary education was introduced in Tanzania in 2001, which is fantastic in many ways. However, class sizes have exploded and while aid has helped build further classrooms and extended the dormitories, there is still so much more to be done.

The headteacher, Mr Mosha, explained there are about 100 children in each class. It's a boarding school because the distances are so great between the homesteads and the school - sometimes a three-hour walk each way - that it would be impossible for the children to make the journey.

I rather clumsily tried to explain about the G8 summit and the children asked questions.

One boy called Samwel Kilusu, who is 14, was particularly interested and he wanted to know where it took place. He asked which were the eight countries and I was very moved to watch this young boy in the middle of nowhere write down on one of the few exercise books available the words Germany, France America, UK etc. He wrote them all down in English, as if he was calling them to account. He didn't want to miss a trick and he wanted the names of the people who were going to apparently alter his life. He took the idea seriously that this meeting was taking place and he didn't assume in the Western way that it wouldn't make a blind bit of difference.

He assumed that if these important people were going to have such a meeting, it would quite naturally have an important effect on his life and from where he was standing, if that was not the case, why would they meet in the first place? He told me he wanted to be the President of Tanzania and the first thing he would do would be to achieve equality between men and women, improve education and access to health care and provide for everyone. Maybe the big world leaders could go some way in achieving this at the summit next week.

The children sang me a song which was enchanting although I did have to stand in the middle of them and feel once again like a lemon but that's OK. A football came from somewhere so we had plenty of fun with that before we had to move on to the women's group and their bead jewellery business.

That was an extremely satisfying place. Their jewellery has been selling very well - 60,000 pieces, the majority being white-bead Make Poverty History bracelets - giving a sense of symmetry. It has revolutionised their lives. It was enchanting to be in their company and I'm now wearing several bracelets. It was marvellous to see how much dignity this whole enterprise has given them and incredible to think how they had once never handled money and were now not only doing that but keeping accounts.

They now have money to spend. Some have constructed secure homes with corrugated iron roofs, others have bought clothes, goats or been able to provide their children with that all-important secondary education.

The women's group secretary, Felicita Korduni, told us a wonderful story about the time they went to the nearest bank, a good day away from Malambo, to withdraw money for the first time. She was laughing as she told me how they had been so scared carrying money for the first time. So scared, in fact, that they locked themselves in the guest house they were staying in and they wouldn't dare go out to eat or to sleep because they were so frightened that every criminal in the world knew they had this money and was on their way to get it. I think this gives you an idea of what's happening here and what can be achieved.

Thursday: Endulen

I am wearing a rather attractive belt which I didn't have this morning which was presented to me by the women of the jewellery business to keep my trousers up but also to honour me as a privileged guest of theirs so I'm very happy.

It was presented to me in such a gracious and solemn manner that I was deeply affected by it.

That was the start to another big day, where we reached the village of Endulen after another long but spectacular journey across the Serengeti. This is as remote a place as you can imagine. It's incredibly isolated.

The first place we visited was the pre-school, where we were greeted by the children's mothers with a special dance and song. Previously, the pre-school was held under a nearby tree but now, they have a hut thanks to Oxfam.

We went into the building and watched the tiny children being taught. This is pioneering stuff. The children are getting an education before primary school.

I was shown the equipment they had very proudly but what they have, with all due respect, would break your heart. They have a series of coloured cards with numbers on, a series of coloured cards with the alphabet on. They have one exercise book. They have other odds and sods, which you would find in a forgotten bottom drawer but they showed them to us with some ceremony.

The women's group greeted us with a song and dance, where they were stamping on the ground, symbolising how they were stamping on poverty. This is where a water pump is going to be constructed. If you ask anyone in this part of the world - which is one of the driest places anywhere - what help they need, they will almost certainly say it is water.

Endulen Hospital, which we visited, is one of only two in the 5,000-square-mile district. It has no ambulance and hardly any equipment. If you get sick members of the family have physically to carry you to one of the two hospitals, a journey of up to 150 miles. Doctor Nicholas Adams says he can tell how far his patients have travelled by the number of relatives that turn up to carry them.

When a patient arrives - apart from the fact there are very few medicines and very few treatments available - there are sufficient resources for just one meal, however long the patient needs to stay. Hospital staff can only give them one bowl of porridge, so the food has to be provided by the family. That means the relatives have to stay at the hospital, which could be miles away from their home, in order to cook for their sick relative.

This has been a wonderful experience and a big lesson. I'll remember the struggle that the people have here for basic health care, education, water to drink and food to eat: the simplest of things. They're not people who wish to accept charity but for the time being they're forced to ask for it.

This is my last day visiting Oxfam programmes in Ngorongoro District and I am even more convinced of the need for the G8 to stick to the promises of Gleneagles.

Aid does work, it does get through and it does make an incredible difference.

We could actually save a generation here. We haven't got round to it yet but I hope the G8 does next week. There is absolutely no reason on God's earth that they can't solve this problem and I just hope that it can go to the top of the agenda so that one day no one will have to have this conversation again.

Beautiful, spectacular wonderful promises were made two years ago. It's documented and we have their names - as, of course, does Samwel Kilusu.

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