What happened when Keira Knightley swapped Hollywood for the heat and hardship of poverty-stricken Chad? In these exclusive diary extracts she reveals all…
27 March 2012
It’s the day after my 27th birthday and I’m on a plane to Chad. It’s an African country somewhere near the middle and totally land-locked. I know that because the Unicef pack says so and not because I actually know. I had no idea where it was when they told me I was going. It seems rude not to know where a country is. I feel I should apologise as soon as I land.
Why are these people going to Chad? There’s a family of loud Americans sitting behind me on the plane, all coiffed and suited. Voices brash and hair blond with jewels jangling and I can’t quite make them add up. Why Chad? What are you going to do there all dressed to the nines? It’s going to be 40 degrees and dusty.
A vast desert sprawls out below the plane. A sea of sand. All this way up, I can make out sand dunes. Vast, never-ending desert dunes like waves rising up from the ground. Right now, flying over, it seems impossible to believe there’s anything else on earth but this ocean of sand. My heart’s beating and I can’t figure out if I’ve drunk too much coffee or I’m nervous. Nervous of what’s here.
28 March, 6:20am
It’s hot. Really hot. Like the air is thick and sticking to my skin. The sun hasn’t properly risen yet. My room in N’Djamena, is baking. I read more about Chad. It has a population of around 11 million. One in five children die before they’re five years old, one in nine before their first birthday. It is the 183rd poorest country of 187 on the Human Development Index.
Each year 57,000 children die before their first birthday, the vast majority as a result of preventable diseases – many preventable with a simple vaccine. 127,000 children under the age of five in Chad’s Sahel region will require life-saving treatment for acute malnutrition this year. Only 52 per cent of people have access to clean, safe water, and the percentage is even less in the poorest parts. Epidemics of measles and other diseases hit every year. Yet only 30 per cent of kids are fully immunised – one of the lowest percentages in the world.
Immunisation is not only a life saver from deadly preventable diseases like measles, tetanus and polio. It is also the entry point for mothers and children into the health system. The beginning is always immunisation.
At 9pm I find there’s air conditioning in my room. I’m such a dick. There was no need to boil last night. It’s the green button by the bed. I don’t know what to write about today, I don’t know how I feel.
This morning we went to the suburbs of N’Djamena with buildings like I’ve never seen before, partially woven walls and bricks made of mud. In one of these houses sits Chanceline, with her mother and grandmother. She has a pink dress and her hair’s woven into spikes. She’s three and she has a killer smile. She also had polio. She sits on the floor with her useless leg crossed under her, a constant reminder of the disease that ravaged her energetic little body.
Later in the afternoon, we meet Houra, also three, a shy girl with big solemn eyes. She, too, was paralysed from the waist down. She’d had a fever. Her mother took her to a doctor who said it was nothing. Then she woke up and couldn’t walk.
Today we visited a rehabilitation centre – somewhere that gives physiotherapy to people with polio, meningitis and cerebral
palsy, and teaches the enormous number of Chadians who have lost limbs to land mines or infection how to walk with prosthetics. It was here that we met Idris, who is four. He contracted polio at one and a half. He is paralysed from the waist down and is the bravest, most det-ermined little boy I have ever met. The doctor introduced us to show us how the leg braces that are given to polio victims work, how they help mobility.
Idris has grown out of his current ones but the doctor shoved him in them anyway. That child had a will to walk like I’ve never seen. Stabilised by two iron bars, he used his upper body to move his legs. He was exhausted by the end of it but he wouldn’t sit down. His dad talked about how lively Idris had been before, how they had received the first round of vaccination but Idris had got ill before his booster. He said that every day he came home from work he prayed he’d see Idris running around with the other kids and would then see him in the house, alone, trying to crawl.
The worst part of the day came when Idris’s dad asked why I was here, if I had come to cure his son. I’ve never felt more useless in my life. No I can’t cure him, I can’t make him walk and I wish with every fibre of my being that I could. Both families have been left reeling from the shock, and not knowing how or being able to afford to get treatment: physiotherapy to stop more muscle wastage or braces for the legs to help their children to walk.
30 March, Mao
schools. Little health care. Generally no electricity. Limited fuel. Hardly any roads. Because there is practically no health care there are very few doctors, nurses or paramedics. People would have to pay to go to medical school, nearly impossible because there are no jobs, then once they’ve paid and qualified they would have no job to go to because nobody’s there to hire them.