Apu-journal 20/1997

Text: Maria Schulgin (translation)


Eeva Ahtisaari has promised to head, and be the 'godmother' of, Finnish UNICEF's education and aid project in Guinea. As a teacher and historian, she well understands the value and merits of an all-round education. Development cooperation and development aid are also familiar to her through her husband's work and the years they spent in Africa.

We are speaking on the coldest day in May. A tame hare leaps confidently across the Mäntyniemi lawn in the drizzling rain.

Brita Flander's glass sculptures highlight the elegant coolness of the pale green reception area of the presidential residence.

Eeva Ahtisaari's outfit repeats the limpid colours of early spring visible through the big glass windows.

We couldn't be further away from the subject we are talking about: Africa and the work of Finnish UNICEF in Guinea. Yet, you can sense the presence of Africa - Eeva Ahtisaari has lived in both Tanzania and Namibia, and was awarded honorary citizenship of the latter in 1992.

"It was very touching, a really wonderful gesture which came as a total surprise, she says.

Traditions of learning

In her capacity as the country's first lady, Eeva Ahtisaari has already been acting as patron to the Finnish Committee for UNICEF for a couple of years.

Now, she has promised to head, and to be the 'godmother' of, the Guinean aid programme and its training campaign, in particular.

The fund-raising target for the Guinean campaign is FIM 1.3 million. Finnish UNICEF operates at the village level in Guinea, centering on villagers' health care, nutrition, hygiene and specifically what is known as 'second chance' schools. These are aimed at girls and women who have never been to school or who have had to interrupt their studies.

Guinean statistics show that only 24 per cent of the country's 6.5 million people are literate. 35 per cent of the men can read and write, while the corresponding figure for women is only 13 per cent.

"I understand that girls who want an education have a tough time. Regrettably, when they are sent to school in town and are separated from their families, they are often abused in many ways," Eeva Ahtisaari says.

As a teacher and historian, Eeva Ahtisaari well understands the value and merits of an all-round education.

"We can see its strength in our own country's history. We wouldn't be in this situation and at this level if we had not invested in general education in the past," she says

Eeva Ahtisaari's own choice of career followed the pattern of the 1950s.

"At the time, educated women were traditionally either teachers or nurses, and I followed suit.

"Of course, I was already interested in learning as a child and definitely wanted to go to grammar school. I also had a role model in the family: my grandfather Taavetti Hyvärinen founded an elementary school at Jännevirta in 1892."

Eeva Ahtisaari attended the Kuopio Girls' Lyceum.

"Last spring we had a class meeting. I then realised that our generation have done very well in life. We include a professor, Marjatta Marin, a couple of doctors and a lot of teachers and nurses. Networking is pretty widespread among the former students of my school, and we are in touch rather frequently."

Why did Eeva Ahtisaari choose to become a history teacher?

"I was inspired by good teachers - Airi Forsman and Eero Hietakari - who opened the doors to the world of history for me.

"I also chose history because roots are important for someone who has lived in the countryside. Farms have roots. The first mention of my family's three houses goes back to the 16th century."

Africa has played an important part in Eeva Ahtisaari's life, although its history was not much studied in Finland in the 1950s.

"Except in the context of the great explorers and the British and French Empires," She recollects.

"In fact, it's thanks to my husband that my knowledge of Africa has improved so vastly," she adds.

There's always the future

Eeva and Martti Ahtisaari met for the first time in the early 1950s, at a Kuopio-based society for nature lovers, and again in Helsinki in 1967.

"At the time, I was interested in the developing countries. In those days the university collected a voluntary development aid fee which was paid at the same time as the annual registration fee for the university. I still have a receipt - it was three marks.

"Then one day I went to listen to a Studia Generalia lecture series where Martti was giving a talk. His student life was very different from mine - more open-minded, more responsible. By that time, he had already spent three years in Pakistan.

"I remember asking if there was a chance I could find a job in the developing countries. When I told Martti that history was my major subject, he said straight away that probably not, the job required rather different qualifications."

Later, the Ahtisaaris lived for three and a half years in Tanzania, where Martti was posted as ambassador.

"I had heard a lot about Africa from my husband and followed the situation there. Although we had had African visitors in our first little home, my introductory visit to the place where my husband was posted - my first real contact with Africa - was a culture shock," Eeva Ahtisaari admits.

"The masses of people, the markets. You had to jump over people and in the marketplaces you sat in the mud, with flies swarming around you. It was quite an experience for someone who had grown up in the hygienic conditions of Finland.

"I remember spending three days wondering how I would I manage. I was close to panic, and felt a failure."

Many visitors to Africa have a feeling of great helplessness to begin with. Did this strike Eeva Ahtisaari as well?

"Since then, I have lived twenty years of a very different kind of life and it is difficult to think back to those days. At a certain point, when things started going wrong in Tanzania, when people thought the country would go bankrupt, I must admit I was very worried.

"I remember saying, This country has no future! My husband said to me then that there is always a future - everybody has a future - and he is right.

"Diplomats' wives took part in a large number of activities, tea parties and fund-raising. We raised funds for a drill well for a village at the university campus in Dar es Salaam.

"The inauguration ceremony was memorable. As the water bubbled up, one of the old women in the village thanked us profusely. Of course we didn't understand a word she said but her gestures, expressions and the tone of her voice and the great flood of words told us everything."

Eeva Ahtisaari was due to set off on a State visit to Tanzania.

"I haven't been there for twenty years. At that point, in 1977, the country's population was 17 million, now it's 25 million. I feel a bit nervous about going.

There are no shortcuts

The Ahtisaaris also lived in Namibia for a year.

Many people think of Africa as one entity, but actually there are great differences between the different countries, nations and tribes.

"The Tanzanians, who were independent, seemed to be much more self-confident than the Namibians, who still walked with their backs hunched at that time. Now, of course, since independence, the situation is quite different.

"Somehow I think the Namibians were very much like the Finns - quieter, more serious. I don't know... I'm not sure... Could it be that the long presence and work of the Finnish Missionary Society, going back over a century, has had an effect on them?"

So far, Eeva Ahtisaari has not had the opportunity to get to know western Africa, but she hopes that this can soon be rectified. For example, she has a genuine interest in the Guinean project.

One of the world's poorest countries, Guinea won its independence from the French in 1958. During President Sekou Toure's time, the country slowly drifted into a Marxist dictatorship. Toure explained the incarcerations, tortures, disappearances and murders of dissidents as "the triumph of collective justice over individual justice". Large-scale corruption was part of everyday life and the country was soon in a serious economic slump.

Toure's time was followed by a military dictatorship in the early 1990s, which made some allowance for democracy. Being a poor country, Guinea cannot, however, provide education and basic health care for its population of almost seven million. The average lifespan there is 45 years.

The project supported by Finnish UNICEF covers 22 villages.

In addition to basic education, it seeks to provide the villagers with employment by teaching them self-reliance, e.g. by making mosquito nets and soap.

As a historian, Eeva Ahtisaari knows and understands that nothing takes place overnight.

"In all development aid, it is important to move slowly. There are no shortcuts; development takes no leaps and bounds, and certain processes have to be completed.

"We have made many mistakes in our development aid work, but they have also made us wiser. For example, Professor Marja-Liisa Swantz's contribution in southern Tanzania is based on open interaction between the aid workers and the villagers, and has proved a great success.

"The contribution of a more advanced, Western party is also needed. Westerners know how to ask the right questions, which is very important. The villagers themselves can often provide the right answers, based on their needs, which after all they know best.

"Now that we know what development means, most UNICEF projects are being carried out at grass-root level."

And what is development in Eeva Ahtisaari's opinion?

"Understanding the realities of life and the potential they provide."

Women are the soul of the family

Eeva Ahtisaari, who is interested in women's studies, knows that much of western Africa is matriarchal. The woman holds a strong position both in trade and at home.

The training provided by the Guinea project is focused particularly on the women in the villages. Educated men tend to leave for the towns, but a woman given a 'second chance' stays behind with the children, her piece of land and home, and makes use of what she has learnt in her everyday life.

UNICEF has successfully carried out similar women's projects in other developing countries. In other ways, too, women have started assuming power and responsibility everywhere in the world. Could we draw any general conclusions from this? Are we stepping into an era of women?

"The 19th century Finnish statesman J.V. Snellman was an early exponent of a good education for girls; his justification was that, as mothers, they can pass on the right values to future generations," Eeva Ahtisaari says.

"Besides, it would seem that things are already well under way, particularly in countries where girls have also had a good education.

"UNICEF statistics show that if a woman has been to school she knows much better how to look after things. And her family is often smaller, because an educated woman can assess how many children she can look after properly.

"Education is undoubtedly the most important resource in development cooperation. Through the women, it will benefit families, and through families the whole nation.

"The position of women is considered of primary importance in Finnish and Nordic development cooperation in general. In all project applications, one of the criteria is how the project will affect the position of women in the country concerned.

"Our Nordic tradition of equality is commendable, and we should never renounce it whichever part of the world we go to."

How can it be replanted elsewhere?

"Of course, we have to give a great deal of consideration to the relationship between men and women in cultures where it is totally different from ours.

"We have to think carefully how and in which way equality can be promoted, though, because I'm convinced it is a good thing."

What is Eeva Ahtisaari's attitude to the unrest in Africa? How could peace be brought to central Africa so that wars and hostilities do not destroy all the achievements of past development there?

"This is a difficult question and I can't answer it. By raising the level of education, certainly. But on the other hand, there are still wars going on in Europe."

A challenge to Finnish schools

Eeva Ahtisaari would like to challenge all Finnish schools to participate in the Finnish UNICEF project.

"Schools which teach French, particularly, could adopt different 'godmother' projects. Planning and implementing them also develops creativity in the party engaged in such work," she says.

Some suspect the efficiency of big organizations. Can we be sure that the money does not just go into the operating costs of such organizations?

Eeva Ahtisaari says that she believes in UNICEF.

"I believe UNICEF is a safe choice, particularly now, after major internal reorganizations, and now that its accounts are in balance.

"All in all, UNICEF is the most efficient of the UN organizations, and no malpractices have ever been discovered at headquarters. Operations in the field are also well under control.

"Here in Finland, too, There is a great deal of worthwhile voluntary work and different activities going on, allowing us to help each other. This has been a very good thing during the recession.

"However, we should also look beyond our own borders. Helping the less fortunate gives great pleasure. This worthwhile project will also broaden our own lives and in some way put our own problems into perspective," says Eeva Ahtisaari.