When I got an email from the Embassy of Finland inviting me to Helsinki, I thought to myself that this was an opportunity to satisfy my wanderlust. Travelling to the capital of one of the happiest and most innovative countries in the world made the offer exciting and irresistible.
Ranked number one on the World Happiness Report since 2018, and with a government that invests highly in the overall wellbeing of its citizens, it is no wonder that the Nordic country is also listed as having the best governance in the world.
The media visit slated for June 12-17, 2022, coincided with the Nordic-Africa High-Level Ministerial Meeting hosted by the Finnish Foreign Affairs Minister, Pekka Haavisto. Twelve journalists from 12 African countries were invited for the visit. Having been selected out of the many journalists interviewed by the Finnish embassy in Abuja, I packed my bag and hopped onto the Boeing 787-8 Qatar Airways at the Nnamdi Azikiwe International, Abuja, for a six-hour flight to Doha on June 12. We arrived in Helsinki after another numbing six-and-a-half-hour flight from the Hamad Airport.
Bursting into the expansive but cool lounge of the Helsinki Vaantal International Airport was refreshing like a glass of iced tea on a summer afternoon. Waiting at the terminal was our driver alongside a colleague from Zambia. Shortly after, we were joined by another journalist from Kenya. Luggage tucked in, we were soon cruising down the wide boulevard in a Mercedes Benz operated by the Yellow Line Airport taxi. On either side of the road, men, women and youngsters ride on bikes or e-scooters as the tram glides on its tracks.
In a few minutes, we checked into our rooms at Hotel Glo Kluuvi, located in the centre of the city. We met with our hosts-Rim Mezian and Anu Lehtinen, Communications Coordinators at the Finland Ministry for Foreign Affairs. They took us to Restaurant Salutorget along the busy Pohjoisesplanadi with views of Helsinki’s bustling seafront market. There, we had the first taste of delicious Finnish fare.
The next day was full of activities as the coordinators raced the visiting journalists from one engagement to another. One of the striking places was the Day Care Centre, Kanava, which prides itself as the largest provider of nature pedagogy education in Finland. The pupils are aged between one and six years. The school said it emphasizes nature, exercise and play. It was gathered that Helsinki has about 300 Finnish language daycare centres and about 50 Swedish language daycare centres.
Soon, it was time to join the Nordic–African Foreign Ministers Meeting held at Crowne Plaza, Mannerheimintie 50, Töölö. In attendance were the foreign affairs ministers from four Nordic countries- Sweden, Norway, Iceland and Denmark. Their counterparts from 25 African countries also participated in the meeting. They included Algeria, Angola, Benin, Botswana, Egypt, Eritrea, South Africa, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Marocco, Mauritania, Mozambique, Namibia, Niger, Nigeria, Côte d’Ivoire, Rwanda, Zambia, Senegal, Somalia, Tanzania, Togo, Tunis and Uganda.
Our host, Haavisto, held a virtual session with us where he took questions on Finland’s bilateral relations with African countries. He said his country has drawn up an Africa Strategy to expand and deepen ties with African countries, the African Union and with other regional organisations on the continent. The aim is to diversify Finland’s relations and develop the ambitions and coherence of Finland’s Africa policy.
We visited SITRA, an independent innovation fund which operates directly under the supervision of the Finnish Parliament. SITRA aims to make Finland succeed as a pioneer of sustainable well-being by anticipating the direction societal trends are taking, exploring alternatives for development, and bringing together partners from different sectors for open-minded trials and reforms.
One key theme in SITRA’s work is the circular economy, in which consumption is based on using services–sharing, renting and recycling–instead of owning things. SITRA took the lead in organising the first-ever World Circular Economy Forum in June 2017 in Finland. For the first time, the agency plans to host this year’s World Circular Economy Forum in Kigali, Rwanda on December 6–8, 2022.
The media delegation also met with the eggheads at the Helsinki University where they listened to presentations by a visiting Professor of Early Childhood Education, University of Johannesburg, Ms Pirjo Aunio, on how to identify and support young children with special needs in Maths ̶ The Active Early Numeracy project in South African schools. Ms Anu Kantele, Professor of Infectious Diseases, discussed her ongoing research on antimicrobial resistance in West Africa.
At the European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats, Mr Janne Jokinen, Deputy Director, Community of Interest Hybrid Influence provided a menu of the various threats the agency is countering and how it is promoting a whole-of-government and whole-of-society approach to countering hybrid threats. “The centre’s vision is a world in which our open, democratic societies operate free of hostile outside interference,’’ he said.
We were treated to a city tour. Our guide, the energetic and vivacious Ms Maddalena Benedetti while recreating the history of Finland in a smooth cadence took us to Helsinki’s cultural, religious and political landmarks. We were at the Evangelical Lutheran Cathedral Church and also spent some time at the Kamppi Chapel of Silence- a quiet sanctuary for self-contemplation where visitors are required to keep sealed lips. We explored the National Library of Finland located close to the Senaatintori square. With over three million books and periodicals, the facility also has an equivalent quantity of other resources including audio recordings, maps, sheet music, posters, manuscripts and other ephemera.
The National Library reportedly boasts over 100 shelf kilometres of resources. Originally designed by Carl Ludvig Engel in striking neoclassical style and built in 1840-1845, the Finnish government invested €98 million ($119.7m) in a new library in 2018 and named it Oodi—the word for ode in Finnish. Children and parents were observed playing video games or surfing the Internet on free WiFi. One striking feature of Helsinki city is the availability of free WiFi at most public places, including restaurants, shopping malls, and offices. Also noteworthy is the people’s love for their language. Most television stations broadcast in Finnish while the few which broadcast in English also translate their content in the local language.
We visited the Päivälehti Newspaper Museum. It presents the history of media, modern-day media and the future of media as well as the freedom of speech in Finland and other countries. Alongside the general historical exhibits, the museum also tells the story of Helsingin Sanomat, Finland’s largest daily newspaper, which has been published for over 130 years.
Our jaunt climaxed with a ferry ride to Lonna Island. Once a base for storing and clearing mines, the island is now a refuge where visitors can leave the hustle and bustle of city life behind them and enjoy hearty dining after a sweaty session in a public sauna. Sauna bathing is an essential part of Finnish culture and national identity. Though there are only 5.5 million Finns the country has 3.3m saunas. Public saunas used to be common in bigger cities but now that most new apartments have saunas of their own, public saunas have decreased dramatically in number with only a couple remaining.
The Finnish people demonstrate their social advancement through the efficient city transport system, a religious respect for order and love for nature. The street and traffic lights work like a clock. Mounted at about every five metres, the volume of traffic lights was phenomenal. There was no traffic warden in sight and the policemen were almost inconspicuous as they blended with the environment.
Despite the cool weather, sleeping at night was problematic. This was because nights in Helsinki were almost as bright as day. Disconcertingly, midnight feels like an African morning.