Now that I’m back home in Vientiane, Laos, my trip to the United Kingdom - only my second to Europe - feels like a dream. But the photos prove otherwise – there I was, a WFP national staff member, surrounded by people I never dreamt of meeting.
First I was lucky with the weather; after all I’d heard about the “English summer”, I never used the winter clothes I’d brought. I was amazed by the sunshine - and the warmth of everyone’s welcome.
From the UK Border official onwards (he’d never seen a Lao passport) and whenever anyone heard that I was a Torchbearer, they’d congratulate me and make me feel special.
I’m a “country girl” so London, with all the rushing about, doesn’t suit me. But Birmingham was a bit quieter, though we saw crowds of all ages in the central square, watching a big screen showing the relay live. I like the way so many different people have been given the chance to carry the torch.
I never ran in a relay before, and our sport lessons in school didn’t include running. But when I was younger I walked a lot – to school, of course, but also many other trips on foot. When I was 11, I walked 40km in one day to bring a buffalo as a present for my older brother on his wedding day. There were few trucks then, and our family could not afford one, so I had to walk.
My day to carry the torch started early in Birmingham. I and my fellow 25 torchbearers had been asked to meet at 4 am on Sunday morning in the big Council building. There were three other foreigners – but I think I’d come the furthest! Everyone was talking about how they’d been chosen. I was selected at random from a large number of nominated WFP colleagues. A pity I couldn’t wear my WFP cap (no logos allowed).
We were shown how to do “the kiss” – flame handover. Then it was all aboard a special coach, with police motorbikes and great excitement from the crowd. After being dropped off at my allotted starting place near the city centre, I felt a bit alone, but a cheery Olympic official – a doctor on a bike – chatted to me until we heard the approaching crowd surrounding the girl torchbearer who was to hand over to me.
After our “kiss” – I had the flame and ALL the attention! A truck in front of me was packed with photographers, four officials running on either side of me – it was my “Moment to Shine” – and it was GREAT! I was bursting with happiness and pride as people cheered and hooted horns, with music and church bells ringing in my ears. Completely exhilarated, I hardly noticed the 300 yards and the next torchbearer – to whom I gave the flame amid flashing of cameras. I was still caught up in the moment as I was whisked into the coach to follow the procession through residential areas where the people of Birmingham came out in their pyjamas!
Eventually we got back to our starting point and waited for the torches to be “de-commissioned” (tiny gas canisters removed). Lots of smiles and photos, kisses and hugs and we all went our separate ways – proudly carrying our torches that seemed to have lit up so many lives.
Yorkswood Primary School, Birmingham
The next day I got a chance to “shine” again, when we visited a school where the children (aged 4-11) were preparing for their Olympics Sports week. Everyone - teachers and pupils alike - wanted to touch the torch and have their photographs taken with it – and me!
The children gathered for an assembly and I told them about my work with WFP in Laos, how I was trying to encourage more children into school – how the daily nutritious biscuits that WFP provides make such a difference to encourage boys and girls into class where they can play and learn.
Three nine-year old boys, Sean, Lewis and Tom, were chosen to ask me some tough questions about WFP. They had taken part in The Really Good School Dinner – a UK campaign to raise money to help WFP school feeding programmes. I tried to give them some good answers!
It was very moving because I realised that none of the children at Yorkswood was well-off (the acting head, Andy Tunstall, told me that half of them are eligible for free school meals, paid for by the government) and yet they were so keen to give money to provide meals for hungry children across the other side of the world – and help them learn.
I was thinking about the sacrifice made by my own sisters, who went out to work so that I could get an education (I’m the first in my family to go to university).
Later on, I came across the same sense of Olympic excitement at the BBC’s London HQ, where I was interviewed about my Torchbearing trip to England. Journalists were eager to come up and ask questions – they were like the children – wanting to borrow the torch – and take photos.
This Olympic spirit – mutual understanding, friendship, solidarity and fair play – seemed to be everywhere. And it’s what my trip to the UK was all about (thank you, Coca Cola for paying for it!) I am genuinely honoured to have represented the World Food Programme in such a wonderful way.
By: Vadsana Sinthavong