Four nights in the happiest country in the world

When I received an e-mail from the Finnish Embassy inviting me to Helsinki, I thought it was an opportunity to satisfy my wanderlust. Traveling 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 heavily in the general well-being of its citizens, it’s no wonder the Nordic country is also listed as having the best governance in the world.

The media visit scheduled for June 12-17, 2022 coincided with the Nordic-African high-level ministerial meeting hosted by Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto. Twelve journalists from 12 African countries were invited for the visit. After being selected from among the many journalists interviewed by the Finnish Embassy in Abuja, I packed my bags and hopped on the Qatar Airways Boeing 787-8 at Nnamdi Azikiwe International, Abuja, for a six-hour flight to Doha on June 12. We arrived in Helsinki after another mind-numbing six and a half hour flight from Hamad airport.

Bursting into the large but cool lounge at Helsinki Vaantal International Airport was refreshing like a glass of iced tea on a summer afternoon. Our driver was waiting at the terminal alongside a colleague from Zambia. Shortly after, we were joined by another journalist from Kenya. Luggage packed, we were soon driving down the wide boulevard in a Mercedes Benz operated by the Yellow Line airport taxi. On either side of the road, men, women and young people ride bicycles or electric scooters while the tram slides on its tracks.

Within minutes, we were settled into our rooms at the Glo Kluuvi Hotel, located in the center of town. We met our hosts, Rim Mezian and Anu Lehtinen, communications coordinators at the Finnish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. They took us to Restaurant Salutorget along busy Pohjoisesplanadi with a view of Helsinki’s bustling waterfront market. There we tasted delicious Finnish dishes for the first time.

The following day was eventful as coordinators raced visiting journalists from one engagement to the next. One of the most notable places was the day care center in Kanava, which prides itself on being the largest provider of nature education in Finland. The pupils are aged from one to six years old. The school said it emphasizes nature, exercise and play. It was found that Helsinki has about 300 Finnish-language daycare centers and about 50 Swedish-language daycare centers.

Soon it was time to join the meeting of Nordic and African Foreign Ministers held at Crowne Plaza, Mannerheimintie 50, Töölö. In attendance were foreign 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, Morocco, Mauritania, Mozambique, Namibia, Niger, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Rwanda, Zambia, Senegal, Somalia, Tanzania, Togo, Tunis and Uganda.

Our host, Haavisto, held a virtual session with us where he answered questions about Finland’s bilateral relations with African countries. He said his country had developed an African strategy to broaden and deepen ties with African countries, the African Union and other regional organizations on the continent. The aim is to diversify Finland’s relations and develop the ambitions and coherence of Finland’s African policy.

We visited SITRA, an independent innovation fund that operates directly under the Finnish Parliament. SITRA aims to make Finland a pioneer in sustainable well-being by anticipating the direction of societal trends, exploring development alternatives and bringing together partners from different sectors for open-minded trials and reforms.

A key theme of 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 initiative to organize the first ever World Circular Economy Forum in June 2017 in Finland. For the first time, the agency plans to host this year’s Global Circular Economy Forum in Kigali, Rwanda, from December 6-8, 2022.

The media delegation also met the eggheads at the University of Helsinki where they listened to presentations by a visiting professor of early childhood education from the University of Johannesburg, Ms Pirjo Aunio, on how to identify and support young children with special needs in mathematics ̶ The Active Early Numeracy Project in South African schools. Ms. Anu Kantele, Professor of Infectious Diseases, spoke about her ongoing research on antimicrobial resistance in West Africa.

At the European Center 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 combats and how it promotes a whole-of-government, whole-of-government approach. societal approach to countering hybrid threats. “The center’s vision is a world in which our open and democratic societies function without hostile outside interference,” he said.

We were treated to a city tour. Our guide, the energetic and vivacious Ms. Maddalena Benedetti, while recreating Finland’s history in a gentle cadence, took us to the cultural, religious and political landmarks of Helsinki. We were at the Evangelical Lutheran Cathedral Church and also spent time at the Kamppi Chapel of Silence – a quiet sanctuary for self-contemplation where visitors are required to keep their lips sealed. We explored the National Library of Finland located near Senaatintori Square. With more than three million books and periodicals, the institution also has an equivalent amount of other resources, including audio recordings, maps, sheet music, posters, manuscripts and other ephemera.

The National Library is said to have over 100 kilometers of resource shelves. Originally designed by Carl Ludvig Engel in a striking neoclassical style and built in 1840-1845, the Finnish government invested 98 million euros ($119.7 million) in a new library in 2018 and named it Oodi, the word for ode in Finnish. Children and parents have been observed playing video games or surfing the Internet using the free Wi-Fi. A striking feature of the city of Helsinki is the availability of free Wi-Fi in most public places, including restaurants, shopping malls and offices. Also noteworthy is the love people have for their language. Most TV stations broadcast in Finnish, while the few that broadcast in English also translate their content into the local language.

We visited the Päivälehti newspaper museum. It presents the history of media, modern media and the future of media as well as freedom of expression in Finland and other countries. Besides 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 getaway culminated with a ferry ride to Lonna Island. Once a base for storage and mine clearance, the island is now a haven where visitors can leave the hustle and bustle of city life behind and enjoy a hearty meal after a sweaty session in a public sauna. Sauna baths are an integral part of Finnish culture and national identity. Although there are only 5.5 million Finns, the country has 3.3 million saunas. Public saunas used to be common in big cities, but now that most new apartments have their own saunas, the number of public saunas has dropped significantly to just a few.

The Finnish people demonstrate their social advancement through the efficient urban transportation system, a religious respect for order and love of nature. The street and the traffic lights work like a clock. Mounted every five meters or so, the volume of traffic lights was phenomenal. There were no traffic cops in sight and the police were almost inconspicuous as they blended in with the surroundings.

Despite the cool weather, sleeping at night was problematic. Indeed, the nights in Helsinki were almost as clear as the day. Disconcertingly, midnight looks like an African morning.

Barry F. Howard