UNITED NATIONS. Nane Annan on Kofi



15 December 2006

We will miss the gracious and confident Nane Annan. Throughout her husband's tenure she kept herself above controversy and focused on her commitments -- to her family, to issues and to caring for human dignity. During periods of controversy and sometimes embarrassment, she was always courteous and thoughtful, making friends for herself and her husband when many of his aides were making enemies. Following is a touching statement she made introducing the outgoing Secretary General in his farewell address to the International Women's Forum on 5 December:

Dear friends,

How exciting and what a challenge to introduce my husband to you: a man who has been in the public eye for so long; a man who is exactly what he appears to be, both inside and outside the home: calm, wise, compassionate.

We are often asked how we met and, before we had time to answer, it was in the press: that it was at a social gathering, now 25 years ago. I was about to leave, turned around at the door, our eyes met, and the rest is history. I was asked the other day, was it intuition and did I continue out the door? I said yes to both questions, but thinking back on that moment, it was not intuition. You are a great communicator and without saying a word you showed me, in one go, your inner strength, and you must have put that magnetic aura of yours in high gear. I hope I do not sound too corny, but that is the way it was.

Of course today these qualities are common knowledge. You cannot imagine how many come up to him to tell him how he has touched them, or thank him for caring about the world. It can be truck drivers waving as they drive by on First Avenue, a grey-haired lady kissing you on both cheeks in a village in Switzerland, and countless people around the world, especially young people.

And yet I cannot say I know fully the very origin or source of your strength. I have assumed that it was your deep roots in Ghana, growing up there at a singularly important time, as it was about to gain independence. But hopefully I will learn more, as we will have one foot in Ghana very soon. I already know that it is a fascinating country, with a vibrant traditional society co-existing with modern democracy.

You are often described as somebody who made your career at the United Nations, comfortably rising within its ranks. However, if one looks closer I would rather call you "The man who went his own way." Many of course were opportunities offered to a "Man with Potential": from the tropical sun of Ghana to the first snow in your life in Minnesota, when you received a scholarship in a foreign student leadership programme: How did they know already? Heading off into Francophone territory for post-graduate studies at the Institut des Hauts Etudes in Geneva, and then on to the World Health Organization there.

After two years, you decided you wanted to work in Africa and went to apply for two vacancies there. The Personnel Director said: Great, there are many people in this office that a hundred horses could not pull away from Geneva. In short order, you were offered India, Philippines and Copenhagen. You insisted on Africa. "Young man, your final offer is Copenhagen; take it or leave it," and you left and went to Addis for six years. I will not go into further detail, only to say that when you arrived on the 38th Floor, somebody said: "There is one rebel on the floor, and that is the Secretary-General", which I took to mean your ability to think outside of the box.

So how is it to be this man’s wife, his partner? Here I think we in the diplomatic community all know how it is to be our spouse’s partner. I think we all fulfill this role, perhaps even more so as this is New York and a multilateral posting. We have a very active life here, where we gain in working together. There are strong support systems and wonderful friendships, and we have often come together for a good cause, helping out in times of natural calamities or in the work of UNICEF for children around the world. We fill an important role in our dedication and across our diversities.

The Women’s International Forum is one of our very active fora and, as your patron, I want to thank you for your creativity and hard work in finding speakers on topics as far-ranging as trafficking or AIDS, to climate change or progress towards the Millennium Development Goals, always keeping us abreast of what happens in the international field related to the United Nations.

But back to the time when you were elected Secretary-General. I was in a small restaurant on 10th or 11th Avenue when I got the message. I can tell you, I felt like I was in the eye of the storm. I sat down. I knew he would handle it marvelously. I had seen the qualities, which are now so apparent, chiseled out during the long years working for the United Nations, especially during your time as head of Peacekeeping. But how would I be able to handle it? I could have taken a cab, but I decided to walk across the city to the UN. In Times Square, a young woman asked whether I had been in Beijing at the women's conference, as I was carrying a UNIFEM bag. When I said, "No," she looked so disappointed, I wanted to say, "But my husband was just elected Secretary-General!" It was too late, she had already disappeared. A bit further along, someone else asked me where my security was. And as I was getting close to the UN, I stopped to put on more presentable shoes. I leaned up against a mailbox to change out of my sneakers, when the wife of an ambassador came up and hugged me and I immediately felt the support of the spousal community, which has been so important. Thank you for your support and friendship over the years, without which I would not have functioned.

I recently read an article in the International Herald Tribune, describing Swedes as people who love their country’s stones -- a nation of shy nature-lovers, ill-at-ease in the company of others, happiest when wandering alone in one of Sweden’s many vast, dark forests. I was not wandering alone in one of Sweden’s forests, but had found another refuge in a painting studio in Brooklyn, when life changed dramatically.

As luck would have it, your first official visit was to southern Africa and I decided to travel with you and visit UN projects. The very first programme on my schedule was meeting with women in a township outside of Cape Town. They had almost nothing but the dream to build a house for themselves and their children. They learned to make bricks and when one had saved enough money, the others would come together to help her build a house, using a cardboard model as a guide. I left them deep in thought over what women can accomplish. But it also helped me to forget about myself, and pointed to a way forward for me, inspired by their positive energy.

The last leg of that trip was to Angola, at that time suffering from the legacy of a decades-long civil war. I visited 80 orphans of war in a school in the capital Luanda. The school was just rooms without roofs, and there were no desks or chairs, only concrete blocks for the children to sit on and there were hardly any pencils, papers or textbooks. But there was a teacher and at least they were in school. I encouraged them to stay there because education was something that could never be taken away from them. Then the children gathered to sing a song:

"We are children; we need a father who takes care of us...What can you do about that?
We are children; we need a mother who hugs us...What can you do about that?
We are children; we need an education...What can you do about that?
We are children; we need a childhood...What can you do about that?"

Their questions burned into me and would force me to start talking about what I have seen. I do not have a role within the UN, but I can be an eyewitness to what the UN is doing in the development field, which does not often capture the headlines but is so important for men, women and children. I have been visiting countless schools, showing my slideshow about children in other schools, different and yet the same, about the dream of a better world. I have been inspired by the people I have met, be it women in villages far away or here, and by the resilience and enthusiasm of children.

I have often felt like pinching myself. Am I really experiencing all this? But I have, and it has been an incredible journey. And now to my partner who has promised not to talk about me, but about his experiences at the United Nations during the past ten years and beyond.

Thank you very much.