August 26, 2018
It was 10 August 1998. The World Expo on the oceans was held in Lisbon. I was in that city just for a few hours. The following day, Kofi Annan made a statement to the Independent Commission on the Oceans. Back then, I had no idea that, (relatively) shortly thereafter, I would have started to work for the United Nations.
I was in a nice restaurant for supper (the name of which I still recall today), a place recommended by a local tour guide to hear fado, the melancholic music (almost) automatically associated with Portugal. Suddenly, there was some commotion: to my great surprise and delight, the United Nations Secretary-General arrived at the same restaurant, preceded by the officers in charge of his security. To my increasing delight (which, at that point, started to border indulging disbelief), a few minutes later, he briefly sang some fado. Yes, Kofi Annan! He did not stay for dinner. When he left the restaurant, I was galvanized.
One year and a half forward, our paths—Mr. Annan’s and mine—crossed again. I became a tour guide at the United Nations Headquarters (UNHQ) in New York and my “big boss” never failed to acknowledge us, tour guides, with an encouraging smile, every time he walked past us on tour route. It was flattering and empowering.
In May 2002, during the Special Session of the General Assembly on Children, Nelson Mandela was in New York and he participated, among other major commitments, in an event that took place in a tent installed for the occasion on the north lawn of the UNHQ. He was an imposing figure, literally and figuratively, yet his health must have been already frail. As Mr. Annan accompanied him out of the makeshift stage, my eyes filled up to see two giants of Africa walking before my dazzled eyes. I was witnessing history. I was witnessing the human connection between a very important man showing his respect to a pillar of humankind. I was so privileged. The whole experience had the quality of a dream unraveling before my eyes. These two giants of history are now reunited in the realm beyond life-as-we-know-it.
Dear Mr. Annan, you were an inspiration for many. For me, you were also a sign that would lead me to my professional future at the United Nations. I will hold on to that cherished memory any time I feel disheartened at work. Adieu, Mr. Annan.