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Celebrating Human Rights, Honoring Kofi Annan

By Katey Assem

Today is Human Rights Day, an annual holiday to honor human dignity. As we celebrate equality and justice on the 70th anniversary of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we remember Kofi Annan, former UN General Secretary, who passed away earlier this year.

Opportunity Board Member, Katéy Assem, grew up in Ghana and knew Secretary General Annan personally. Read his reflections on this great leader and join us in celebrating Human Rights Day. 

The African baobab is a remarkable tree. Not only because of its size and lifespan but also in the special way it grows multiple fused stems. In Africa, baobab trees are not only useful to humans, they are key ecosystem elements in the dry savanna. Importantly, baobab trees keep soil conditions humid, favor nutrient recycling and avoid soil erosion. They also act as an important source of food, water, and shelter for a wide range of animals, including birds, lizards, monkeys, snakes and even elephants – which can eat their bark to provide some moisture when there is no water nearby.

To many, Secretary General Kofi Atta Annan was the world’s baobab tree. He was a remarkable man, not only because of his stature as ‘President of the World,” but because of the lives he touched. He was a true global icon who spanned the world’s ecosystem and kept the world’s soil moist and humid by giving us peace and hope. When he spoke everyone listened and he brought a dignity to the Office of Secretary General that made all of us proud to be associated with him. Whether you knew him or not; whether you’d ever met him or not; there was something about him that made you feel good that he was the man in charge. One felt nourished by his leadership of the United Nations. He exuded a dignity that was only matched by such great icons as Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr., even Mahatma Gandhi himself.

I first met Mr. Annan as a young college student. He used to visit his brother (who I found out later was actually his cousin), a neighbor of ours. Being the young college student, both he and his cousin called me “Young Graduate.” I was so impressed with him. Even back then, some forty-plus years ago, he was a man of dignity who walked with a straight gait. Occasionally, he would give me a ride in his Mustang to the campus of the University of Ghana. I was so impressed with his manner and the fact that he worked at the United Nations that I too wanted to work at the United Nations. Clearly, I never made it to a job at the UN, though it was not for a lack of trying.

In later years, when I first came to New York City, Uncle Atta, as I called him, would invite Ghanaian and other African students to his apartment for dinner. Oh, the meals were so scrumptious! And, his apartment was full of his collection of beautiful artworks from around the world. In conversations, you never felt that he was such an important man; he was always generous with his advice about how we are to carry ourselves and how important it is to use our skills to advance the lives of poor people in Africa. Uncle Atta was always so precise with his words and he spoke with a peaceful heart. He was distinguished and very graceful.

Of course, over the years, he became more important and I moved on to other things. But his advice always stayed with me.

Uncle Atta, thank you for gracing my life and our lives. Thank you for being a true exemplar of a world citizen. We never thought that you would be gone from us so soon. We thought you would always be around to share your sage advice with us. Most of all, how you lived your life spoke volumes to the world. Our globe has lost a true hero. Rest in Peace, oh noble son of Ghana.  

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