Teddy Gianopulos, long-serving former UNEP staff member
Down memory lane - 40 years in the service of the UN
Before joining UNEP in 1979 – I had worked for a number of UN Agencies in both Kenya and Ethiopia – but the powerful flashback that is permanently in my mind is the day that I graduated from College. It was the afternoon of Friday, December 5th 1964 - Prize Giving Day – which instantaneously changed the course of my life. My plans for going into Medicine and eventually specializing in Pediatrics were put on hold (or so I thought) as I was intrigued and fascinated by the work of the UN – especially that of UNICEF and WHO, who were providing Emergency funds for children and working on Tuberculosis. Fate was moving its huge hand and I felt an inner power of spontaneity that was guiding my every move. In those days, I was a rather shy youngster and certainly not the forthcoming extrovert that I turned into in later years!
At the prize giving, diplomas were being handed out by a very polite and soft-spoken man, the WHO Representative, Dr. James Ang’awa. When it came to my turn, I looked up into a gentle face when he asked what my future plans were? I didn’t hesitate with my response of very much wanting to work for the United Nations – especially WHO and UNICEF. In a flash, I saw a sad look cross his eyes when he told me that it was a shame that I didn’t have any experience as he had a vacancy in his office. He required the services of an able assistant to work together with a large number of doctors and experts in the research of Tuberculosis.
I lost my breath - but just for a split second - before I blurted out a rather impulsive and probably a cheeky request. “May, I please make a suggestion?” I asked, my heart thumping in my chest. “I will work for you, free of charge for a month and if I don’t prove suitable, there will be no hard feelings on either side.” I felt I was going to faint when he shook his head in agreement and very calmly said, “You can start on Monday!”
That was the start of my 40 years of service in the UN! As luck would have it, I was offered a contract with UNICEF, in Ethiopia, two months later. I knew that a career with the UN was my destiny and I was to embrace every opportunity that was given to me.
When UNEP inaugurated its offices at the Kenyatta Conference Centre – before the move to Gigiri - Bruce Steadman, Deputy to UNEP’s first Executive Director, Maurice Strong, asked me to join him, as his Personal Assistant when he moved from Addis Ababa to join UNEP. Family obligations and having to care for a year-old baby, sadly forced me to turn the offer down. But, 2 years later, in February 1979, I joined UNEP to work with Peter Thacher, Deputy to Dr. Mostafa Tolba. I felt that the most valuable experience that I carried with me, at the time, was how to work in grueling circumstances having just survived one of the cruelest revolutions to take place on African soil. Our UNDP offices were bombed, colleagues were imprisoned, close friends lost loved ones while some even fatally collapsed in front of our eyes. That horrible experience helped me develop – in a weird sort of way - a sense of calmness and level-headedness in dealing with crisis. As luck would have it, this was put to test, in a much milder way, during the attempted coup in Kenya in 1981!
Telephone lines were cut and there being no mobiles in those days, everyone had to rely on the radio for updates. It was announced that a coup had taken place in Kenya, instigated by senior officers of the Air Force, and all offices and shops were closed. Everyone was advised to stay home and keep off the roads. No sooner had I finished listening to the news than the familiar dark blue UNEP1K, stopped outside my door. A little nervously, Macau, who was the official driver for the two top Executives, knocked on my door and politely asked me to accompany him to Gigiri where there was work to be done! Military evidence was everywhere and, on two occasions we were stopped and questioned ‘have you not listened to the radio? Where do you think you are going? Go back home!” On both occasions, both Macau and I, nodded in agreement and assured the angry army personnel, that we were going to do just that! We headed straight for Gigiri!
The whole compound was deserted except for the Security Officers who were at their posts. We found Peter Thacher in the Telecommunication Unit trying to operate the fax machines in order to send a situation report to New York. We fumbled with switches and a strange key board, but between us we managed to get that fax through! But, what was of immense importance was to wait for a response on what security measures were to be taken for the safety of staff. Evacuation plans were in place, but the final word on the next steps to be taken, rested with Headquarters. Minutes turned into hours and we all started doubting whether our message had in fact, gone through or had it been intercepted by the revolutionaries?
We were all in such a hurry to get to the office that none of us had given the slightest thought of carrying any snacks with us – confident that the Old Cafeteria would be open. In this instance, everything was locked up. By mid-afternoon, the hunger pangs had well set in until I saw some of the loquat trees in front of “E’ and “F” blocks laden with fruit. Albeit not very ripe, but in that instance I don’t think any of us minded how sweet they were, as long as we put something in our stomachs. Watching Peter Thacher and myself, trying our best to reach the fruit, Macau came to our aid. Taking off his shoes, he climbed up the trees, quickly picked the semi-ripe fruit from the first lot, moving across to the following four trees. Being three very hungry individuals waiting to put something in their mouth, he picked enough of the precious harvest and threw it down to my waiting outstretched skirt for a safe landing! That was one day in my life that I was thankful I had not come to the office in trousers! But, the sight that everyone missed on that day in August 1981 was of our Deputy Executive Director, sitting crossed legged on the grass, devouring sour fruit and smacking his lips at every mouthful.
Thankfully, before the reply reached us from New York, the coup d’etat had been squashed, the revolting officers were all under arrest and it was announced that by six in the evening, everything had returned to normal. Sadly, the UN suffered a serious casualty on that day. Mr. Yusuf Ahmed, Assistant Executive Director lost his wife as a result of a mortar crashing into the front door of their house in Muthaiga. Mrs. Ahmed, was protecting her family and home when she lost her life.
No coups or revolutions come without casualties to human lives and property, but the ones involving UN personnel and their families, leave an imprint in our hearts and in our minds which are never forgotten.