Profiles in Education: Nane Annan
Nane Annan, wife of United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, recalls sitting down on the damp Pakistani earth with a little girl after last year’s horrific earthquake. “We had no language in common…and yet there was a spark of sharing between us. These were precious moments,” recalls Mrs. Annan, who for over nine years has forged thousands of such bonds while accompanying her husband as a global human rights advocate.
Raised in Sweden, the daughter of an international judge, Mrs. Annan studied law and served as an associate judge in her country. But over tea in the elegant living room of her diplomatic residence in Manhattan, she prefers to steer the conversation away from herself and focus on the more pressing issues afflicting our poorest countries—education, equality between men and women, AIDS, and sanitation, to name but a handful. She has just returned from a trip to South Africa, having come full circle (it was her first official trip when her husband began his tour of duty as Secretary General in 1997.) The challenges facing young girls in Africa are legendary: “parents keep them out of school because it is unsafe, or they need them at home to care for younger siblings, or they cannot financially send all their children, so they send only their boys,” she enumerates. Mrs. Annan is equally passionate about the need for safe water and hygiene, adding that it is important for girls to have separate latrine facilities from boys in poor countries. “That may be one more reason for girls to drop out of school in their teen years,” she adds.
To reinforce the U.N.’s message to our most vulnerable global citizens, Mrs. Annan has written and illustrated a children’s book called Tip & Top: The Adventures of Two Water Drops, a fairy tale that underscores the key role that water plays throughout the world. And she’s also written a more generic children’s book entitled The United Nations, Come Along with Me, explaining the purpose of the UN in easily understandable terms.
Mrs. Annan is as active in her own back yard as she is in the remote corners of the world, often sharing slide shows from her travels abroad with students in New York City classrooms. American children are invariably astounded at the living conditions of their counterparts in third world countries, reacting in shock to photographs of “girls who walk with heavy buckets of water on their heads…or children drinking brown water from a dirty river….It is very special for me to go out to schools…and understand the important role teachers have in the classroom in creating a positive learning atmosphere for the children,” she concludes. (Slide shows with Mrs. Annan’s voiceover can also be accessed on-line by going to the UN website, www.un.organd clicking on the CyberSchoolBus icon.) Mrs. Annan is particularly gratified to see the success of the Global Classrooms curriculum, whereby middle and high school students explore current world issues through simulations and curricular materials.
Yet for all the hours Mrs. Annan has devoted to enriching the lives of children and families around the world, she is rewarded in equal measure by the outpouring of gratitude and thanks she receives in the form of handmade gifts, cards, poems, and artwork from those she visits. She lovingly unwraps a small sampling of mementoes: a mobile with hundreds of handmade white origami birds from Africa; a child’s drawing of the Annans from China; a handmade book from Sweden; a globe from Johannesburg; an original poem from a classroom in the Bronx bearing the lyrics, ‘The Secretary General as the UN’s boss/Is trying to make sure that not a soul is lost.’
Summing up why she does what she does, Mrs. Annan states ever so simply, “So often I will ask a little girl what she wants to be when she grows up, and in all countries, it is the same answer: “I want to be a doctor.” She says it with glittering eyes. I hope those eyes will not lose their glitter.”#