Tuesday, December 2, 2008

A sample of life in UNICEF, that was blessed!

V. Muthuswami (July 2008)

Born 1937 in a nature-endowed and well-administered village of that time and age (Viravanallur, Tirunelveli District of southern Tamil Nadu) of pre-independent India, and having lost father at a very early age of five and brought up by mother with very modest means, but with great fortitude and courage, and finally retiring out of a well-known respected organization (UNICEF), life cannot anything but be a great blessing and a journey to find spiritual security in a fast changing world.

Landing in Delhi in the famous GT Express on a very cold February 1956, with nothing more than a pre-university degree and some technical skills, and lacking proficiency in the local language (Hindi) and customs, life could have been quite a struggle and full of challenges but for the great support with unremitting love, affection and compassion from friends known to my brother and other truly wonderful friends. It was friends who did help me to enter GOI portals in 1956, and later on, join UNICEF ranks in 1963. How could I describe my deep gratitude and acknowledgement for the guidance, help and professional preparation given generously by P.Bala and A.V. Ramaswamy (both need no introduction to the old-timers in UN/UNICEF in Delhi) for a UNICEF job. In simple language, because of these two great souls who initiated my UNICEF journey, my life turned out to be meaningful, purposeful and rewarding not only until my formal retirement in 1997, and in fact continued to provide some wonderful experience of sharing and caring with new and younger generation of UNICEF colleagues for several months every single year after the retirement.

Life in UNICEF took me to work in almost all the continents, except Australia/New Zealand and South America, and gave me opportunities to see, understand and live in harmony with the vast expanse of life in different shapes, sizes, forms and colour with underlying unity. It was possible to understand and realise the true meaning of the great Indian Vedic wisdom: “Vasudaiva Kudumbakam” (the whole world is one family).

It taught me a simple valuable lesson: if I can manage my time on earth, keeping fit with right attitudes and behaviour based on reverence for life and mutual respect, life cannot but be fulfilling and purposeful.

During the years in UNICEF New Delhi – 1963-1971 – there were some great colleagues and friends who helped shape my life: some of them come to my mind immediately – the ever disciplined and always a friend in need P. Bala and the most dependable and helpful with a smile AVR; KGU Menon for learning to listen and to be a true friend at all times; David Ahimaz, Kapoor and Talwar to understand single-minded focusing; Gordon Carter on no-nonsense but humane management; Henk Davelaar and his wife (Maria, a wonderful lady) on team work and leadership.

During overseas assignments, living and working abroad between 1972 and formal retirement in 1997, and in fact until mid-2007, I was fortunate to work with some of the great UNICEF personalities, incl some of those in NYHQ.

Uffe Konig (former Rep in Tanzania and later in Khartoum and Director in Geneva) taught me selfless work and purposeful commitment to do good things both at home and at work.
I learnt from Uffe that humility does not mean hiding our talents and virtues, but in possessing a clear knowledge of our virtues, and also shortcomings that we lack and how to go about getting those skills and techniques to make ourselves truly professional, useful in the context of ground reality, and make important meaningful contribution.

There were others, indeed too numerous to be listed to be here, but each of them had given inspiration, shown the path to peace and progress, impacted my family, own life and work in many different ways; those quickly recalled are James P. Grant, Karin Lohaug (Shampoo), Brian Jones, Richard Reid, Dan Brooks, Nigel Fisher, Nageeb, Manou Assadi, Beheiry brothers (elder was former Sudanese Finance Minister and younger was colleague), Steve Allen, Reem Najjar, sharp & creative Labanese driver Munir, the most humble and helpful Sudanese driver Abdul Mazid, the ever-cheerful Raj Guru, Salve Neelankavil, Simon Chiu, Benzamin Kazambe, Saidi Shomari, Tom McDermott, Reymond (one of UNICEF and the other was Secretary, UNJSPF), Khun Paveena, Khun Nuntana, Max Madayag, and other great colleagues.
Couple of interesting episodes come to my mind: probably in mid-60s: with our friend KGU, deeply involved in the usual hectic board submission in the erstwhile Food Conservation Section, in the non-computer age! (In those days, there was no consolidated country programme submission, but individual projects should be submitted separately to the Board.) After sending the whole paper load to HQ (I think the ExBoard was meeting at Addis Ababa for that session), our friend KGU noticed that we somehow missed to forward one or two pages in this important board submission (!) and nervously waiting for reprimanding response from NYHQ. But to our relief and some surprise, the whole submission went thru the board and got approved, with no question asked!? Maybe all bureaucracies, be it Indian or UN, tended to make much ado for paperwork and procedures upto hilt and make people nervous! Once the project/subject gets the attention it deserved in its own right, then all the paperwork becomes secondary.

Despite much confrontation (on behalf of staff interests) with Henk Davelaar, who was chair of UNICEF Staff Assn in New Delhi in late 60’s or early70’s, it was Henk who opened the door for long term international assignment in Zambia. Again, it was Uffe Konig (who was in charge of Dar es Salaam sub-office, under Lusaka Area Office) appreciated my efforts to handle his office complicated accounts (being managed by UNDP IOV system), and finally getting audit clearance; this landed me in Khartoum office as the multi-purpose A&F Officer soon after Konig became the Rep for Sudan.

In the second half of 70s, working in Khartoum, Sudan under the leadership of my friend Uffe Konig, I had to accompany the German internal auditor on visit to project office in Wau (western Sudan) and later on to the sub-office in Juba. We had to spend a night or two in a local Wau hotel/guest house; alongside with super-active but friendly rodents, except that these God’s creations sent our beloved auditor to go frenzy and jumping thru the night. Our German auditor became so paranoid that he wouldn’t risk eating anything from local hotel/guest house or sleep in peace! Fortunately, to our great relief, we saw him carrying half-of-his suitcase full of ready to eat/dried German foods. Only local brew acceptable was our famous Sudanese tea (of course not with Sudanese sugar-saturation level), prepared in front of his eyes!

In Wau it was a thrilling experience to see the gushing water from UNICEF drilled bore-well and see the pure joy and ecstasy in the eyes of many a Wau residents who probably saw for first time water shooting from the well.

Later on, I learnt that Wau citizens held a public ceremony and donated a herd of cattle to the UNICEF Rep and project staff in appreciation of our team’s work that brought life and cheer to the residents of that area.

As we travelled on a winch-equipped 4WD to Juba, thru swampy terrain, we had a great experience of the tall Dingas (people of Behr-e-Gazal province, known for tall Dingas, highly skilled with spears) moving along freely without any cloths on the swamps, catching fish with sharp spears every time without fail, though we could not see any moving animal in the shallow water in the muddy swamps all around. Every time our vehicle got stuck in mud, with no tree around to use the winch to pull the vehicle, our Dinga driver could call friendly Dingas for timely rescue, never mind about their mud-covered birthday suits! In fact we had to take a couple of older Dinga friends in the 4WD to escort us in the correct route.

In early 1980s, just before leaving the Bangkok office for the day (I was working there at that time as admin, finance and personnel officer, i.e. former avatar of the later day Operations Officer!), a telephone call from Dhaka office informed me of a serious accident involving erstwhile New Delhi colleague and friend Gerry Medina (who served as Transport Officer in Bangladesh office at that time), with 4” tip of an arrow got released/lodged into his head as he was cleaning his bow at home. He was being flown in a stretcher (in a semi or un-conscious state) to Bangkok for emergency surgery/treatment. I was able to contact Doctor Khun (that is all what I remember of his longish Thai name) Director of Bangkok General Hospital and explained about the emergency. In fact, the system in the Bangkok hospital was so efficient and humane that I didn’t have to do anything further: the hospital organised the patient’s reception at the Bangkok airport (1130 pm), my own entry into airport apron to receive Gerry, and transported swiftly to the hospital operating room (some 30 km away). The operating room was kept ready to receive Gerry just after mid-night and he was immediately examined and operated for some 4-5 hrs to remove the object pierced thru lower jaw and lodged into his left back skull. It was almost 0900 am next day as I was informed of successful operation and was given a souvenir of a bottle containing the broken arrow removed from Gerry’s head! In response to my heartfelt grateful thanks to the doctor, pat came the quick reply: “not only it is my professional duty to do what I can, but simply put ‘I will have the time if you have the money!’ Obviously, this was typical BKK philosophy - one can buy anything for money under the sky, except maybe one’s biological parents because you are already born without asking!

I think it was in the year 2000 in Maputo, Mozambique, where I did a short-assignment as Operations Officer, responsible inter alia for budget preparation. In the PBRC (Programme Budget Review Committee) review process in Nairobi office I was responsible to explain the budgetary/staffing details, and defend the office HR needs to fulfil its mandate. I got all the 23 new positions agreed by the PBRC regional meeting, and became the envy of another larger office in the East Africa region (Addis Ababa) whose rep didn’t seem to have good luck at that time! Nonetheless, some years later (2006), I got to serve that office for a short time, under a different leadership and found that the office did indeed grew manifold during intervening years reflecting complex and difficult program implementation environment - Ethiopia seems unfortunately destined to be visited by floods, disease, food shortage, several local tribal conflicts all at the same time in a year.

Two unforgettable Mozambique experiences: participation in the opening of UNICEF office in 1975 after independence; witnessing the birth of a child on the tree-top amid swelling floods; thanks to CNN quick thinking correspondent to summon South African air force thru his satellite phone to airlift the mother and child to safety and care. After a year I saw the CNN news item highlighting the anniversary of the rescue operation and the heart-warming story of the child’s growth as a normal healthy kid, celebrating its first birthday in Maputo in the august presence of Nobel Laureate for Peace Nelson Mandela and many friends (probably including some UNICEF colleagues).

Short-term assignments after retirement afforded several opportunities to see the changes in the organizational growth and functioning. Not only UNICEF transformed itself from a street-corner mini-store into a multi-billion dollar organization, ably led and managed effectively engaging and working with global partners in addressing many modern day challenges and problems facing children and women. It has been a wonderful experience to work with UNICEF younger generation managers, carrying a world vision and perspective, truly capable of thinking and finding out-of-box solutions and bring about sustainable development efforts to achieve UNICEF mission goals.

Life in UNICEF taught some of the most valuable life lessons. These are reflected in the following quotes:

“Change direction, or you may end up where you’re heading” - Lao To

“If you don’t find God in the next person you meet, it‘s a waste of time looking for Him any further” - Mahatma Gandhi

“There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle” - Albert Einstein

Indeed I am grateful to have had the opportunity to work in UNICEF and serve the larger UN family and to witness the miracles in every moment of working life; that helped re-wire my brain cells to lead the rest of life too in the same spirit - to remain useful to others as long as I live, but learn and pray to leave the planet in peace and with grace.



vinesh said...

Your blog is very nice... i like your blog ....

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Rahul said...

Mr Muthuswami, I liked your blog a lot. I am the son of a former colleague of yours from UNICEF (Balwant Sharma). He passed on in 1981. I fondly recall some of the names in your blog especially Gerry Medina, who was a very close friend of my father. I know he rrtied to Thailand post UNICEF with his wife Tilly. Any idea if he is still around or if there is a way to find out about him? Trust you are well....keep writing. Best Rahul (Sharma)