Kofi always loved to be with young people, to hear their ideas and reach out to them, and they responded. It was quite amazing for a man in his 70s. [The audience for the South African Sesame Street] was even younger, but you have to start early! We had both been involved with the fight against Aids and Kofi had spoken out about the stigma, so we were happy to go on the show and meet Kami, an HIV-positive Muppet.
In the storyline, Kami was sitting there looking sad and I said, ‘Why are you sad?’ She said, ‘I’m thinking of my mum’ – who she had lost because of Aids. ‘A hug would make me feel better.’ We ate fruit together too, to show that we can eat together, we can hug.
When Kofi came on, Kami said, ‘I’m looking for my hero, he’s coming any moment.’ We asked what he looked like, but she didn’t know.
Kofi sat next to her. ‘Why is he your hero?’
‘Well, he’s done so much for children like me who are HIV-positive.’
‘What’s his name?’ ‘Kofi Annan.’
I have got so many letters about my husband. He inspired trust; you sensed that when he spoke, it came from his heart as well as his mind. His strength was that he was exactly what you saw – you didn’t feel that he was somebody else at home than in the public space. And he was dedicated to what he was doing, not bureaucracy but all the possibilities for how he could pull people together. That is why he came up with so many initiatives; he was his own little think tank. When he won the Nobel Peace Prize [in 2001], I was so proud.
Being close to him you also felt this radiant aura – he was a very lovable person with a contagious laugh. For me, being with him was always an adventure: because of his curiosity, I never knew what would happen during the day; his interest would suddenly be caught by something.
We met in the early 1980s in Geneva; I was in my late 30s and a lawyer at the UNHCR. When we moved to New York I started to paint – my dream. We married in 1984. I was painting full-time and he was working more than full-time, and in the evenings we’d meet and share our experiences.
I was painting at the Art Students League [art school] and had lunch on the West Side on the day I got the call to say that he would become secretary general – the first chosen from within the ranks of the UN. I walked across from the restaurant to find time to compose myself, then gave him a big hug.
Kofi’s vision is continued in the Kofi Annan Foundation, and his other great legacy is the hope he inspires; he had incredible optimism, and perhaps you need that to be able to move forward.
An Evening Celebrating the Life and Legacy of Kofi Annan will take place at Central Hall Westminster, London SW1, on 3 June. For more information and tickets, visit una.org.uk/kofi-annan-event