A day well spent at the United Nations Africa HQ!

Having lived and studied in Nairobi for quite a long time now, I have been on the lookout for more interesting places to visit. This time, I set my eyes on the United Nations headquarters in Africa. This place is so unique to the African continent. Why? Well, just keep reading and you’ll find out!

Flags of the UN member states alongside a pathway

My deep interest in the United Nations was cultivated way back during high school when I was taught its historical founding, its structure and the role it plays in fostering world peace, and working hard towards achieving a global village. During my Bachelors, I again studied about UN and now at my Masters still, the UN is one of the primary study units.

With my full interest in the UN, I determined that I should make it a goal to visit its Africa offices which are found in the calm environs of Gigiri, ten kilometers west of Nairobi city. So my first step was to look it up over the internet. I googled the offices and got redirected to their visitors website. Then I proceeded to book for a morning guided tour. The next day I woke up very early to beat the notorious Nairobi traffic congestion, especially along Mombasa road. After some three hours, I managed to arrive forty minutes before the guided tour time. The weather was so chilly to the point that made me feel like I wasn’t putting on a jacket!

Top: A well-trimmed compound. Below: the eco-friendly ‘green building’

The United Nations Offices in Nairobi is a popular destination for inquisitive scholars who seek to have a physical impression of the United Nations and also interact with its staff. Even other visiting foreign dignitaries have found the place to be so appealing due to its expansive greenery, the unique tree and plant species within its compounds and the quietude of its environs. Its TripAdvisor reviews are all positive!! On that website, UNON ranks number 16 on the “List of 100 things to do in Nairobi” and true, it’s a must-visit for anyone with at least 3 hours of free daytime.

I felt so nervous and at the same time became timid being in one of the most heavily guarded areas in Kenya. This wasn’t your usual clamorous Nairobi downtown! There are many foreign embassies around including the United States embassy which is just opposite the UN compound. To access UN offices from Nairobi city, take Limuru road and then branch off in Gigiri onto the United Nations Avenue.

After getting security clearance and the visitor’s badge, I was let in. The compound is so huge and some of the most distinguishable features to a first-time visitor include the UN-member states’ flags that line alongside a footpath from the main entrance to the main reception area. You will also notice the huge ‘karibUNi’ sign that welcomes you to the offices.

Some of the gifts to the UN from member states.

I confirmed my arrangement details in the visitors center and then calmly approached by a smartly dressed George Ofunja who is the chief tour guide. We were joined by other visitors, three ladies; two from Cameroon, one from Grenada and a gentleman from Switzerland. During the guided tours, visitors have to use the wearable audio visitor guidance gadgets that let you communicate seamlessly with your tour guide.

George warmly welcomed us all and gave us a briefing about what to expect during the tour of the UN complex. We then proceeded to one of the meeting rooms at the complex and while here, he gave us a 40-minute lecture about the United Nations Organization. George explained that the 146 acres of land where the offices sit were donated by the Kenyan government to the world body. Kenya’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta offered 100 acres in 1975 to set up the UN Kenya office and later, his successor Daniel Arap Moi also offered the additional 46 acres.

With the vast donated land, the UN office in Nairobi was later upgraded in 1996 to become the fourth headquarter of the United Nations in this part of the world. Now, the reason why this complex is so special to Africa is that it is the only UN headquarters in the southern hemisphere. The other regional headquarters are in New York, Vienna, and Geneva. So Kenyans should be proud of this fact.

The index finger gift from the Chilean government.

George also briefed us about the history of the UN, the reasons for its formation, its organizational structure (the Secretariat, the International Court of Justice, the Security Council, Trusteeship Council, General Assembly and the Economic & Social Council). He also explained their functions within the UN system and the other UN-affiliated organizations. George concluded the interactive lecture by highlighting the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, followed by the Question & Answer session.

After that, we then proceeded to tour other facilities at the complex. We were shown some special gifts to the UN from China, India, Kenya, Chile, France, and Morocco. These include the mural paintings, sculptures, pictures and several artworks made from metal, and wood. Each of these gifts has a noteworthy concern that it seeks to address, for example, the mural painting depicts fears relating to climate change, the extinction of species and how the world can become a better place for everyone.

Also, the polar bear statue expresses concern over the rapid melting of ice in the polar regions and this is threatening their habitat, the Burned Trees sculptures depict the dangers of forest destruction and the three-legged elephant sculpture draws our attention to the dangers of landmines and ivory poaching. I was motivated by the messages that these unique artworks sought to remind us the humans of our responsibilities towards protecting mother earth.

Above: The Burned Trees sculptures from France. Below: Elephant statue from Kenya.

From there we toured the ‘little forest’ where different heads of states have planted indigenous trees as a goodwill gesture of commitment towards environmental conservation. In this square, there’s also a memorial tree planted by a renowned environmental and political rights activist, the late Wangari Maathai. There are also several trees planted by representatives of the UN’s Security Council (the Security Council held a special sitting at this complex in November 2004). Within these gardens, there are several birds, insects and tree species most of which are indigenous to Kenya.

Next, we toured the memorial garden that commemorates the 224 lives lost in the 7th August 1998 bomb attacks on the United States embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. The garden is well trimmed with properly lined trees to form the shape of an olive branch when seen from above. In the middle of the garden, there is the Peace Pole with peace inscriptions in several languages. It was unveiled to commemorate the International Day of Peace that annually falls on 21st September.

The Memorial Gardens with the Peace Pole.

George also guided us around a multi-story office structure that serves as the world headquarters of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT). It is referred to as ‘the green building’ due to its eco-friendly design. It is a one of a kind because it is carbon-neutral, has its own water recycling system in addition to using natural light. George explained that this is meant to reduce reliance and costs to regular lighting.

Remarkably, this building uses natural air flow instead of air conditioners. It also draws 90% of its electricity from the 6000 sq. meters of solar panels atop its roof. The building’s occupants are as many as 1200. Only if such buildings could be built extensively across the world with environment-saving technology, then this would be very encouraging.

The last part of our tour was in the two mega conference rooms where dignitaries from the UN member states assemble to deliberate on global issues of common concern. Both conference facilities are state-of-the-art and equipped with multilingual translation units. This is where several heads of states including the US president, Barack Obama, and Pope Francis have addressed the world when they visited the complex.

The two main Conference rooms.

You may be impressed by what I have described in this article and you’re now feeling like you want to visit the offices. Like me, you’ll be welcomed in the most dignified way, taken conveniently around, have all your questions answered as you learn a lot more than you did in class. In the end, you’ll feel so proud that you have witnessed firsthand how a committed multinational group of people strives to maintain world order, peace, provide humanitarian assistance and bring both the powerful and weak ones on the same table and under one roof.

To be honest, I enjoyed the tour and felt so educated and much informed about the United Nations Organization. I have a strong respect for the hardworking caretakers who look after the beautiful gardens and trees that dot the expansive green landscape. I also appreciate the talented artists who dedicated their artwork towards reminding us of our obligations to the mother earth. Much more thanks to the general UNON staff who work tirelessly to preserve the offices, welcoming curious visitors and doing their best to ensure that we enjoy the tour.

Some of the trees in the ‘little forest’ planted by world leaders.

George, who is also the leading tour guide at the Visitors’ Service, said that they conduct guided tours from Monday to Thursday between 9.00 AM to 2.00 PM and then on Fridays starting 9.00 AM to 12.00 PM but except UN holidays. If you’re soooo curious and wanna have a cybernetic look at the complex before you decide to go, then you can browse through their Virtual tours section on their website.

After this educative tour of the United Nations Headquarters in Africa, I am now aiming for a tour of the other UN Head offices in New York, Vienna, and Geneva, and also find out how I can successfully launch my career into the UN system. I never knew that I would visit this prestigious complex, so who knows where next? Well, I believe that God will make it possible for me, Insha Allah!

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