Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Dear Marie

One of my mentors passed away yesterday. I met Marie Aminata Khan on my first day of work at the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) back in 2007. Over the years, we grew to be very good friends. She nurtured my passion for gender issues and has been a major champion for my doctoral pursuits. Losing a dear friend is a new experience for me, one I am unsure of how to navigate. So, I began by writing her a letter, a (slightly) edited version of which appears below. 

13 December. 2011

Dear Marie,

It's impossible to formulate words expressing what I feel right now. N told me that you'd died, only yesterday after falling ill on your way to South Africa for the climate change conference (UNFCCC COP). But in my mind, you remain vibrant, full of life, smiling that dazzling smile of yours, & thinking of how to slip in an astute comment or two about gender into the conversation.

I've always admired the mentorship role you assume to help young CBD staff navigate their way. You open doors & take chances, shining the light on others. Whenever I take newbies out to play shinny hockey at one of Montreal's outdoor rinks, I tell them that everyone is on a level playing field rink. The best, most skilled players go out of their way to make even the shakiest skater look like Sydney Crosby. The stars work hard so that the beginners can make great plays; they set them up with a perfect pass or protect them from goons on the opposing team. They don't hog the puck or show off themselves. But everyone else on the ice knows they're great; everyone wants to share the ice with them because they bring everyone to a higher level (all while having fun). These star players work to enhance other people's strengths. To me, you're one of those star players. There are so many examples I could give of the opportunities you gave me to contribute to initiatives and to pursue my passion for gender during my stint at the CBD.

You respected everyone as an unique individual with talents. You always make time for others, even when your office door is closed and you're furiously working to meet a tight deadline. You were never stingy with feedback, always delivering it with critical, thoughtful and eloquent poise. You go out of your way to help others, go to bat for the principles and the people that you believe in, even (and perhaps especially) when it is a steep upward battle. Thank you.

I admire the vitality, the life you bring to everything you do, to everywhere you go. Remember dancing in the hotel bar in Bonn at the end of the CBD COP-9? Or the many parties that you graciously hosted at your apartment(s)? So much delicious food & drink. A relaxing ambiance that puts everyone at ease. Great music. Best of all, stimulating conversation and company.

Do you remember all of the advice you (lovingly) gave me over the years? On relationships, jobs, professional development, the UN, family life, African jewelry? About gender, development, project implementation? And when I told you I was engaged ... to never give up on a career or rely solely on a man for money?

And you listened too. You're an excellent and astute listener. Perhaps that is why people love you so much and trust you. Good listeners are difficult to find, especially those who genuinely care.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention your extraordinary beauty (your physical beauty - I think it's already clear I think you are an extraordinarily beautiful person on the inside). When I first arrived at CBD, S, G and I were chatting. Somehow it came up that we were in unanimous agreement that you were the most stunning person at the office. We were later stunned to discover that you were over 40! How you manage to always look like you stepped off the cover of Vogue  is beyond me.

Marie, I will miss you very, very dearly - as I am sure many, many other people will too. The light and laughter you bring into any room you enter is a quality possessed by very few individuals. I will miss your love of life, your passion for gender equality, your drive to nurture the growth of others and your ceaseless ability to live each day as if it were your last. You bring joy and inspiration to so many people, especially to me.

My condolences to your family, friends and colleagues.


There are several official tributes to Marie on the CBD and the Global Environment Facility websites. This unofficial one, penned by a colleague, beautifully captures Marie.
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In one sense I consider myself lucky. On my last day at the CBD I had left notes for my colleagues, expressing my gratitude for what they had taught me. My letter to Marie was quite long and heartfelt, so at least she knew how special she was to me.

1 comment:

  1. Dear Chris,

    I remember your first day at work, and I remember how astonished we were when we met Marie. I also remember the last time I met her. It was in May, 2011. I had to go to the office and she was waiting for me at the door. She gave me this warm hug and, as I could not hide how touched I felt, she said to me to swallow "it", because I had important matters to solve. She said it with that serious official tone of hers, that we also knew, but, she also gave me that beautiful genuine smile of hers.

    Once I read* that we should not allow anyone come to us without leaving happier, and that there may be no limits to all the good that a smile can do.

    I want to remember her smile forever.