James Kofi Annan @ 40

I’m turning 40 this Thursday, March 13th. Wow! In this little 40 years of life, I have been privileged to live both the challenges and the excitements, beginning from my village, and now back to it. It has been worthwhile, despite the challenges.

In 1993, while in high school, I wrote an unpublished article titled “even at 40, you are still mine”. This article chronicled how a turbulent imaginary relationship expired and respired until the couple both turned 40, and finally came back together for good.

Since then the number 40 has stacked with me. Somehow I became afraid what that really meant that I have been obsessed with this number 40. In my daily life, I have always, at least twice in a day, every day, mentioned the number 40; be it 40 years, or 40million, or 40,000, or 40billion, or just mentioned 40! It used to worry me. But later it inspired me.

So back to 40 years of life! Born into a family of twelve children, and three more stepsiblings from my father, I grew up periodically and momentarily oscillating between work and school.

My life is the story of 10 years of Challenging Heights. In 2005 when I registered Challenging Heights, I knew I was going to make an impact, but I did not envisage such an explosion of support – from family, friends, and partners who have encouraged me. Over 1,000 children rescued from slavery so far, almost 10,000 vulnerable children supported to go to school, and nearly 1,200 women supported economically; that is 10 years worth celebrating!

I’m proud of a number of things I have done.

A few years ago, I produced an article which argued that there was a system challenge at the national level in our quest to addressing child trafficking in Ghana. At the time, the Department of Social Welfare had been placed under the Ministry of Employment and Social Welfare, while the Ministry of Women and Children’s Affairs took responsibility for the human trafficking law. My argument was that the Department of Social Welfare must necessarily be removed from the then Ministry of Employment and Social Welfare, and should be placed under the now Ministry of Children, Gender, and Social Protection. This in my view is one single most effective change we need to address human trafficking in Ghana.

That article offended many people, including government officials. I was vilified, and threatened for pointing out issues. But I did not give up. I kept making the same points and presented my case. Today, after years of advocacy, the Department of Social Welfare has been placed under the Ministry of Children, Gender and Social Protection! Many people also worked to make this happen. But I believe I paid my due!

Last year a group of journalists published a story supposed to have been damaging to me. They had been approached to run a smear campaign against my person, but those journalists, thankfully, refused to be corrupted. I was in America when I was sent a story with the heading “Challenging Heights to the rescue”! According to the journalists, the story was to have been titled “James Kofi Annan exposed”! But after their own investigations, they found my work to be sacrificial and sterling, and therefore they would not want to be associated with any attempt to destroy my person or the work I do.

Such challenges, including numerous death threats, life-threatening sicknesses, attempts at kidnapping my daughter, have all come my way. I have had to endure crashing humiliation at the hands of people, including some benefactors and beneficiaries, perhaps because sometimes I have opened up too much. There have been times I have felt put down, to the point I have had the course, several times, to ask myself “why can’t I feel disinterested in doing this work? I’m an entrepreneur, I know how to do business and make money. Why don’t I concentrate on my businesses, to make money for myself? I’m a trained and experienced Banker. I have a Masters Degree, and a number of banks have shown interest in hiring me. Why can’t I go back to work in the bank?”

The more I have asked those questions, the more I have been inspired by the smiles of the boys and girls I have served. The more I have asked those questions, the more humanity has brought to me self-inspiring supporters whose orientation has taught me lessons of humility.

As those questions diminish, they give way to renewed energy – then I suddenly find myself surging forward into the waiting arms of success!

So while I look back on my 40 years of life, I’m also celebrating 10 years of Challenging Heights. Would you celebrate with me?

I have never celebrated my birth. In fact until I joined Facebook in the year 2009, I had never taken notice of March 13th except on a few occasions when very close friends have wished me “happy birthday”. It had always passed by as a normal day.

The reasons for not celebrating my birthday?

First, I will like you to note that I’m extremely an outspoken person with a giant political personality. In this stead, I speak my mind, and confront injustice squarely even in the face of death threats. I don’t know what constitutes a small audience, and I don’t know what makes a large audience. I will air my views, I will speak to the crowd.

At the same time I’m extremely a private person. I’m still learning how to do it, but I hardly feel square in any parties or group activities.

I have travelled extensively. I have been to 24 states in America alone, and many of those states I have visited several times over, and to several cities. I have been to Europe several times, and stayed in several hotels. But trust me, apart from Washington DC, in 98 percent of my visits, I have never gone beyond the hotels I have stayed in, and I will hardly be able to tell you anything about the places I have visited. Why? Because I don’t feel like going out, that is it.

While in school what I hated most was group discussions. I still don’t feel comfortable when I attend workshops and I have to be in group break out sessions. I have felt very stressed whenever I have to have a one-on-one discussions with people, I don’t like attending social events, and on few occasions when I’m obliged to attend, I’ll be sure to leave within an hour. This is an aspect of me that I’m sure some of you are surprised to learn. Despite my public speaking skills, I still live with personal holdings, some of which I have overcome, others still part of the unfolding history – thanks to the nature of the work I do.

So yes, I love competition. I love to compete with myself. I love to compete with others. I love to be left alone. I love to be in control. And I love to win! I keep a deeply critical and introspective attitude, but happy to take risks.

This complex personality, which I carry in myself, has shaped my personal course as well as the course of Challenging Heights. My upcoming book has details of how the complexities have both endeared and embarrassed me, and the humors that go with it.

As a boy I dreamed of becoming a fisherman, because I was fishing. Then my dreams switched to wanting to become a carpenter. That is because the only respected person who lived in our village was a carpenter. Later I changed to want to be an Architect. I moved to want to be a Writer. In high school, I decided to become a businessman, then in the university I failed to know what I wanted to become!

In the end I have become all that I dreamt of becoming, including failing to know what I want to become!

As a writer, I have produced one of the most gripping reading articles amongst my peers, raising the conscience of duty-bearers and politicians. As a banker, I received four promotions within five years, starting as a clerk and ending as a manager!

As a businessman, I currently manage four different companies. As an Architect and a Carpenter, you need to judge for yourself if you pay a visit to my restaurant, Run-Off restaurant at Winneba Junction. The beauty of the layout, the orientation of the structures, and set up itself, all defy any Architectural innocence! And I did every drawing myself!

As a Social Entrepreneur, I am happy to have led Challenging Heights towards achieving its goals.

So, yes, my little life lived, and still living, seems to be worthwhile.

In the wake of this short 40 years are over 15 both local and international awards. In the same little life lived it’s been a privilege to meet international icons such as Tom Shadyac, Jason Mraz, President Clinton, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Jeffrey Boy, rubbing shoulders with diplomats and all.

But also within this same little life of forty is the blessing to rub shoulders with the real heroes! The real heroes are the children who bless me every day. Boys and girls who have endured pain, but who have triumphantly escaped to safety.

These very exciting boys and girls are those, when everything else is failing for me, who stand with me. They cheer me up, and make me feel the hero in them. These same children, for whose reason I draw inspiration, these same children, because of whom the world knows me, these same children, happy and hopeful, give me hope!

So as I turn 40, with whatever the number brings, my wish is that every child will live in a protected and caring family environment, regardless of their family background, race, gender and religious orientation. I also wish that I immortalize the heroism of these children by building an office and community training center (two in one facility) for our children and staff. This will enable Challenging Heights to fulfill its mission of ending slavery in Ghana, and helping to reduce vulnerability by 20% in the next 20 years, to empower children to become their own strength. I hope that by the time Challenging Heights turns 40 years, our work will have changed beyond recognition: that there will be no children that need rescuing and rehabilitating, and that all our energies will go into ensuring they have a loving family, a good education and plenty of opportunities for a successful future.

Please wish me happy birthday. And please wish Challenging Heights a happy birthday too.

In 2011, Challenging Heights commissioned its 65-capacity survivors rehabilitation center. In 2012 Challenging Heights celebrated five years of its first school with over 700 children. In that same year 2012, our 30-seater capacity computer center for kids was commissioned. This year 2014, we will soon commission the Challenging Heights 50-seater capacity modern library for children.

And we currently employ 75 staff, many of whom are field coordinators.

So as we launch both birthdays this week, I invite you to join me in commissioning the Challenging Heights offices/Community Center early next year (on February 5, 2015).

This will be another milestone. This is the day when Challenging Heights turns exactly 10! Would you donate towards my 40thbirthday in order to commission our office/Community Center to celebrate 10 years of Challenging Heights?

In all of these, I say thank you to all those who have supported me in the past, from slavery to freedom, donors, staff, children, and thank you to all of you whose words give me energy.

So yes, we have come this far, and proudly so. We keep rising, after a number of falls! Because it is challenging heights!

Happy birthday to me!

James

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