A Gift

By Carmen Denia, Yale-NUS ’17


On the last day of our Summer Immersion at Yale, the whole school went to the United Nations Headquarters. Secretary General of the UN Ban Ki-Moon had graciously offered to speak to the students.  He talked to us about how he viewed education as a major driving force of human development.  He also shared his two hopes: that Yale-NUS College would not copy existing models, but would write a new chapter in the history of education and that through what we would learn in the next four years, we would contribute to creating a more integrated and sustainable world.  It was a great honour to sit in the Trusteeship Council room and just think about all the global issues that had been debated there and all the statesmen who had occupied the same chairs.

Right after the talk though, four of us got lost.  The UN Headquarters is this big maze of a place with corridors branching off into meeting halls filled with important people, galleries of artwork brought by dignitaries from all over the world and offices, offices, offices. We were not too sure how to get out.

Amanda saw a man in a suit, standing off by the side. She asked him for directions and I expected him to just tell us to go down the escalator and turn this way or that. I was pleasantly surprised when he offered to bring us part of the way to the UN Bookshop from where we could exit. When we reached the middle of a hall, he told us that we could go through this door on the right, down an escalator and we’d be out of the building.

I wanted to thank him so I asked for his name.

He said, “Sipho. My name is Sipho. It means “gift” in my language.”

“That’s beautiful,” we all said.

I asked him as I shook his hand, “Where are you from, Sir?”

“South Africa,” he smiled. “I work here as an advisor to the President of the General Assembly.”

I remember my mind spinning then, wondering if I’d done anything in the last five minutes to make myself look silly in front of someone so important in the UN.

“I know a song from South Africa!” replied Amanda.

“Really?” Sipho seemed excited. “Could you sing it for me?”

She did and he joined her, his big, resonant voice carrying the bass line smoothly in the middle of tourists and dignitaries rushing by.

He explained the meaning of the song to us, reminded us after that “Some dignitaries in this place have never met the Secretary General. You must remember what an honour it is.”, then took his leave still humming the song.

We walked away and I knew something special had happened. Many eye-opening, fun, educational, challenging or crazy things happened when we went for Summer Immersion at Yale, but if I had to pick one thing that stood out for me, this would be it. This was my lollipop moment.

I googled Sipho later on to find out that he is Mr. Sipho Seakamela, advisor to the UN General Assembly President on human rights, Third Committee Affairs & Relations with Africa Group and NAM. I couldn’t stop talking about him all day (my apologies, by the way, to classmates who had to sit through the story again and again) because I could not wrap my mind around how an influential dignitary like him did not find it silly or beneath himself to serve with such kindness a bunch of lost students.

One awkward moment after this incident was when I retold this story and my listener commented that it was pretty racist of me to assume that an African-looking guy was service staff. I found that interesting. I don’t think I assumed that he was because of his appearance, but rather because I don’t think servant-leadership is all that prevalent anymore. You pass a bookstore these days to check out what’s underthe self-help section and the titles emphasise how if you were more visible, eloquent, in-charge, put-togehter, charismatic or awesome, you too could be a leader.

That last bit’s true. Everyone can be a leader, just not in the way society tends to approach it where everyone’s got to have some title and rank. I think we forget that in leadership, the idea is that a group is led onward – what’s important is the goal, not who’s doing the guiding to it. I think leadership can thus mean bringing people forward not by walking ahead of them, but by supporting them and serving them. Mr. Sipho demonstrated that to me in just five minutes.

So thank you, Mr. Sipho. You’re unlikely to ever see this post, but that’s okay. You have given my abstract beliefs a concrete face and I won’t forget you.

Your name is right: you are indeed a gift.

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