Had you asked me if it was possible to take casual selfies, go on family tours and make walking trails around the beautifully manicured lawns of the United Nations office in the Gigiri area of Nairobi, I would have answered you with an emphatic NO!
That was until I visited the place recently and took selfies in the very conference halls where history-making meetings were held and went on walks around the very spaces global leaders planted commemorative trees and unveiled ground-breaking monuments and suddenly the United Nations was not this far-off, enigmatic place we find hard to relate to.
The ice had been broken. In fact so broken that I dared take selfies in the very hall where the youngest nation on earth, South Sudan, was born.
The 2-hour tour starts at 9:00 AM and ends at 2:00 PM from Monday through Thursday. On Fridays, it ends a bit earlier at 12:00 PM. You can book a tour virtually throughout the year except during the UN holidays. Booking is done online on the Tour Website but payments are done on arrival at the tour office.
At the time of our visit, they only allowed cash payments. Having carried no cash on the day, expecting to pay via M-PESA, I almost missed the tour until a considerate gentleman intervened. The tour organisers can consider expanding their payment options. They can start with M-PESA. Plan to arrive in Gigiri at least 30 minutes earlier because of the security checks you will need to undergo prior to the tour.
Other than a few hiccups at the main gate, it was an experience worth every penny of the KES 400.00 tour fee. Otherwise, all the UN needed to do was to post a guide on the security protocol intricacies and payment modes on their tour site. Because of the delays, the tour ended up starting nearly two hours late.
This is the rate for an adult Kenyan citizen. Adult residents pay KES 1,000.00 while non-residents pay KES 1,500.00. You can visit the United Nations Tour website for more details.
If you are a stickler for rules like me and imagine such a high-security area is a no-no for cameras, then you might end up making the same mistake I made, leaving my camera behind only to realise later that I should have come with it.
Because of this, I ended up walking to the main gate to pick it up and then going through another round of security checks before walking back to the tour office. Do you now see why that guide or an article like this one is critical?
The United Nations occupies 140 acres of bountiful, lush green, an environmentally-friendly landscaped area populated with hundreds of indigenous tree and plant species and a remarkable variety of wildlife. There was a lot of learning about the goings-on at one of the largest organisations in the world which proved quite insightful.
My favourite spot of the day turned out to be the new state-of-the-art green complex that houses the headquarters of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT).
The eco-friendly building is a work of art with 1.482 acres of solar panels providing enough electricity to support the energy needs of its 1,200 occupants. Combined with the use of energy-saving lighting, natural ventilation systems, laptops instead of PCs and other green features, the office is a glimpse into what the future will look like when the world goes fully green.
Other sites of interest include the Memorial Garden and the Peace Pole erected in memory of those who lost their lives in the tragic bomb blast in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam on 7 August 1998.
A crop of beautifully manicured tea trees surrounds a peace pole. We learn that the UN actually packages and sells the tea to visitors. Ask your guide for directions to where you can buy the memorial tea.
Another interesting feature you can look out for is the larger-than-life representation of a human index finger which was a gift from Chile to the United Nations. There is also the Vip tree planting area where trees planted by world-famous people including Prof. Wangari Maathai and most recently, Pope Francis, during his recent visit to Kenya, grow.
Further afield is an interesting piece of art consisting of a number of burnt tree trunks painted in the colours of the French flag – some of them have mirrors. A French artist donated this unique art piece which depicts the wanton destruction of forests by fires.
The mirrors on the trees are a stark reminder to the person whose reflection stares back at them of who the culprit behind most of these fires is.
“When you look at your own reflection in the mirror, it reminds you of your role in this destruction and hopefully this will challenge humanity to act more responsibly,” Ines, our tour guide for the day, explains. What a powerful message to inspire conservation!
As I left the United Nations office in Nairobi, 2 things stuck in my mind – I realised that even the world’s most powerful confederation of nations had a lighter and more beautiful side to it. I also discovered, from the mishaps in the morning before our tour kicked off, that efficiency is an ideal that eludes us all – big or small.
Imperfection, it would seem, plagues human nature no matter what level of resourcing or size and every day is a journey of constant improvement and lesson-learning.