Posted on November 7, 2013


Anyone who knows me will tell you I’m not someone who minces their words. I like to think I’m not flat-out inappropriate but I do tell it as it is. Something I think the staff at the United Nations were not fully prepared for.

As I headed into the compound yesterday morning I was greeted by a group of blue monkeys. A good omen surely? As my primate motorcade escorted me to the conference hall all I could hear was my heart thumping hard in my chest.

“Focus Asha, keep it together.” With my game face on I stepped into the room and took a sharp breath in. It had already started to fill up. The enormity of the day hit me. I felt my legs turn to jelly and I had what can only be described as a”holy crap moment”.

One hundred and ninety something countries all with their name plates written in bold letters were on display. But as I approached the stage to set up for the opening remarks, I started to relax. “Enjoy it Asha, you never know when you might get an opportunity like this again.”

One of the speakers on my panel was a high court judge. After they had all made their points, the moderating began. I kicked it off.

“Pauline, I’d like to start with you. You talk about the need for political will to ensure there is more robust legislation to help you to aid in prosecutions; but here we are in East Africa and there is not a single minister present, they’ve all pulled out. Even the Kenyan minister has failed to show up for this session – disappointing isn’t it? How can we progress if the people who  have the ability to change legislation are not here?”

The world stopped for about two whole seconds.

Pauline shifted uncomfortably in her seat before replying without answering the question. The pace of the session gathered speed as the minutes ticked by and more and more audience members raised their hands to get involved. I was delighted with the result because it was as interactive as it could have been for a such formal setting.

When we broke for lunch I was “escorted” out a side door by my UNEP contacts – the optimistic and his boss – together with the man from Interpol (there’s a film title in there somewhere). I felt as though I was about to get mugged. They formed a circle around me.

“Asha, great session the most interactive we have had at the conference, everyone is enjoying it but….,”

“Oh God here we go,” I thought.

“There have been some concerns about the way you criticised the host, Kenya, for not having a minister present….this is the UN….they are not used to hearing things like this. It was a shock for them.”

“Oh,” I said. “I understand it’s uncomfortable to hear but to be fair, I am not UN staff I am a journalist. It’s my job to say and ask difficult and controversial things. I only said what everyone was thinking. How do we create change if we keep silent and pretend everything is ok?”

The Optimist looked at me smiled. “Asha it’s ok, but maybe try for the next session to move things forward with more positives.”

At that point in time, The Northerner’s voice began ringing in my ears “Don’t be so negative”. It’s a trait I am guilty of. Glass half empty not half full.

“Ok, no problem, feedback appreciated, I will reign it in, but I still want to be able to challenge where necessary.”

They nodded.

The rest of the day flew by. It was exhausting, but thoroughly rewarding and I cannot tell you the number of delegates that sought me out afterwards to congratulate me on my “straight forwardness” and “energy”. One person even liked it to the BBC’s “Hard Talk”. A compliment indeed!!

I was presented with a massive bouquet of flowers at the end of the day in front of everyone while on stage. It was my “Miss World” moment. I was stunned and it took me completely by surprise. But I didn’t cry and say I wanted to help achieve world peace – before you ask!

“Thank you so very much, they are beautiful,” I said leaning into the mic. “But one question, how do I get them on the flight home to London?” A ripple of laughter came from the floor.

At the cocktail reception the rain held off. A huge white gazebo was set up on the Helipad area with sculptures of elephants surrounding it. Nibbles, wine and African music pumped out into the warm dusk air. After several glasses of wine, a few marriage proposals and posing for photos I headed back to the house where I’m staying to crash.

It’s been an incredible few days. Gutted it’s over so fast. But I’m hoping to squeeze in a visit to the national park this afternoon to see the animals before I catch my midnight flight back to London.

Thank you to everyone for your brilliant support!