I lost a friend to COVID-19 and Africa lost a peacebroker

I lost a friend to COVID-19 and Africa lost a peacebroker

Saturday, September 5, 2020 1:35 am


L-R: Nagwa Gadaheldam (Photo credit: The Times of Israel) and Angela Agoawike

By Angela Agoawike

Perhaps we were meant to meet. If not, things could have turned out differently.
It was in 2003 and I had attended the Salzburg Seminar Course 410: Capitalizing on our Differences: Leadership Across Cultural Boundaries and Geographic Borders in a Global Society.
Held at the historic Schloss Leopoldskron, home of the musical, Sound of Music, the seminar brought together participants from around the world. The lead discussant was a South African, Kumi Naido, then of CIVICUS and now Global Ambassador for Africans Rising for Justice, Peace & Dignity.
During one of the sessions, we were grouped according to continents and given different issues to discuss. The Africans were to discuss the threat of HIV/AIDS on the continent. One of the seminar participants – a young Egyptian- American woman did not want to join us because according to her, Egypt was not in Africa and moreover, there was no HIV/AIDS in Egypt.
That session marked my introduction to Nagwa Gadaheldam. She was from Sudan and worked as Alternative Sources of Energy Expert at the United Nations Industrial Development Organization, UNIDO, in Vienna. She was as intelligent as she was outspoken. As we all looked at the Egyptian-American woman in amazement, Nagwa was the only one who took her to task and gave her a good education on confused identity.
At the end of our discussion but with some time to spare before the resumption of the formal session, we were all getting to know each other and where we were each headed to after the seminar. I told the group that I wanted to go to Amsterdam by train and travel to The Hague to see my brother then working at Shell; come back to Vienna to take my flight in two days back to Lagos. The real season I considered a train ride was because truth be told, I did not have the extra cash to fly to Amsterdam and back to Vienna. When one of the participants told me that it would take about 30 hours to and fro, I knew there was no way I could make it. I then wondered out loud how I was going to spend my 2 extra days in Salzburg.
Without hesitation, Nagwa extended an invitation to me to come stay at her place in Vienna. Noticing my reluctance, she told me there were others going with her and that I should not worry about being a burden. I accepted and when it was time to leave, we turned out to be eight participants from different parts of the world – South America, Europe and Africa- going to stay with someone we were all meeting for the first time. As I later got to know Nagwa, I came to understand that the invitation was not a one-off; it encapsulated her essence – kindness.
Departure day, we all trouped to the Salzburg main train station – Hauptbahnhof. As she was on an official assignment, Nagwa had a Business Class ticket. The group teased her that she was going to sit all alone in the Business Class compartment and was sure to miss the vibrant conversation we would definitely have in the economy compartment. Always a team player, Nagwa went to the counter and changed her ticket to economy. She also put a call to her husband to inform him that she was bringing home eight guests to stay with them for two days.
When we arrived Vienna’s Westbahnhof, we were all looking forward to meeting Nagwa’s husband. ‘He must be a saint,’ one member of the group observed, ‘to live with a woman who would go out and come back with eight strangers.’ We were pleasantly surprised when we saw Nagwa’s husband. His name was Ekkehart Naumann, a German and former University Professor. He had a twinkle in his eyes, as if he was used to what just happened.
According to Nagwa, they were both in the same field and had met at a professional conference some years back. They fell in love and got married. After giving his wife a welcome kiss, Nagwa introduced us all and not fazed by the sheer number of guests trouping to his house, Ekkehart welcomed us all. He had brought a minivan to convey the group to 23 Jacquingasse in Vienna’s 3rd District, where they lived with their then six years old daughter, Nafisa Renata.
Nagwa, Ekkehart and Nafisa occupied two apartments on the 4th floor of their building opposite the Belvedere gardens. She went about organizing sleeping arrangements for everyone. It would have been easier had we all been of one gender because then, we could all have packed ourselves either in one room or in the living room. But as it were, some slept in the living room, others in the spare room. I got the spare bed in Nafisa’s room. We sat around the living room and chatted late into the night. But before we retired for the night, we all agreed that each person would prepare a local dish for dinner the next day to thank the family for their kindness. I went to the grocery store – Billa; bought fresh tomatoes and chicken with which I prepared chicken stew and white rice. All the others left after one day and I was left alone with Nagwa and her family for my last day.
Three years later when I came back to Vienna following my employment at the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, (OPEC), Nagwa would laughingly inform me that I was the only person her husband Ekkehart, remembered from our two day-invasion of their home and this was because of my white rice and chicken stew. What if I had made jollof rice instead!
For my relocation, I needed to make living arrangements. Though we had not kept constantly in touch after our meeting in 2003, I had contacted Nagwa to recommend a hotel where I could stay while I made arrangements for a more permanent living arrangement. Rather than do that, she offered that I spend some time at their house while looking for a place of my own. Thinking that it was very kind of her, I gladly accepted the offer and shared in her family’s life for 3 months. During this time, I joined in family celebrations, participated in events at the Sudanese club, spent time alone with Nafisa when Nagwa had to work outside the country and Ekkehart was working in Pakistan.
A truly international scholar, Nagwa, was for eight years (2004 -2012), Faculty Member of the Salzburg Global Seminar. She also worked with the University of Zimbabwe as Director of the programme on renewable energy and energy technologies from 1995 – 2001. She was educated in Sudan and Germany and earned the following degrees: MSc. Engineering, MSc. Renewable Energy Technologies, MSc. Energy Economics, MSc. Renewable Energy and Sustainable Development. She not only made First Class in the different areas, but also received awards for best performance graduation project. She also earned a Ph. D. in Climate Change and Sustainable Development, “Comfort zone in buildings from the University of Kharlsuhe, Germany.
Nagwa, who retired from UNIDO in 2012, was Senior Adviser to Ugandan President Yoweri Musaveni and also worked tirelessly to broker peace between Sudan and Israel.
I last spoke with Nagwa from Doha, Qatar in February 2019. She told me she had been in Doha earlier but as none of us knew I was there then; we did not meet. We however, promised to keep in touch.
On September 2, just 2 days ago, I opened my Facebook Messenger (which I do not do often) and saw a message from Nafisa. I had not seen nor communicated with her since she went to study in Canada. Part of the message read:
“…I hope it’s okay that I’m contacting you via Facebook. I couldn’t find another way to connect with you. I hope that you’ve been doing alright these past years, and that you’ve been staying safe. I just wanted to let you know that my mom, Nagwa, has passed away a few months ago”
To say that this news was shattering was putting it mildly. Nafisa and I exchanged phone numbers and continued chatting via WhatsApp. I knew Nagwa had health issues, but she always pulled through. She was also diabetic. In the course of our chat, Nafisa informed me that she had gone to Sudan for work and while there, her diabetics got bad. She was admitted to the hospital where she ended up contracting COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel Corona virus. Various efforts were made to save her life, including flying in an Israeli medical plane to evacuate her for treatment in Israel; but it was too late to save my friend who died on May 27, 2020.
I have been browsing the contents of our last email conversations between 2017 and 2019, and they were classical Nagwa – playful, kind, empathetic and caring. She always cared about family and since she had met my mum and some other members of my family during their visits to Vienna, she never failed to ask after them. She also updated me with news about her family – Nafisa and Ekkehart.
Nagwa had been in Doha just before I wrote to wish her a Merry Christmas in December 2017. She let me know that she had been in the city for almost one week with President Museveni on an official visit to the country. “What a pity,” she wrote. “I wish I had known that you were there, but maybe I will come again, and we can take time together.” But this is no longer going to happen, thanks to COVID-19.
Nagwa was a loving mother and wife, brilliant scholar and a committed peace maker who loved her country, continent and indeed all of humanity with passion. She was also deeply spiritual and committed to her Islamic faith.
Reflecting on the essence of Nagwa Gadaheldam, I can only thank God for her purposeful life and incredible achievements. I am happy to have shared in the last 17 years of her life. As her friend and sister, I join Nafisa and Ekkehart in mourning her passage.
Al Jannah Firdaus, my dear friend.
This is an extract from my coming book on my foray into the world of diplomacy from journalism. It has been edited as tribute to my friend, Nagwa Gadaheldam who passed on May 27 in Sudan, due to complications arising from COVID-19. #StaySafe #TakeResponsibility, Covid-19 is real.

-Angela Agoawike is a Nigeria journalist who later moved into diplomacy. She has worked with OPEC in Vienna, Austria and other places.

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