As I was leaving class on Thursday afternoon, I received a news alert on my phone. It was announcing the death of Public Works principal secretary Mariam El-Maawy at a South African hospital.
The last time I had read about her was after her convoy was attacked by Al-Shabaab terrorists while she was on an official trip to Lamu County in July. The article had then reported that she was being treated at Nairobi Hospital. I had not followed further developments.
When I saw the news alert, I initially thought it was an update on her recovery. What I read though struck me like a thunderbolt. The communication was that she had passed on.
I had previously met her in the course of work. First was when she visited the University of Nairobi during a function we had organised at the School of Law, Parklands Campus.
The occasion was to discuss land governance assessment we had undertaken under a methodology developed by the World Bank and applied across several countries in the world. She had accompanied Land secretary Prof Jacob Kaimenyi.
The second occasion was during the annual World Bank Land and Poverty Conference held in Washington, DC. El-Maawy was leading the Kenyan delegation. We got to meet and had discussions together with her and the World Bank team.
On both occasions, she came across as unassuming, clear on her docket, patriotic, conscientious and respectful. She also was interested in developing strong linkages with the academy in a bid to solve the country’s intractable land problems.
Her approach was such that you could not get away with generalities or sweeping statements on land issues. Yet she was also willing to listen and take on board other views, even if divergent as long as they were reasoned and objective. This is a rare quality.
Her character and performance gave meaning to the character of public service that the Constitution envisages.
The values and principle expected of public servants are those of efficiency and effectiveness, high standards of professional ethics and involvement of the public in policy making amongst others.
Far too often though there is contestation as to whether public servants take these prescriptions to heart in the discharge of their responsibilities.
It is, therefore, refreshing to have interacted with El -Maawy in her Land docket. Even if you had different views, you still agreed on the common good for the country.
The best example for me was when during the World Bank Conference where we easily agreed on pushing back some proposal being made to hold a discussion on some land issue in Kenya during the month of August.
While the issue was important, the actors who had been involved in the process failed to appreciate the election context of the country during that month and the danger of the matter being politicised. We eventually pushed for an alternative date.
There are two issues we have to focus on as part of celebrating the legacy of El-Maawy. First relates to security. The threats of terrorists have been with this country for some time now. Efforts to deal with it have not fully eliminated its existence.
It is important that more be done to make the country and its people secure and to address the threats posed by terrorist groups such as Al Shabab.
In doing so, we have to focus, as a country, both on security and social solutions. The latter requires continuing to deal with the underlying reasons for radicalisation amongst the youth in society.
Secondly, her passion for land matters should encourage all actors in the sector to develop greater unity of purpose. This requires realisation that the challenges that have faced the land sector for over a century will not be fully solved in a day or a few years.
We should also develop a culture of appreciating and celebrating our colleagues, friends and other Kenyans when they are still alive.
This should not be restricted to only those we are close with, but it has to apply to those we genuinely believe are doing a good a job.
It is for this reason that all citizens have to spare a thought for the life and family of the late principal secretary. She gave her all for our country and for that we are the poorer with her untimely death.