African News

Tribute to Peter da Costa – the infectious ‘oxygen’ of optimism, courage and triumph

9 September 2019 at 02:33 | 3877 views

By Fatima Denton,
Director of United Nations University Institute for Natural Resources in Africa (UNU-INRA

It was Sunday 18th of August. I had just heard news of your passing. I screamed in pain and in remorse, wishing that I had time to say goodbye, to catch you just before the oxygen said goodbye to your lungs. As I sobbed away, I recall that your life was defined by a similar oxygen – an oxygen that blended life’s essential threads to give content and meaning to work, to bring warmth to family and friends, and purpose to Africa and its development.

I stayed in this foggy icy mist wondering how a person who embodied such ‘oxygen’ for life for passion, for knowledge and friendship could make such an untimely exit. Why, I asked myself. I thought about your beautiful daughters, Jarra and Yassine and the boundless energy they express, and wondered how heart wrenching it must have been to have lost the battle – how valiantly you fought for more time to be immersed in their laughter, that ‘oxygen’ that is patented in their DNA, that energy – and the playful and glorious moments that you shared.

I recall how lively you sounded when I first got in touch with you back in 2006. I was at International Development Research Centre (IDRC) and I was looking to sprinkle more than a hearty dose of strategic communications to give what was then the largest Climate Change Adaptation in Africa (CCAA) programme a dynamic and secure landing, in essence, a strong legacy. You offered ideas of what can be done to communicate effectively the findings of the programme. You were not afraid to share your ideas. I quickly learnt that for you, ideas were renewable – the more you give the more you get. No sooner did we speak, you were quick to capture the essence of our conversation in an email which was similar to the phone call, brimming with opinions, punctured with resource people that will constitute a team to support capacity building efforts in climate change adaptation. It was clear then as it is now, that you were not going to come from the fringes, but will go the full mile and beyond.

In 2006, at the 12th Conference of Parties in Nairobi, you came armoured with suggestions of how project findings can be turned into stories and incubated under a knowledge platform. Your uniqueness was not merely your energy or intelligence, but the fact that you possessed all these qualities in equal measure and you were hungry to connect ideas to people.

Peter, you understood that discovering people and allowing them to be who they were was as powerful as the transformational development that we seek. Through the innovative strength you brought with you, we were able to slice, dice and spice up our communications – you linked us with Camerapix and we moved to making short stories, narrating how communities across Africa were adapting to climate change while, all along, you probed, you challenged and you asked pointed questions. For me and my colleagues, it was like an intellectual windfall as we discovered that your world came to life when you conjugated creativity, innovation and ideas.

The morning after you passed, I received several phone calls from people that I call friends – many of whom were introduced to me through you – indeed, your networking skills were immeasurable – demonstrating yet again the freedom that comes in a world without borders. Many of us were in awe of your love for Africa and your uncompromising spirit that the scars of the past can only be met with a strong, ‘can do’ African narrative, and especially with evidence that will go beyond the talk. Indeed, you craved “evidence” – especially if this was telling the stories of real people, people that are making, and have made definitive attempts to keep poverty at a safe distance. Your fascination for development work and climate change grew – and you more than anyone understood that knowledge silos might be seductive to those who claimed to be ‘owners’ of knowledge, but that these silos lost their appeal in the arena of implementation.

At the Economic Commission for Africa, in 2013, you came to the rescue more than once with our work on ClimDev – this was a terrain that you knew well having spent several years at ECA and had delivered a stellar performance as a Communications Director and Special Advisor to the Executive Secretary. You quickly took to task – using all your networking skills – and harnessing all your resources together. We had successful ‘Climate Change and Development in Africa’ Conferences – you drew on your huge innovation reservoir and suggested a technology element which enabled conference participants to interact and share important findings in real time. You mobilized a small and effective comms team and worked on daily briefings that covered the events of CCDA in English and French. You took the initiative of organising media training workshops on the margin, demonstrating that journalists need tools to tell good stories on climate change. The best CCDA conferences were the ones that you were part of, due to your ability to produce a strong current connecting creativity, innovation, and audacious goals. You changed the landscape of the conference in the way in which we communicated climate change – and like many of us – you saw the importance of focussing on an ‘opportunity narrative’ – a narrative that exemplified an Africa of resilience, a narrative that portrayed the multitude of options that can be found, a narrative which rejected that Africa’s choices were all hemmed in a blanket of cascading doom and gloom.

In all of this, I will remember your intellectual rigour – you were always quick to respond to a call, but this swiftness was matched with a supreme intellectual depth – for you the job was never done unless it was put under the microscope of the highest quality test. Beyond this sense of excellence and gold standards intellectualism, you demonstrated a generosity of spirit that was equal to none – you were the man that stood tall because you demanded that others stood with you – you did not attempt to do it all – and you dished out opportunities like little goody bags that cannot be contained or owned, but needed to constantly change hands in this great flux of life. Indeed, we can all attest to a Peter e-mail in which you inscribed the famous words: “please share with your networks”!

I will miss your candour – your no-nonsense manner of telling it as it is – your belief that being forthright is being authentic, even if this often comes at a price – and one you were not afraid to pay. But, most of all it was always endearing to see how you interacted with your girls – how you laughed with them- and how soulful and vibrant you were each time you spoke of them and about them – whether you were on travels – or in their company. In many ways, both Jarra and Yassine are exceptionally ‘lucky’ to have the legacy of warm memories of you and Ciru, but even more, they will always be told just how truly wonderful you were. Memories of your good deeds will follow them and act as buffer in their adult life as they go through their own life experiences – we will all carry testimonies of your sardonic humour, sound advice, strong mentorship and wonderful connections that will endure because we had the good fortune of meeting and knowing you.

Yes, death may have snuffed that oxygen out of your lungs, but the oxygen that resonated through your voice, the oxygen that ran deep in the ways you connected people to ideas, the oxygen that celebrated family and friends and the oxygen that embodied your quest for knowledge, for truth, and your amazing kinship with equity and fairness, will live on.

Death has struck, cold, brutal and heartless – but we – your friends and family – take heart in the wonderful and beautiful legacy that will ripple through the rest of our days, as we look towards the heavens and smile at our brother, friend, ally, mentor and partner Fifi da Costa. The pain is gone, the fight was worth it, your courage is not lost and we pray that the angels in the hereafter are beaming soothingly as they welcome you to a warm home that is free from pain. Adieu … Rest in Peace, dearest Fifi. Your mission on this earth has been fulfilled… the heaven awaits and we pray that God continues to keep watch over your family!