By Zubeida Mustafa
Do icons really pass away? They can’t, because being iconic makes them immortal in the public collective consciousness. And it is an icon that Anita Ghulamali had become. What made her so outstanding was her will to take on the most powerful enemies of education in Pakistan.
Her constituency comprised the common people. Her battles were fought for them and the only battle she lost was with death on Aug 8. The outpouring of admiration and affection for her that has followed testifies to her sincerity.
She is being eulogised most for her contribution to education and rightly so. But the difference she made to this key social sector has yet to make an impact. I am confident her ideas will prevail, though it may take time. In education the decay begins insidiously and reform is a long-drawn process that spans generations.
What was most striking about Anita was her love for the people of Pakistan. Her concern was primarily for the education of children. As the managing director of the Sindh Education Foundation, her thinking was focused on public-sector schools where the children of the poor study. She knew the wealthy could take care of their sons’ and daughters’ learning needs.
Small wonder she was happy teaching microbiology for over two decades at the SM Science College to youth from low-income localities who were enrolled there. When she gave up teaching to move to the policymaking side of education, she made the maximum use of her position to benefit the institutions that catered to the needs of the poor.
Anita Ghulamali focused on schools where the children of the poor study
It was for them that she thought up schemes and mobilised support. There are a number of them benefiting 370,000 students today when their founder is no more, the adopt-a-school-programme being the most well known.
The teacher in her never died. She knew that to demand accountability from others she would have to prove her own integrity. Working in a sector that has acquired notoriety for its money-making propensity and corruption, Anita was actually feared for her honesty. Many education ministers known for their alleged corruption and nepotism fell out with her and avoided her for she fearlessly lashed out at them in public. She once resigned as education minister in an interim government when pressure was brought to bear on her to transfer teachers to new postings to facilitate the electoral prospects of a favoured political party.
As a teacher she had developed the quality of instinctively assessing people and networking accordingly. She knew who was good at what and from where authentic information could be obtained. Since she was always generous in giving time, guidance and references many found their work facilitated by the SEF under Anita’s stewardship.
I just had to pick up the phone for any information I needed and there was her brusque “hello, bolo” often followed by an invitation to come over to discuss the issue in person. I owe to her the historical insight she gave me into education in Pakistan and why the problems have multiplied. She invariably referred me to the relevant people in related departments who could tell me more.
It was her concern for the well-being of people around her that endeared her to all. Her versatile mind came up with ideas to enhance the performance and knowledge of the SEF staff. The ‘Critical Discourses’, the like of which I have not seen in any office, were organised periodically to bring together a wide range of scholars, poets and writers to speak to the SEF staff.
Another brainchild was to help the female staff with young children needing babysitting facilities. One day on one of my visits to the SEF I found a small child playing in the garden into which Anita’s office opened. There she was trying to arouse his curiosity in some plants in the flowerbeds below the window. Upon inquiry, I was told it was Hamza, her colleague Sadaf Zuberi’s son. Hamza’s pre-school years were spent at the SEF.
Sadaf tells me, “The arrangement for bringing Hamza to work was allowed by Anita Apa as a natural move. I remember this came up during a conversation of what will happen after the baby arrived. Next morning she told me in a matter-of-fact way, ‘Of course you will bring the baby over’. She made it sound as if it was a very normal phenomenon. Other children of my colleagues followed suit.”
And now Sadaf has migrated to Canada where she works at the Art Gallery of Mississauga. When her director learnt of the babysitting arrangement at the SEF she followed in Anita’s footsteps. Sadaf says, “Hamza is growing up at the Gallery this summer. Anita Apa’s legacy continues in shades more than one — just as she was.”
That is what icons are. Their ideas cannot be limited by boundaries. They are universal for the wise to adopt.