Remembering Sister Zinia

By Zubeida Mustafa

LAST Saturday was World Teachers’ Day. It is now universally recognised that teachers — their ability, integrity, competence and compassion — are the key determinants of the quality of education a country offers to its children.

A good teacher is an asset and to a great extent atones for the flaws in a system that produces shoddy textbooks, schools lacking decent infrastructure and missing library and laboratory facilities. Above all a teacher — who cares, inspires, and is innovative— can transform a child’s life.

So the idea of a Teachers’ Day is a brilliant one. Teachers also deserve appreciation and what better way can there be to boost their morale than recognition from their students?

Sister Zinia Pinto (Picture Courtesy SJC)
Sister Zinia Pinto (Picture Courtesy SJC)

The teacher I specially want to pay tribute to was not my teacher. She was more. She was my daughters’ teacher at my alma mater, the St Joseph’s Convent (SJC) school in Karachi. She was Sister Zinia Pinto, who gave strength to thousands who passed through the school’s portals and was a guide for their parents.

Sister Zinia remained closely identified with the SJC for over 50 years as she steered the school with a steady hand as the principal from 1966 to 1999 through the stormy shoals that characterised education in Pakistan — a period when nationalisation, denationalisation, privatisation and the commercialisation of schools ruined the structure of education in the country. On Sept 7, which would have been her 84th birthday had she lived — she died on June 4, 2013 — the alumni and students of the SJC gathered to pay tribute to a person who was loved and cherished by all whose lives she had touched. Colleagues, fellow nuns, and parents whose children had been under her tutelage were present.

There was a magic about Sister Zinia that enchanted people. The flood of adjectives and the richness of description in the speeches made on the occasion clearly demonstrated what an extraordinary life was being celebrated. They ranged from “esteemed”, “outstanding”, “giver of strength”, “visionary”, “mentor” and “role model” as teacher, administrator and principal, to “accomplished individual” who could assert her quiet moral authority.

Each of these reflect on her professionalism because a professional is not a robot that is programmed to act in a particular way. The first quality a teacher must have, and Sister Zinia had it in abundance, is the human touch. The anecdotal evidence presented by speaker after speaker kept the audience glued to their seats, laughing and crying at the same time. While she was a disciplinarian of the highest order, a child was a child to be handled gently. “You have come here for educational purposes and not for recreational purposes,” she was fond of reminding students who were not too inclined to study. But then study they did as the SJC results year after year showed. That was the teacher in her.

There was also the administrator in her who understood the child. Many of the ideas being expounded now had been implemented 30 years ago by the SJC under Sister Zinia. She did not hold exams in the primary school and most children were promoted at the end of the year. She felt it was wrong to diminish a child by ranking students when reports were given. She would say that if she had her way a child would not be sent to school before eight years of age. That is how it had been with her and she did not feel she had lost out in any way.

Her forte as an educationist? Her intuitive ability to blend the old and the new. She knew which traditions and conventions had to be retained to give the school a sense of continuity and stability and what new disciplines and pedagogical methods had to be introduced to help keep it abreast with the times. Sister Zinia had the foresight and the vision to anticipate the dawn of the computer age in education. Though computer illiterate herself, she was the first educationist in Pakistan to push for computer education for which she was awarded a shield sometime in the ’90s.

All this was in the academic field. Behind the professional exterior was a warm heart full of tolerance and ears that were always willing to listen. As a devout Christian missionary — she took her vows as a Daughter of the Cross in Belgium in 1958 — one would have thought that her interest in the temporal would be limited. But that was not so. Viewing all humans as the best creation of God, Sister Zinia wanted to help them all.

Education was the field she had chosen and she excelled in it and her services were for the people of this country — mostly Muslims — who she had come to serve from Goa in 1953. She was above all prejudices and a good representative of Christianity whose main goal was the service of humanity. It is people like these who foster love and solidarity among communities, whatever be their faith. The presence of such people is needed on both sides to make connections and forge links between faiths. As the bigger community in Pakistan, Muslims should be extending the hand of friendship to all others.

This is unfortunately missing. Hence it was a great gesture from the SJC Alumni to arrange a solidarity meeting last week to express support in the wake of the attacks on the All Saints Church in Peshawar. Let more flowers of solidarity bloom.

Source: Dawn

11 thoughts on “Remembering Sister Zinia”

  1. sister zinia's story touched me

    there are hundreds, if not thousands of these selfless and devoted sisters and mothers all over the world who serve with missionary compassion and zeal.. they are a source of hope and happiness for many who have benefited from their services in schools or hospitals across pakistan. my school st mary's in peshawar was one such example of integrity and quality that has nurtured my personality

    sadly these missionary schools, hospitals as well as their churches are on the target list of the nameless beasts marauding pakistan's landscape.

    i pray to god this madness is stopped before it annihilates us all

  2. It was indeed a very well written piece on Sister Zinia. After spending and studying at Missionary Schools all over Pakistan, a small form of repaying back to the institutions I loved was St. Joseph convent where i taught twice and had the opportunity of working closely with Sister Zinia, Sister Barbra-ann and others those who were indeed wonderful times and the administrative control, the teaching facilities and the human touch of the nuns was remarkable.

  3. The services rendered by these missionary schools in the early part of Pakistan history has been commendable. I too studied at one these schools in Lahore, the teachers were totally committed and devoted towards their assignments. The trouble started when such seats of learning were nationalized during Bhutto's days. Along with other government schools, things could never be brought back to their old glorious days. Today it is in total disarray, we need to invest heavily in, to start with, training today's teachers. I wish we can emulate how Sister Zinia dedicated her life in improving the educational standards here in Pakistan.we need to give a teacher his/her due status in the society, raise their morale by offering them better salary packages, train them hard, and see for ourselves improvement in the over all educational standards.

  4. Zubaida you wrote a very good article in your inimitable style . She was the greatest icon for us at SJC. I have always admired the nuns. Having studied at the Convent of Jesus & Mary in Bombay, spending 11 years there and then working in SJC for 32 years. More than half my life is spent with these dedicated people. We are all thankful to you for putting this in the DAWN where all can read .

    1. Thank you Naseema for always including me in the SJC events. As you write our ties with the nuns go deep. Whatever I have written about Sister Zinia is only a fraction of the love and esteem I felt for her She taught me so much about education and what it should be. In any case all of you are doing a wonderful job. We require more teachers like Sister Zinia and like you and your colleagues if Pakistan has to be pulled out of the crisis we find ourselves in.

  5. dear zubeida,i have not seen you since a long time.
    Well i was also taught by 'englishmen'-first in st.joseph's college dehradun in class 3 and 4-then in sherwood college nainital-where much later amitabh bachan studied much later-then modern school new delhi-the best school-then university scho0l aligarh where i passed my matric and stayed in 'english house'originally sir syed's house-meant for the scions of aristocracy.
    passed my matric in 2nd division-then admitted to st.stephen's colllege delhi-but got my b a honours in history from sind university then in karachi-well let me finish it-barrister at law from lincoln's inn london where mr.jinnah studied-then got an LLM from Southern methodist university dallas texas and finally another LLM fromuniversity of michigan ann arbor usa-finally delivered the first lecture when LLM was started by karachi university-hence cj raana bhagwan das and 8 high court judges were my students.

  6. Great tribute to a legendary figure. A reminder to all of us to stand up against the forces of darkness . Fight against militancy is our agenda not somebody else's.

  7. "—— While she was a disciplinarian of the highest order, a child was a child to be handled gently. “You have come here for educational purposes and not for recreational purposes,” she was fond of reminding students who were not too inclined to study. But then study they did as the SJC results year after year showed. That was the teacher in her.

    There was also the administrator in her who understood the child. Many of the ideas being expounded now had been implemented 30 years ago by the SJC under Sister Zinia. She did not hold exams in the primary school and most children were promoted at the end of the year. She felt it was wrong to diminish a child by ranking students when reports were given. She would say that if she had her way a child would not be sent to school before eight years of age. That is how it had been —-"with her and she did not feel she had lost out in any way.=
    – -"

    "—–above all prejudices and a good representative of Christianity whose main goal was the service of humanity. —"

    What more can you ask from a life of dedication ?

  8. Sister Zinia was my dad's sister and I feel very touched with the many tributes given to her. I was a little girl when she decided to join the Daughters of the Cross. Although we were separated, and in different countries, it was always a joy to talk to her by phone, especially on her birthday. My aunt believed that there was one God , no matter what faith or religious denomination one followed, and that we are all children of God. She longed for the day where all people, races and cultures would live and worship in harmony, and enjoy and appreciate all the differences. She believed education was one way of making this happen. I will miss my aunt and I hope all those who have passed through her hands will strive to fulfill her ideals and dreams and make this world a better place, till we all one day meet her with God in heaven

  9. A timely remembrance of Ms Zinia at a very auspicious day called as Teachers Day.

    Actually the Society need too many Zinia's at all times.

    But I am sure and perfect that MOTHER is the greatest teacher of us all. And a line should have been inserted on TEACHER'S Day write-up.

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