Profile: Amazing grace
It was a sultry afternoon on one of the hottest days in Karachi but the main campus of Nasra School was buzzing with activity. The grounds of this graceful colonial building tucked away behind main M.A. Jinnah Road, were decked with cheerful banners and buntings; the stately neem tree that stands tall in the centre of the courtyard was draped with all manner of glittering decorations, all lovingly created by the students and staff of the school to celebrate one of the happiest milestones of this 63-year-old institution: the 90th birthday of its founder, Begum Nasra Wazir Ali.
Recipient of Pakistan’s highest civilian award, the Sitara-i-Imtiaz, Begum Wazir Ali set up Nasra School in a dilapidated building where she was the sole teacher and classes were held in makeshift rooms, using asbestos sheets over crumbling walls to provide some shelter. Her students consisted of her own daughter, her friends’ children and “any child from the area who wished to study.”
Over six decades this gallant initiative has grown into the Education Trust Nasra School comprising five campuses across Karachi, each of which upholds its founder’s vision of imparting quality education to students from all walks of life.
Born on May 28, 1922, Begum Wazir Ali was the youngest daughter of Malik Maula Bakhsh, a prosperous landlord of Gorali village in Gujrat, Punjab.
“My father was a self-educated man; he never attended a proper educational institution but taught himself to read by subscribing to newspapers in all languages. Though he did not have a degree, he was appointed honorary magistrate for his district by the British government. He was passionate about education and built a small school in the village which my siblings and I attended along with the village children; I was the only girl in a class of 30 boys,” Begum Wazir Ali reminisces proudly.
It is obvious that she had extremely progressive parents for that time as all siblings were sent off to the best schools in Calcutta, Delhi and Lahore and all attained masters and professional degrees. Begum Wazir Ali herself was admitted in Lady McLagh High School, Lahore, at the age of seven as a boarding student. Wasn’t it hard to live away from family at such a young age? “All of us brothers and sisters attended boarding school,” she replies in her trademark matter-of-fact manner.
Right after graduating from the Lahore Women’s College with her honours degree in English literature, Begum Wazir Ali was told that she was to be married. Though she had not even seen her prospective husband, she was quite amicable to the arrangement; obviously that was the way things were done. Her husband, Malik Wazir Ali, was a civil servant who decided to move to Karachi after Partition.
“While searching for a good school for my children, I realised that for the time being, I would have to teach them myself; finding other parents in the same quandary, I offered to hold classes at my home for anyone who wished to educate their child.
Initially, I devoted one room to this makeshift school but soon the number of pupils forced us to give over our entire house to the classrooms and we had to shift into the garage ourselves,” Begum Wazir Ali chuckles at the memory and one cannot help but be impressed by the dedication of this woman who willingly gave her entire home to the service of education — and even more impressed by her husband who supported her.
However, since their house was a government property, the they were politely asked to shift their school to private premises; after searching frantically, Begum Wazir Ali managed to find an old building which was falling to bits. “I got some concrete pillars constructed and covered them with asbestos sheets to start off with; these were the first classrooms in what is today the main Campus of Nasra School.”
While she was perfectly happy to have even a basic infrastructure, not everyone was impressed. “My husband moved in the highest diplomatic circles and he mentioned my school to the British ambassador who decided to pay us a visit. He was most surprised to see me holding classes under such conditions,” remembers Begum Wazir Ali with a smile. A positive dividend of that visit was that Wazir Ali was invited to visit England for two months to study the methods of education.
“I remember My Fair Lady was playing at the theatre and I was escorted to a performance by the ambassador. It was a lovely experience.” England was just one of the many countries Begum Wazir Ali visited, some in her professional capacity and some as the wife of a diplomat. She also travelled extensively as a Girl Guide, an organisation she has been associated with for most of her life. “I joined the organisation when I was in school; I was deeply impressed by the way they motivated women from all walks of life and channelled their energy into constructive activities.”
Wazir Ali represented Pakistan at the Girl Guides World Conference in Holland in 1956 and held the title of International Commissioner of the Girl Guides. She is quick to credit her husband for her achievements, “Not only did he always encourage me in every way, he also facilitated me; when I had to travel for work, he would look after the children,” she smiles fondly.
It’s obvious that for all that she has accomplished, the educationist is not the one to bask in past glories; when asked what she considers her greatest achievement to date, her response shows that her focus is on the present and on how she can improve on her life work i.e., her school. “Switching to the Aga Khan Foundation Board is something I’m very proud of. I had studied the different systems being implemented and was most impressed by the schools following the Aga Khan Board. I discussed the point with the trustees and we decided this was the way to go.”
Implementing the Aga Khan Board was a long and difficult process; it took a lot of time and back and forth to gain approval from Aga Khan International Foundation but even that was the easy part. The actual resistance came from the home front.
“Many parents were not happy with our decision to implement the Aga Khan Programme. Some students were taken away. We considered scrapping the project but I was convinced it was the correct route to take.” Not one to be cowed down by public opinion, Wazir Ali drove the project through and in 2005, Nasra School became one of the first schools in Pakistan to follow the Aga Khan Board.
Even at the age of 91 years, Begum Wazir Ali takes an active interest in her school because as she sums up, “Nothing can be achieved without education. Education means knowledge — knowledge that allows you to understand the system that takes you to your destination.”