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A mix of fire and honey – Najma Sadeque (1943-2015)

Published in Mar-Apr 2015
Najma Sadeque, journalist and activist, is no more – but her legacy lives.

Najma Sadeque is no more – but her legacy lives. Reams have been written about her as a journalist, activist, opponent of multinationals and of genetically modified crops (GMO). In fact, she was one of the first to research and then crusade against GMOs; she began to work on the concept of small scale organic farming and the endless possibilities of growing one’s own vegetables.

The number of publications Najma published through Shirkat Gah (one of the several organisations she helped to establish and remained involved with until the end) should be widely shared with high schools, colleges, libraries and other institutes across Pakistan; they will help explain important concepts in a simple way.

The amount of research she did and her wealth of knowledge on matters economic, political and social was mind boggling. She was a prolific writer on these issues.

I never thought about any of this while Najma was around. She was simply the oracle you called when you needed information. It was taken for granted; as were the daily doses of emails on matters political and otherwise she sent out. It was only when Aurora asked me to write an obituary that I started to compile my thoughts about her.

For as long as I can remember – and this is going back decades – Najma was someone I knew of. It was a family connection. Her father and my grandfather were professors at Dhaka College in the 1930s. My grandmother was a friend of her mother – Dr Syeda Fatima Sadeque, the only Muslim woman from undivided India to have a double PhD from the UK. Whenever Dr Fatima came to Karachi, I would tag along with my grandmother. It was on one such occasion I first met Najma in the 70s. She looked busy and intimidating and we didn’t talk much.

I got to know Najma in her own right as a journalist when I was working at the Herald and she was writing for the Star (the evening newspaper published by the Dawn Group). She was a regular at the Herald. It was noisy, there were ongoing debates and disagreements and endless cups of tea to soothe tempers. Najma, when moved to righteous indignation would argue anyone down or wear them out – whichever came first; this is what I will always remember about her – she never did anything half heartedly. It was all or nothing. That trait made her some staunch friends and supporters – and others less so.

Najma also worked for the Dawn Group and the Jang Group. She implemented projects, and was a speaker at international conferences. She was driven. My first interaction with Najma took place in Washington D.C. in 1984; we were attending different events but arranged to meet for lunch. For both, the occasion turned out to be a first experience of ordering food in the US. We ordered sandwiches. When they came we were taken aback. “Which giant will eat this? This is gluttony and waste!” declared Najma. It was; we couldn’t finish even one plate between us!

If there was anyone in need of medical treatment or money for essential expenses, Najma was the first to take up the cause. She would shoot off emails, contact people she knew could help, and get whatever it was that was needed. Few people would go to the lengths she did to help, often totally unknown people, if she knew their cause was genuine. That was Najma – a mix of fire and honey, the only way I can describe her.

When my mother passed away in 1999 and my world fell apart, Najma was one of the few people who gauged the extent of my loss. She understood intuitively what I needed. Although she hardly came over before (although she was close to my mother), she was now one of the few regular visitors. Her presence was nurturing and she wrote one of the most moving obituaries of my mother in

The News. I later asked her to join the Executive Board of the Pakistan Voluntary Health and Nutrition Association (PAVHNA), a consortium of like minded organisations set up by my mother. PAVHNA was to implement hugely successful projects, which Najma followed up on closely, reading the reports and keeping track.

I’m not sure when we got to a stage of such comfort in our friendship that we would call each other up at any time, day or night to ask which antihistamine to take, where a certain type of paintbrush was available, how to get from here to there and so on.

At one point, when Najma was in full crusade mode in support of the haris (farmers), who were living on the footpath in front of the Karachi Press Club, she galvanised her friends to set up a rota to provide food and essentials to the families there. One day I was enlisted to organise the tea. As they had a kerosene stove, I brought a kettle, milk, teacups, spoons, sugar, snacks and boxes of tea bags. The next day Najma called to ask what was I thinking of! It turned out that the urban-rural divide and the lack of understanding (on my part anyway) showed up in the matter of the tea bags! The village folk did not know what they were and resorted to slicing them open with their teeth. Najma never let me forget this episode.

In the hundreds of emails received by Deneb (Najma’s daughter) and the accolades showered on her at memorial meetings, friends, colleagues, admirers and representatives of the various groups and people she struggled for, spoke of their interaction with her. They included many hitherto unknown anecdotes. As Deneb remarked, “I had no idea my mother knew so many people or had done so much.” My feelings exactly.

I knew of Najma the painter, the crusader, the mother who encouraged Deneb to make her beautiful tapestries, the superb cook – and the only friend with whom I spoke Bengali, and could discuss things knowing they would never enter another ear. Najma, in whose house I would drop in unannounced to find her in a kaftan calling out to her son Baba (Haroon), to make ‘Auntie Afsheen’ a cup of steaming tea and ‘get the goodies’!

Najma was not an easy person. Her greatest strengths were her stubbornness and refusal to compromise. They were also her greatest weakness when it came to herself. She had been unwell for over a year. “Chest infection,” she would say coughing and wheezing, when asked. “Have you seen the doctor?” “Yes, but the medicines are not working.” “Please see another doctor.” Noncommittal reply. Probably her last public appearance was to attend the wedding reception of my eldest son in November last year. It must have taken a lot of effort to come, but she was always fond of my children.

Despite her public persona, Najma was a fiercely private person. Very few knew her life story and she preferred it that way. Towards the end she drew the curtain even tighter around her and visitors were discouraged. She finally consented, at her daughter’s insistence, to let another doctor see her at home in the third week of December 2014, and have essential tests done. Perhaps it was too little too late. On January 1st when the results came in, her doctor insisted she be rushed to hospital. Sadly, after a few days in intensive care, the fight went out of our feisty fighter and she passed away in the early hours of January 8th.

The shock, as the news spread was palpable, and the stream of people from all walks of life who came to offer their condolences, is testimony to the number of people whose lives she touched.

As for me, I lost (once again) a mentor, a very, very good and wise friend. She is irreplaceable. May Allah bless her. Najma has gone but her legacy, through her work, the people and the causes she supported will always live on.

Afsheen Ahmed is Director, PAVHNA, and a former senior journalist at the Herald. afsheenahmed@yahoo.com