He wanted to be an architect… and would have made a very good one, given that he was Distinguished Student at his college in the US when he left architecture halfway. But then, the wily charms of philosophy seduced him, followed by academics, which changed the course of his life.
When Sami Mustafa designed and built a mosque with empty medicine boxes at the age of 10, he could have hardly imagined that he would be running a successful private school later in life. And yet, Mustafa chose to follow his calling, a decision he has never regretted. The man wears many hats: he's the principal of a private school; chairman of the Bookgroup, a non-profit educational research organisation working towards the uplift of government schools with a project currently running in Lodhran in Punjab; he is the initiator of the Aga Khan Examination Board; he is the chairman and executive director of a school of music; he has been coordinator for traffic management programme and worked as a member of governor's task force on municipal services, among others.
The jobs may vary, but behind every task bubbles Mustafa’s enthusiasm to make a difference, and his concern for the improvement of the society. He is an optimist to the core, a characteristic that derives from the fact that he’s always on the move to do something more. One will not find Mustafa sitting idle, mulling over the regression and stagnation of the system. Instead, he chooses to address the issues head-on and come up with a workable mechanism. He is your ultimate troubleshooter.
The school that he’s running is a prime example of his perseverance to translate his ideas into practice. As a teacher at Karachi University in the late ’70s, Mustafa encountered various root issues that the education system in Pakistan faced. And so, he and a few friends decided to open a school that would help identify those issues at an early age, and eventually improve the quality of education to some extent.
Even today, his goal is quite simple: to help children understand and discover their talents and not always shoot for high academic achievements. Weak children may be gifted in other ways, he argues; they may find their calling in other subjects such as music, art and sports. And that, he believes, is what a school’s real commitment to children ought to be: to facilitate in bringing out that talent, so that students can follow pursuits that interest them, without the sword of examinations, grades and competition hanging over their heads.
However, this has not been a solitary struggle; he gives all credit to his colleagues and his family which have been by his side consistently. He mentions his wife and his three children, and a smile crosses his lips. He credits his wife for her patience so needed to entertain his aspirations and eccentricities.
“I've been very lucky that my wife has supported me throughout, we were married in Washington, but when I wanted to return to Pakistan, she never opposed my decision.” he says. With three sons — one of whom is married — Mustafa is now a happy grandfather of two.
Steeped in his culture, his love for making Urdu child-friendly shines through. Making Urdu child-friendly has helped elevate the standard of Urdu in a system where the general attitude has demoted its status to that of a lower language. But what does one do when there's very little Urdu literature for children who are looking for something off a beaten track? One creates it as was the case with Mustafa, and this is what gave birth to the Bookgroup which began as a small project working out of a garage, and gradually blossomed into a full-fledged organisation.
“When we first started the school, we found some good Urdu books from China, Soviet Union and India,” he recalls, “We used these books in our school, but a few years later I suggested that we should write our own books, and that's how the Bookgroup started in 1990.” The venture had three main objectives: the books should be colourful and of interest to the children; they must be printed according to the international standards, and; they must be affordable. Contrasting as the goals may sound, Mustafa and his colleagues managed to pull everything together and he even authored the first book of the series alongwith many others later.
Yet, he refuses to sit back and relax. His humanity doesn’t allow him to overlook any wrong, even if it’s against inmates in a jail — he manages the Darakshan Police Station in DHA — or breaking of traffic rules. Concerned about the regressive system, both in education and otherwise, Mustafa strives to bring whatever little progress that he can towards contributing and establishing institutions that become catalysts of change. While he agrees that charity is important, he believes more in supporting government institutions to make them more effective; he finds ways to coordinate with the state machinery to bring a change from within, since he believes in establishing good models of government institutions.
Having worked in both private and government education sector, Mustafa is at a vantage position to draw a comparison between the two. Surprisingly, he believes that all that the government schools need is proper channelisation to put them on the right course. The government school teachers he's met and works with, he says, are eager to better themselves as professionals, to change the culture of learning, and are child-friendly. What the students need is an environment where they can learn and where their minds can be nurtured.
“We're completely convinced that the government schools can never become modern institutions of learning,” he says, “We really need to demolish this myth.” Mustafa feels that the class difference between private and public schools can be minimised and the gap narrowed if only there was a vision and a professional commitment to bridge this gap. And while it is impossible to deny the existence and importance of English as an international language, for Mustafa, schooling in Urdu and in other local languages for a large majority of the people is not an option but a neccessity.
The journey continues for Sami Mustafa. He has touched lives, and will continue to do so. His optimism and strong will has helped him conquer various battles against an unyielding system and social norms, and that has simply reinforced his belief that a clear vision and framework, coupled with professional effort can overcome any obstacle. For him, the journey has just begun, and there are miles to go before he calls it a day. As he puts it, "Ten years from now, when we look back at what we're doing today will seem like as if we haven't even begun the journey".