The village of Ramdewali near Faisalabad, woke up on the 15th of January to find hundreds of people at its doorstep. As they moved in unison, it appeared as if a grand procession was on its way to pay homage to a shrine of some holy saint. But this was no Urs; the hordes of people were not devotees, but mourners at Arfa Kareem’s funeral.
Ramdewali is the birthplace of the girl who was the world’s youngest Microsoft Certified Professional (MCP) until 2008, and whose sudden demise plunged the nation into grief. Funeral prayers were offered in Lahore, Faisalabad and in Arfa’s hometown Ramdewali, where she was laid to rest. Such an emotional farewell for an ordinary citizen — that too, a 16-year-old student — is an unprecedented event in Pakistan.
I had the unique opportunity to interview Arfa in 2005, after her visit to the Microsoft headquarters in the United States. That little girl was able to hold her own and give a speech about developing applications in front of thousands of seasoned software developers. During my conversation with her, I was struck by her exuberant personality. Arfa’s charm, confidence and optimism made me forget that she was a 10-year-old.
The child prodigy was proud of herself for being the youngest MCP. “It means a lot to me because it helped me fulfil my family’s dreams, especially those of my late grandfather Chaudhry Abdul Karim Randhawa,” she had said. Meeting Bill Gates had been an exhilarating event for the young achiever. Arfa’s father, a retired colonel, Amjad Karim Randhawa, who accompanied her to the US to meet Gates, vividly described her enthusiasm. “She was so excited that she did not sleep throughout the trip, always writing down questions she would ask him. She even wrote a poem and gave it to him,” Amjad reminisced fondly. “Bill Gates was quite taken aback by her enthusiasm and intelligence.”
But Arfa was hardly content with being just a one-hit wonder. Even at the tender age of 10, she had ambitious plans for the future. She wanted to study at the prestigious Harvard University or Massachusetts Institute of Technology and wanted to use her genius to help her country. “I will come back to Pakistan and make a positive contribution,” she had said.
As she grew older, Arfa’s ambition and focus remained undiminished. “One of the most amazing things about Arfa was her maturity,” remembers Salman Yasin, the principal at Lahore Grammar School’s Paragon Campus, the last school Arfa attended. “Not only was she aware of her exceptional capabilities, she had full confidence in them.”
And, in fact, the young student had already started taking practical steps to realise her big dreams. She paid for the construction of a computer laboratory in the Government Girls High School in Chak No2 Ramdewali. So successful was this lab that the Punjab government decided to model all computers labs in government schools after it. According to the whiz kid, this was just the beginning of the realisation of her aspirations.
But tragically for Arfa, the end came too soon. Just as she was preparing to depart to India for a Nasa-sponsored international space settlement competition, she suffered a massive cardiac arrest after an epileptic seizure. With her brain significantly damaged, she was admitted to Lahore’s Combined Military Hospital.
“Visa arrangements were being made for the students, but then she fell into a coma and … well, everything just came to a standstill,” laments Yasin.
As young Arfra lay on a hospital bed on life support, the entire nation prayed for her recovery. Three weeks after her epileptic seizure, when all hope for her survival had dissipated, Arfa’s condition miraculously improved. However, the budding hopes for her recuperation were soon crushed. Arfa passed away just weeks before her 17th birthday.
Even during her short life, Arfa managed to make a long-lasting impression on those around her. The go-getter, who in an interview admitted that she hated wasting time, was eager to make a positive impact on the lives of people who surrounded her. “She would always say that one day she would help bring prosperity and progress in Pakistan,” Amjad recalls wistfully.
Her uncle Muhammad Afzal Randhawa makes a similar remark. “She was not an adolescent, but a sage,” he eulogises. “She used to say that she would one day revolutionise the educational and agricultural systems of the village, both of which are extremely outdated.”
Even though she was brilliant and motivated far beyond her years, in many ways Arfa was just an ordinary child. As a child, Arfa loved watching cartoons, singing and cycling. As she matured, she developed a penchant for reading Shakespeare and took keen interest in Iqbal’s poetry. “She always had the perfect verse or quote for any occasion,” Amjad recalls.
Nevertheless, like any other sociable teenager she was keen on spending time with her friends and enjoying school concerts. “High achievers are usually burdened with a sense of pride and seriousness that often isolates them from other children their age, but this was not the case with Arfa. She just wanted to act her age,” explains Yasin. “She loved music, movies — all the things young girls at her age are fascinated with.”
He adds affectionately, “She was very compassionate — and had such a lovely smile.”
Arfa’s sudden death left many of her dear friends in a state of deep shock and grief. In the wake of the intense media hype around her illness and death, students had to be counselled to help them cope with the loss of their beloved comrade.
To commemorate the achievements of the brilliant student, the government issued a postage stamp on February 2 — her 17th birthday. “Wouldn’t it have been just great if Arfa had seen those stamps herself? It would have been a great way to tell her how important she was to us,” says Yasin.
Yasin advocates a more meaningful way to truly immortalise Arfa’s legacy. He calls for a yearly scholarship in Arfa’s name, funded by the government to facilitate talented children across the country. “Naming IT cities and issuing stamps is all great, but Arfa was not just that — her legacy is far more,” he says.
Azra Parveen, Arfa’s classmate and currently a 7th grade student at Government Girls High School, also believes that a scholarship will be the best way to honour Arfa. “There are hundreds of thousands of Arfas out there who possess the same mettle and calibre, but because they belong to the poor class, they have not been able to demonstrate it,” she says. “If equal opportunities are provided to the deprived classes of society, hundreds of Arfas are likely to spring up.”
Additional reporting by Aroosa shaukat
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, February 19th, 2012.