Just over two years ago, I awoke to the news of Benazir Bhutto’s death. My immediate reaction, like the rest of the international community, was shock. But after the initial shock passed, I was overcome by grief. That day, I wept for her, for her family, for Pakistan, and also for those of us who had lost a great role model.
In November 2002, I attended a special lecture of Bhutto’s at Middle Tennessee State University. I was a junior in high school, and had decided to attend the lecture because of the promise of extra credit for history class. At my parents’ encouragement, I was told not only to attend her lecture because it may improve my grade, but to really listen to what she had to say. And I did.
I sat close to the back of the large auditorium in which she spoke, but over seven years later, I still remember her face. Dressed in royal blue and her trademark loose-fitting hijab, she was gracious, well-spoken, and often just downright funny. She told the audience of her days growing up in Pakistan as the privileged child of a wealthy political family, her studies at Harvard and Oxford, her avid belief in democracy and its impact on her rule as Pakistan’s first female prime minister, her struggles against gender discrimination, her travels across the world, her imperfections, and most importantly her ultimate mission in life – to return to Pakistan and improve the lives her people.
To say that Benazir Bhutto left an impression on me that autumn evening would be an understatement. She inspired me. My home country, Sierra Leone, was barely out of a brutal decade-long civil war, and though I was young, I too knew I wanted to improve the condition of my land and my people. I wanted to follow in Bhutto’s footsteps. In many ways, I did. In the years that followed, I spent an ample amount of time traveling and studying world cultures and religion. I went on to study comparative government at Harvard, and wrote my senior thesis on democracy-building in Sierra Leone. As time passed and as the memory of that November evening became increasingly distant, I never forgot how Bhutto motivated me to pursue a career in public service.
So in early 2007 when Bhutto reappeared onto the international scene, ready to return to Pakistan from exile and to run again for political office, I could not help but to take notice and to see what next she would achieve. For the last few months of her life, I followed her every interview, every rally, every political move. And though the threat of violence was imminent, I never imagined it would ultimately claim the life of the woman who I admired so much.
It has been two years since Benazir Bhutto was assassinated after leaving a political rally in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. The memories of that day are still fresh in my mind – the last image of her waving toward a crowd of supporters, her entry into the vehicle which moments later would be attacked, the shots and blast that took her life, the rioting in the days afterward… For her life to come to such a violent end, for her to never see Pakistan fulfill its potential, one may sadly conclude that Bhutto lived her life in vain. I know that this is not the case. To me, Benazir Bhutto exemplified strength and grace in the face of opposition and illustrated to the world the profound impact that a life of public service can have. It is for these reasons I thank her and will always remember her.
Effie O. Johnson
Master of Public Administration (MPA) Candidate, May 2011
International Public and Nonprofit Management and Policy
Robert F. Wagner School of Public Service, New York University
A.B. Harvard University, 2008