“Beautiful is a woman who knows that people, places and things don’t define her. She is defined by her acts of kindness and a generous heart.”
Both these sentiments faithfully apply to an incredible force of a woman we’ve all fondly come to know as Ask Nanima? Hidden behind the veil of anonymity is a young, soft-spoken and determined mother-of-two who quietly and earnestly sets the wheels of compassion in motion.
Born and raised in Witbank, Mpumalanga, in the late 1970s-80s, ‘Nanima’ completed her schooling career before moving on to the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, where she studied a Bachelor of Commerce degree in Information Systems and Accounting. At the dawn of post-apartheid South Africa, she had an opportunity to attend a Model C school in Johannesburg, which exposed her to people of various races with different backgrounds. It was intimidating being the only Indian-Muslim child in the school, but it taught her to relate to people of various ethnicities and cultures. Nanima’s résumé details her career path working as an IT Auditor for KPMG and a Project Auditor at SARS.
Her parents have had the biggest impact on her life. She admires her father’s exceptional work ethic and sustained effort over the years. Nanima says: “My dad is in his late 70’s, but he still has more energy than the youth.” She attributes the person she is today to her mother, whose giving nature and friendliness has always inspired her. Nanima credits her siblings for playing their motivating part in her life. She admires that they are ambitious go-getters who have an action-driven outlook towards achieving their goals.
The Ask Nanima? network was born from a family discussion; her brother wanted to call it ‘Nanima’. They were inspired to start a platform where bored housewives could somehow help and interchange ideas with working mothers. Many big ideas had lingered in her mind over the years and she found this opportunity to be the perfect way to implement some of them. As a result, on 6 June 2007, the Ask Nanima? persona surfaced and now, more than a decade later, the name still holds its weight in solace.
The online platform was aimed at promoting home industries similar to the one her own nanima (grandmother) had run. She used to make papar (papadums) in the hot sun and sold them until she had enough money to send both her sons to study medicine at university. Nanima never envisioned that her digital stage would turn out to be what it is today. She affords her followers the same security of anonymity that she enjoys, and allows them to ask questions that they wouldn’t usually have the courage to, as well as voice opinions that they ordinarily wouldn’t feel comfortable expressing. Over time, she’d like to structure the platform to be more beneficial to people.
“The anonymous questions have opened up a can of worms,” she says. “You can’t imagine that people are going through so much pain and suffering in silence.” It’s surprised her to see how lonely people are; they can’t seem to communicate with their loved ones. “People have lost hope in the mercy of Allah.”
“People need to be kinder to one another.” Nanima speculates that since the questions come from ‘faceless’ people, it’s easy for others to judge and respond in abrupt and untactful ways. “They shoot from the hip,” she adds. On some days, she needs to leave her screen to calm down and recollect herself before responding to some distressing posts. The platform became a voice for the voiceless and the original aim was redirected to helping people feel better about their life situations. She feels that some followers’ reactions may be a disservice to the goal.
The Nanima Foundation started more recently in 2017. Helping people has been her primary aim and now with the foundation, she is able to do even more for the forlorn and destitute. She’s been involved with the distribution of Ramadaan hampers and a robotics workshop held in Qunu, in collaboration with Red Flight Mobile and Africa Rising. To date, Ask Nanima? has hosted 17 home-industry expos that promote breadwinning businesses. All proceeds from the stall hire at the home-industry expos are also donated towards charitable projects.
During Ramadan 2018, the foundation established the ‘bread pledge’. Sponsored by generous citizens of South Africa, loaves of bread are bought at R5 a piece. These loaves are then distributed to needy individuals in various townships around Gauteng, such as Alexandra, Ivory Park and Tembisa. The intent is to grow this initiative to other parts of the country.
1000 Good Deeds is a friendly challenge between Productive Muslim and Ask Nanima? Each dared the other to complete a certain number of good deeds. She encourages all to participate and suggest more good deeds for her to complete in order to reach her target. She hopes to inspire others to personally introduce this challenge into their own lives.
Apart from these goodwill projects, Nanima is also an avid environmentalist. In 2016, the flooding of the Jukskei River caused debris and people’s belongings to flow down into her area from the Alexandra Township. This turn of events prompted her family to develop the ‘river dirt catcher’. This innovative idea was sparked by an invention in Sligo Creek, where the community used empty milk bottles to skim litter off the river. Nanima and her family tweaked the original idea by adding a pulley system, so that collectors wouldn’t have to touch the contaminated water and items. Nanima’s children were a huge part in the development of the river dirt catcher, and they won the silver award at the Eskom Science Expo. In June 2018, they were awarded the bronze prize at South Africa’s Eco-Logic Eco-Youth Awards.
She recounts that the work in her local community has by far been the most meaningful. Nanima, a typical young Muslim woman, had befriended the body corporate caretaker in her building; a typical older British man suffering from Parkinson’s disease. She began working at the building’s body corporate mainly to assist him, as Parkinson’s patients have limited motor function. He would wait for her every morning at the guardhouse to have a quick morning chat. She recalls how he listened to her talk about her problems and gave her advice on how to manage them. His passing at the end of last year created a void that has been felt throughout their complex. “I didn’t realise how important he was in my life until he was gone.”
Workshops like Discover Yourself by Sadathullah Khan and Purification of the Heart by Dr Haifaa Younis have inspired Nanima to delve deeper into how she can make a difference. The Productive Muslim handbook encouraged her to be more aware of how she lives her life.
Nanima defines success by being a productive Muslim and an active part of the community.
Her favourite verses in the Quran are Surah Baqarah (2:216) and Ar-Rahman. Surah Baqarah, because it states, “…perhaps you hate a thing and it is good for you; and perhaps you love a thing and it is bad for you. Allah knows, but you do not know”. She also finds Surah Ar-Rahman very inspiring because it asks over and over again: Which of the favours of your Lord will you deny? “We should be more grateful for the blessings that Allah has given us,” she adds.
Her advice to those who’d like to get involved with philanthropic or environmental work is to find something that you’re passionate about and that makes you excited to wake up in the morning. “It can be a thankless, frustrating job, but if you know what your vision, mission and intentions are then that’ll keep you motivated.”
Her advice to herself (both younger and older) would be to have fun and not take life so seriously. With all the struggles that people face in the world today, it can be easy to lose hope, but she says we should always have a good opinion of Allah and never lose hope in his mercy. “Disasters are still happening all over the world, but Allah knows best. Remember that people like the Palestinians are martyrs, and what are martyrs? Martyrs are green birds in Jannah (paradise). So they are in a better place.”
Her biggest project going forward is herself, and she’d like to find her passion and purpose in this life. The AccidentalMuslims.com Johannesburg Unity Conference and the screening of the Freedom documentary by Julien Drolon inspired her to try to understand the Qur’aan better. She’d like to have the same feeling when she reads the Qur’aan as when she reads a book in English. She continues to search for understanding and spiritual connection so that she can teach her kids to connect with the holy book as well. “The Qur’aan was sent to all of us, not just a specific group of learned scholars.”
She makes a special duaa that women have more access to mosques. In Johannesburg particularly, ladies sections are not catered for at the masjids. “A lot of women feel isolated and depressed,” she says. This coming from the questions she has received on her platform. “My favourite mosque is Nizamiye Mosque in Midrand. I feel at home there…Masjids are Allah’s houses and they’re supposed to be the heartbeat of the community. Maybe more women would find peace and solace in Allah’s house, and make a few friends who would lift their depression and anxieties.” For revert Muslims who don’t have a support structure or community, the masjid should be that place for them, where they feel comfortable in going and have all their questions answered.
Nanima is very grateful for her family, especially her husband, who fully supports her in the most gracious way. “He provides for us so that I can do whatever I want to do, without having to worry about finances.”
She believes that it’s important to have initiatives like Proudly Muslims of South Africa, because the media portrays Muslims in a very negative light, whereas this kind of platform showcases Islam positively.
Her last words of advice would be to worry less and laugh more.
She wants society to remember her as someone who made a difference.
One of her favourite quotes: “If you cannot do great things, do small things in a great way.” – Napoleon Hill
From a simple online helpline to a place of hope and sanctity, Ask Nanima? has become a refuge for the broken, a rope of optimism for the dejected wishing to be pulled back into the folds of religion and society, and a lifeline for the silent who were afraid to voice their innermost thoughts or bare their scars. Nanima, we salute you for every restless and distraught soul you’ve appeased. We know that you will continue to humbly assist society in many more ways.
For more information, visit the Ask Nanima website.