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Intellectuals meet to recognise his scholarly and revolutionary contribution in the country and beyond

Volume 16, Issue 1  | 
Published 07/06/2019
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Date: 11 January 2019

Venue: Soma Mkawahi, Mikocheni, Dar-es-Salaam

Organised by: Wanazuoni, an informal association of the Tanzania’s scholars

By Khalifa Said

It was clear to anyone at the event that by choosing to honour Prof Karim Hirji’s intellectual acumen and his outstanding legacy in academia, the country’s young and emerging literati were determined to break with tradition where one’s contribution to humanity tend to be recognised only after death.

Finding both their personal lives and their intellectual journey shaped as well as nurtured in one way or the other by Prof Hirji’s dedication and unwavering commitment to truth and justice, the young scholars, who are spread across the country’s universities, media houses and human rights organisations, refused to have their homage to the intellectual giant described as posthumous.

Disturbed by their relentless desire to express to the mathematics guru how deep as the ocean their reverence to him is, the young intellectuals did what they thought was appropriate last week, January 11, 2019, where they organised a modest intellectual gathering to bestow the honour on the academic-cum-activist.

Icon of the revolution

Friday’s gathering, drawing attendance from the people who know Prof Hirji in one way or another -- whether by having worked with him, being taught by him or just by reading his various works -- served as an occasion to reflect on the enormous contribution he made both to his country and the world at large in countless ways.

Among those who were in attendance were a veteran journalist and advocate Jenerali Ulimwengu who described Prof Hirji as ‘a giant of hard science’ as well as ‘an intellectuals’ intellectual and an academics’ academic’.

Gender and development analyst Prof Marjorie Mbilinyi talked about the boldness and the aptitude to dare in Prof Hirji saying that these are just some of the many traits she can learn from him. ‘That ability to speak without fear of consequences is adorable,’ she said. Prof Mbilinyi also confesses to being stunned by Prof Hirji’s ‘hospitality and affection”. This is so ‘despite the fact that he was a revolutionary’. Walter Bgoya, who is the managing director of Mkuki na Nyota Publishers Ltd called Prof Hirji an ‘icon of the revolution’ while Nizar Visram, a retired academic and veteran journalist, called him ‘a true patriot’ elaborating that ‘to him patriotism is fighting imperialism, neo-colonialism and not the ability to recite the National Anthem as it is regarded now’.

True, for one who does not know Prof Hirji these compliments may appear to be mere exaggerated statements. Nevertheless, for those who truly know him, the statements are the only expressions that the language can allow them to make. They wish they had better words to describe the man.

Prof Hirji the mathematician

The young Hirji joined University of Dar es Salaam in 1968 where he pursued a Bachelor’s Degree in Mathematics and Education. He was a member of the United Students African Revolutionary Front (USARF), a students’ body that supported Mwalimu Julius Nyerere’s philosophy on socialism and self-reliance.

He got his first degree in 1971 and a Master’s Degree of Science in Operations Research in 1972 from the University of London. In 1982 and 1986 he acquired Master of Science and Doctor of Sciences in biostatistics degrees from Harvard University respectively.

Upon completing studies, Prof Hirji went on to teach at the University of Dar es Salaam, the National Institute of Transport and the University of California in Los Angeles. Once a visiting professor at the University of California, San Francisco, he has also taught short courses at the universities of Bergen and Oslo in Norway.

Prof Hirji has published many papers and book chapters in the areas of statistical methodology, applied biomedical research, history and practice of education in Tanzania and written numerous essays, commentaries and book reviews on varied topics for the mass media and popular magazines.

Among his outstanding works is the book titled Exact Analysis of Discrete Data, a book for researchers in the fields of biology, medicine, law and economics. He also authored Statistics in the Media: Learning from Practice, a book aimed to act as a guide for journalists and editors on how to accurately report statistical information in their stories.

Prof Hirji also edited Cheche: Reminiscence of a Radical Magazine, which is a collection of essays published in the Cheche paper. The anthology was released in 2010 by Mkuki na Nyota Publishers. Cheche, a Swahili word for sparks, was USARF’s mouthpiece which Prof Hirji helped establish and of which he became its Chief Editor until it was banned. Prof Hirji told The Citizen in 2016 that after conducting thorough research on the Mwalimu Julius Nyerere’s ideology of socialism and self-reliance, they came to a conclusion that theoretically, the thoughts were good but in reality, there were a lot of challenges in implementing them.

‘The major one,’ he said then, ‘was that people in the government agreed with Mwalimu by word but were against him in action’. They wrote about this openly in Cheche and as a result, the paper and the students’ body were banned by the then ruling party TANU in November 1970. ‘The (then) University Chancellor, Pius Msekwa, called us to his office and gave us the news. I will never forget that,’ said Prof Hirji.

Although Cheche was run by students, the English publication was read by people from all over the world. At the time, Tanzania was the headquarters of African liberation. In his conversation with this newspaper referred above, Prof Hirji, and many other people, seemed to not understand why Mwalimu was against it since it promoted Pan-Africanism and socialism. Perhaps, he thought, Mwalimu was pressured by some government officials. When Cheche was banned, another students’ body was started, Majimaji, which had similar political views.

In 2014, Prof Hirji published his memoir Growing up with Tanzania, where he wrote of how he and Tanzania have grown up together. ‘I wrote this book for memory. I realised that young people do not know where we have come from as a nation. They are clueless about how it was like during colonialism. So I focused on what changed in the first 10 years of independence,’ he told The Citizen in 2016.

In 2012, the Professor retired from his position as Professor of Medical Statistics at the Muhimbili University of Health and Allied Sciences (Muhas). Currently a Fellow of the Tanzania Academy of Sciences, he walks, talks, reads, writes and dreams in the friendly but congested, fume-filled, expensive environs of Dar es Salaam.

A man of principles

From the way he dedicated his life, it is not so much surprising then to find people struggling for a language to explain their connection to Prof Hirji. As Muhidin Shangwe believes, Prof Hirji can be defined in as many ways as possible and still people may end up thinking no description has been made at all. To him personally, Prof Hirji stands tall as a man of principles which are deeply informed by his beliefs. ‘Beliefs informed by science,’ says Mr Shangwe, who is a political science assistant lecturer at the University of Dar es Salaam, ‘and not dogma’.

A PhD candidate at East China Normal University, Shangwe called the event to mark Prof Hirji’s intellectual contribution as a refresher. ‘It was a reminder that we continue to keep our eyes on the ball in the context of searching for truth,’ he said.