A Committed Educationist Promoting Independent and Critical Thinking

It is with great pleasure that we, his former students, take this opportunity to honour Professor Hirji’s outstanding contributions in the field of education. We are fortunate and privileged to have been his undergraduate students at the University of Dar es salaam in the 1970s. He lectured us in the Linear Programming and Statistics courses in the Department of Mathematics and served as our seminar leader in the Development Studies course. At the outset, we would like to state that a 1500-word article such as this does not do justice to Prof. Hirji’s immense contributions to the education and political debate in Tanzania. In doing so, we are conscious that this article barely skims the surface of Prof. Hirji’s lifelong commitment to education. 

Professor Hirji’s dedication to sharing his remarkable gifts had its initiation in tutoring his fellow students at the primary, secondary and tertiary levels. In catering to the learning needs of fellow students, his kindness and patience knew no bounds. His dedication and caring attitude had its earliest beginnings during the colonial education system. This system of education encouraged the ranking of students on their academic performance. It pressured students to compete with each other and discouraged the sharing of learning experiences because it would be detrimental to the student’s ultimate rank in the class. It was aided and abetted by parents who were keen to see their children achieve ranks higher than the children of their neighbours. There was no incentive on the part of the students to help and cooperate with each other during the learning process. The assessment of learning entailed memorization of formulae and uncritical application of standard methods of solving mathematical problems. Students were short-changed in the learning of critical skills and independent thinking to seek novel approaches to problem-solving. Furthermore, teachers trained under this system were not challenged to think differently from their student days and so were unconsciously complicit in perpetuating a system that promoted individualism and discouraged endeavors that enhanced cooperative learning among students. A vicious cycle! For Prof. Hirji to emerge within such a system as a student who was keen to tutor his fellow school classmates in mastering the content in his mathematics classes is all the more remarkable. It has its origins in his deep commitment in sharing his learning with his fellow students. This continued during his postgraduate studies whereby he seized every opportunity in volunteering his time in tutoring students. His concern for the educational needs of disadvantaged youth in the juvenile prison system in America found him devoting considerable time and effort encouraging them in their learning.  He was exhibiting his innate characteristic of looking after the learning needs of those who required his help and compassionate understanding.

The education system prevalent in primary, secondary and tertiary education are well documented in his books Growing up in Tanzania, The Travails of a Tanzanian Teacher, Under-education in Africa. In our opinion, they should be essential reading in any course on teacher education. Importantly, they also reflect our own experiences of the education system prevailing in the colonial era from primary school up to and including post-independence secondary and tertiary education. The enrollment in communal primary schools during the colonial era discouraged interaction among students from the various ethnic groups. The mission schools endeavoured to enroll African students but due to high school fees, African student enrollments were few and far between. Even within Asian communal schools, clear divisions emerged with the children of well-off parents and those whose parents found it difficult to make ends meet in their daily lives. The children of such parents had difficulty paying school fees, in addition to purchasing notebooks, textbooks and stationery. It bred a sense of superiority and aloofness between classes of Asian students on the one hand and between Asian students as a group towards their African counterparts in poorly funded Government schools on the other. This sense of aloofness and superiority perpetuated these attributes of our parents and grandparents inherent in the colonial system. Another vicious cycle! Fortunately, this cycle was broken by the take-over of all schools, post-independence, under one unified system within the Ministry of National Education.  

We do agree with Prof. Hirji when he writes about the standard of university education in Tanzania in the 60’s and 70’s. The staff, both local and international, was instrumental in imparting quality teaching and learning in the Science, Arts and Law faculties. It was a curriculum which was rigorous, with assessment that produced outcomes that rewarded students who endeavored to exhibit the requisite academic effort. We enjoyed Prof. Hirji’s lectures in Linear Programming and Statistics within the Mathematics department. We looked forward to them, week after week being the same group doing the same subjects. He systematically covered the topics with judicious use of the blackboard. This ensured that we had an adequate set of notes to reflect on, reinforcing our in-lecture learning. Due to his inspirational teaching, one of us was motivated enough to take up Linear Programming /Operations Research for serious postgraduate study in his successful Master of Science Thesis. The other was able to pioneer Astronomy as a completely new field in Tanzania.

There was a particular theorem that he stated in one of his lectures which he quoted without proof, but indicated its application. However, a few of the students demanded that he spell out its proof in detail. Without hesitation, Prof. Hirji explained and wrote out the detailed proof on the blackboard from memory. It was a diversion from the lecture which he carried out with characteristic brilliance and aplomb! After this episode, no one needed to challenge him. As most of the students were earmarked for teaching positions upon graduation, it was a stellar lesson in what a good teacher should anticipate. There is no substitute for adequate preparation in confronting eventualities such as this in their future teaching classes.

Sadly, towards the end of our Linear Programming lectures we were informed that he was being uprooted (‘decentralized’) from the university. His activism seemed to trouble the powers that be.  We all felt that he was being unfairly dealt with for daring to speak out on issues in the education system that needed attention. However, Prof. Hirji dealt with his relocation and new appointment as a Planning Officer to a remote part of the country with typical equanimity. In his final Linear Programming lecture, he maintained his positive attitude to his exile from education by commenting that he looked forward to using his Linear Programming expertise to maximize fish production from Lake Rukwa situated near his posting in Sumbawanga. What a loss to the University of a committed and dedicated academic who strove to do his utmost in promoting critical thinking in student learning and being an exemplar to future teachers!! It no doubt delayed the implementation of reducing the recruitment of foreign staff by engaging local qualified staff, particularly in the mathematical sciences.

After serving his time as a Planning Officer, he was offered a position as an Instructor in Transport Statistics in the newly created National Institute of Transport. Prof. Hirji played a pivotal role, writing up the curriculum for its various courses. His contributions were crucial in establishing the institute whose course offerings were internationally recognized. Furthermore, it was the only one of its kind in East and Central Africa and attracted students from neighbouring African countries. His teaching skills and his caring attitude were appreciated by his students who farewelled him with a party when he took up a scholarship to Harvard University where he attained a Doctor of Science qualification in Biostatistics. He is a recognized authority on the analysis of small sample discrete data and his publications in this area culminated in a prestigious award, the Snedecor Prize, for best publication in Biometry by the American Statistical Association and the International Biometric Society. Furthermore, Prof. Hirji has authored a textbook on the exact analysis of discrete data which is the only one of its kind in this area.  His concern on the misuse of statistics in the media propelled him to publish Statistics in the Media: Learning from Practice.

Prof. Hirji has had a long, distinguished career in education. As an educator, he has outshone all his contemporaries. His dedication and selfless commitment in striving to do his utmost in enhancing the learning experiences of his students without compromising on academic standards should inspire emulation by educators.

Prof. Hirji continues his prolific writing on educational issues in addition to his astute commentary on the political debate in Africa. In spite of confronting serious health challenges, he continues to advocate for a just and fairer society through his deep-seated concern for humanity.

Prof. Hirji, you stand tall in the annals of education in Tanzania. As your former students, you are and have been a beacon of light in our lives as teachers and academics. You are an exemplar, par excellence! Bravo!  You have been, and continue to be, an inspiration to us and many others.


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