Book publishing has its rewards and its frustrations, its disappointments – even dangers. But for all the negatives, what makes good publishing addictive are the opportunities to meet and to work with a few but exceptionally wonderful individuals who are passionate about ideas, who wish to share them with as many people as possible through the medium of the book and consider the publisher an ally in that adventure. One often hears about writers of creative works, fiction especially, unpredictable, often uncompromising and in some cases quarrelsome and difficult to deal with. Academic and scholarly authors, on the other hand, are thought to be driven more by the left than the right side of the brain, to be rational, and reasonable and to be prepared to take a reasonable publisher’s advice. Karim has the attributes of the artist and the uncompromising scholarly author.
This article on Prof. Karim Hirji (Karim from here on) is by three people on the Mkuki na Nyota team who have worked with him on the books he has published with us; Walter (that’s me), Mkuki and Tapiwa, respectively CEO, Production Director and General Manager of the company. But first, my acquaintance with Karim. Although I did not go to the University of Dar es salaam (UDSM) where most revolutionary and progressive Tanzanians, and indeed East Africans, were educated; I used to attend meetings and conferences and follow events and ideas being debated there at different times. However, it was when I moved to Tanzania Publishing House (TPH) in 1972 that I got close to a few of the UDSM comrades. By then TPH had already published Issa Shivji’s Silent Class Struggle and several other books of similar orientation were either published or in the pipeline, and TPH was gaining recognition as a progressive publishing house. It was a hectic period for us, trying to produce books, hampered by old and primitive technology, with sometimes having to go through four or five galley proofs before getting what would be comparable to today’s PDF, effortlessly produced by the click of a computer key.
In 1980 or thereabouts we began working on a manuscript, University of Dar es salaam Debate on Class, State and Imperialism edited by Prof. Yash Tandon in which Karim had contributed an article. The manuscript and the book generated very strong emotions, and poisoned relations between the two sides of the debate. We, on our part were determined to remain engaged with both sides and limit our work to ensuring the contents of each of the articles retained its integrity. I not only learned a lot form the debate, but also realised that publishing is also about how to handle ‘contradictions’ among authors.
For reasons that space does not allow me to go into, I left TPH to start publishing under the Mkuki na Nyota Publishers imprint in 1990. I have been privileged to have kept good relations with the comrades who were involved in that debate. I have continued to publish their books and to enjoy what I said in the beginning about publishing; meeting and enjoying good conversations, being enriched by constantly learning new ideas and engaging in robust exchanges, all buttressed by the knowledge that one is dealing with real, honest comrades and patriots. Karim is one of those incredibly knowledgeable people, a great humanist who cannot stand mediocrity, an honest and uncompromising intellectual who does not take kindly to hypocritical talk be it from above or below.
Mkuki: When I started working with Professor Hirji I was touched by his patience, listening to me and to other young people like me as if we were of the same age. I have great respect for him because, to start with, he knows more about how books are made than even some publishers. He knows a lot about book design, and he insisted, for example, on typesetting the Cheche book himself which impressed me greatly, because it was also done in a very professional way. I had little to add to it. As a trained graphic designer, meeting someone who did not have that kind of training but who is good at laying out pages of a book, was most impressive. I was very happy that he liked the cover of Cheche and was even more excited about the cover of Growing up in Tanzania which is a map of Tanzania drawn with elements of the endless ‘Pi’ values, which made him exceedingly happy. His happiness was contagious.
I have visited him at his house on several occasions and had interesting discussions with him, often in the presence of other young people. He is very passionate about Tanzania and his love for the country is so real you feel it, especially as he talks about the plight of the ordinary people and his desire to see improvement in their lives. His reading is phenomenal, and he is always buying books and giving them away to young people, encouraging them to read and pointing to good books from all corners of the world. He gave me a gift of a book on Paul Robeson, the great African American scholar, actor, singer, and anti-fascist activist. Despite his great stature internationally for his multifaceted genius he became the victim of McCarthyism and was pushed to oblivion in that era in the US of witch-hunting of communists, real and imaginary. Prof. Hirji insisted that I read the book which was his present for my birthday. He is a truly, truly wonderful person, and a most valuable friend.
But all that aside, whenever I work and feel tired and stressed, I go back and think about Prof. Hirji; getting on in age, twenty years living on a liquid diet that does not give him much energy, but despite all that, the amount of work that he is able to do and tasks he is able to accomplish; his ingenious little desk that fits in the mosquito net covered bed that accommodates a lap top at which he produces book after book; what a man! And we, young people always complaining about one thing or another, always wanting more! It is very embarrassing and humbling.
I have not visited him for over a year, ever since the Covid 19 pandemic because I do not want to take the risk of unknowingly passing on the virus if I am infected. I look forward to when I can visit him again when life returns to normal.
Tapiwa: I have known Prof Hirji since 2011 as our esteemed author and one thing that has been clear to me and which I respect and admire is that he is a stickler to contractual obligations on both sides (author and publisher). He sticks to agreed deadlines, delivering high quality manuscripts which required little additional editing by the publisher. He shares useful ideas on marketing and sales of his publications and is always ready to provide further information as and when required. Prof. Hirji purchases significant quantities of his publications which he gives to people who may not be able to purchase their own copies.
On the flip side, Prof. Hirji is firm when demanding proper accounting of the sales of his publications and timely payment of royalties due to him. Before computerising our accounting processes, given our very small staff in the department, working manually to compute sales and royalties due to authors of several hundred books, was not easy and we were not always able to give timely sales reporting and paying royalties on local and export sales. With computerisation of our accounting now completed we are able to easily meet his demand for professional relations all round.
For many years Prof. Hirji has also been a loyal customer at TPH Bookshop, sister company to Mkuki na Nyota Publishers. He would walk in and ask what is new from the press by Mkuki na Nyota and other publishers. After perusing the new publications he would also move along the shelves checking if we and/or he missed anything since his last visit. He rarely leaves the shop without purchasing some copies. He is much loved by the staff of the bookshop.
By way of conclusion, to everyone else, Karim is a man of with a frail physical frame, but with the tenacity of a ferocious tiger, and the abnegation of mystic. To comrades, a generous and I dare say, a loving person, with strength of spirit and capacity for hard work that is truly beyond comprehension. One of the reasons for our excellent relations with Karim are the experiences of publishing Cheche and later, Maji Maji which, I believe, were invaluable to Karim’s knowledge about publishing and understanding of the limitations to freedom to publish. From the experiences of state interference, and even banning of the publication of Cheche, Karim understands how far a publisher can go in challenging the authorities. Luckily, so far, we have had no experience of censorship. But he understands that to survive often means weighing what to keep and what to let go. The important thing is to continue to contribute to literature, and to discussion and debate on important issues of our time. In that way publishing advances the cause of intellectual growth and progressive change, no matter how little it may be felt at any given time. Karim has been and remains our ally and great inspiration.