Growing Up With Karim

The kitchen is sweltering. I am perched on a stool frying onions Indian style, under daddy’s supervision. Reggae melodies in the background. Then he points his finger at me, and we sing,

How can you be sitting there
Telling me that you care
That you care?
When every time I look around,
The people suffer in the suffering
In every way, in everywhere
(Bob Marley & the Wailers, ‘Survival’)

He named me after Rosa Luxemburg. But we never discussed Marxism in my youth. My father taught me through meaningful experiences. He immersed me in literature, autobiographies, and historical fiction. The human condition is better explored through stories than a textbook. He taught me how to use statistical principles to question prevailing claims. He patiently explained the historic and economic context of current events. I recall, for example, lively lectures on the struggle of the Palestinian people and a walking educational tour on the history of Dar es Salaam. As a child, he enrolled me in enrichment classes– dance, art, theatre, swimming, creative writing; and later Swahili and physics. Being fans of Charlie Chaplin’s silent movies, we both enjoyed my pantomime class, and I read Chaplin’s autobiography. Motivated by the 60’s American political folk music revival, we learned to play the harmonica, sang anti-war songs, and went to see Harry Belafonte perform live. We visited the Navajo reservation in Arizona, and learned about their living conditions and traditions; and he presented me with locally made jewelry. We volunteered together. At dawn on Sunday mornings, he took me along to a homeless shelter to cook his specialty gourmet omelets for the residents.

We lived a simple lifestyle, so that others may simply live, he would say, quoting Gandhi. I grew up in a small apartment in a low-income housing project in Los Angeles amongst a diverse immigrant community.  He could have afforded a house on a professor’s salary, but he never owned property in the U.S., considering it stolen land from the Native Americans. Our apartment did not contain expensive furnishings, but felt inviting. I warmly recall many evenings eating dinner on the floor (a sofa was deemed unnecessary for a short period), watching Star Trek episodes together on a tiny television. We rode the bus, and he taught me about how the auto industry undermined public transportation. My toys were few but cherished. The exception was each morning of my birthday, when I woke up to a pile of books!  On occasion, our sparse lifestyle caused me some dismay when I felt looked down upon by well-off relatives. But I was more thrilled to have a giant poster of an Acacia tree adorn our wall, and to play endlessly with the children in our complex.

Baking Bread with Emma 3

Karim is an activist. During his time in the U.S., he was fully engaged with the political and economic issues facing the working class, immigrant and other communities of color. He was a dedicated listener of progressive public radio, including Pacifica, and was familiar with all sources of alternative and radical news. He took me to hear Noam Chomsky and other radical intellectuals speak. When I organized a human rights week in college, he suggested I invite Allan Nairn, a journalist who exposed the brutal actions by the Indonesian and U.S. governments against the people of East Timor. He also introduced me to Ralph Schoenman, a former personal secretary to Bertrand Russell, who had written The Hidden History of Zionism. We had the privilege of meeting these two iconic anti-imperialists. I was enthralled when they had stimulating exchanges with my father. After the Los Angeles Riots, we drove through South Los Angeles to take a first-hand look at the conditions, and discussed the conditions that led to the uprising. He told me about Blasé Bonpane and South American movements of liberation theology. This led to my focus on the Haitian Revolution during my undergraduate studies. Later my father became involved with a group in San Francisco called Food Not Bombs, and through them met Kiilu Nyasha, a former member of the Black Panther Party and radio host. He and Kiilu exchanged many correspondences through the years. Kiilu became a cherished family friend. He exposed me to the pirate radio movement, which led me to volunteer for its legal defense while I was in law school.

My father never directed me towards a particular path. At a point in my adolescence, he stepped back and allowed me to control my destiny. Yet, it was the formative years with him that guided me. He had decided to pursue statistics rather than theoretical mathematics – to make a difference in the everyday lives of people. Like him, I considered a higher degree in history, but decided to follow the path of public interest lawyers, like Ralph Nader and my uncle, Issa Shivji. They inspired me by their example of representing the working class and taking on major corporations. Once I chose to pursue something, whether it was in my studies, activism, or with my career, he both supported me unconditionally and expected that I put in the effort to perform exceptionally. When my endeavors lacked discipline, sufficient effort or focus, he could be unforgiving in his criticism. While this response led to some strife between us, it challenged me and made me strong and independent.

Proud grandparents

My parents embraced my companion, Johnson, whom I met in college. At my wedding, which was an amalgam of intercultural traditions and non-secular events, Karim was the ultimate proud father. He took charge of the cooking, and hosted the entire extended family in reunion. In his enthusiasm, Karim wore a suit and bought one for Johnson, even though he had rejected this western bourgeois apparel for many years! He took an active role in my children’s upbringing, and provided to Emma the most magnificent experiences. He took it upon himself to immerse her classical literature. When she exhibited interest marine biology, he nurtured her through books and an extended project involving shells. Emma absorbed his lessons, and continues to exchange long emails with him regarding her university courses. By the time Samir was ready for the same, my father had moved to Tanzania and was also experiencing a decline in health. Yet, he has provided me with invaluable guidance on Samir’s medical needs. When we visited over the summer, he and Samir bonded over chess and sling-shot competitions. Samir believes his babu to be world’s greatest chess player!

Karim is not satisfied with mediocrity, lack of thorough preparation and research, excessive dogmatic approaches without analysis of contemporary issues, or failure to analyze the root causes of issues. His criticism is particularly sharp against those who portend to be radical scholars and thinkers, but have compromised along the way. As a professor at the University of California Los Angeles and Muhimbili University, he frequently butted heads with his superiors and other lecturers, particularly when they failed to maintain their competency in the subject matter or became complacent in their teaching. As a result, they did not offer him the opportunities that he deserved. Karim refused financial opportunities on principle. For example, he refused to take lucrative consultancies or attend needless conferences that his colleagues pursued.

My father approaches all things with evidence, discipline, and a steadfast critique of the capitalist system in all of its manifestations. His life-long journey in the study of medicine and alternative medicine reflects his dogged pursuit of knowledge. He was so far advanced towards his Ph.D. candidacy in biostatistics, that his advisors allowed him to take substantive courses at the Harvard Medical School. He continued the informal study of medicine through the years. This was intertwined with his research and teaching. He has become highly knowledgeable in nutrition, digestive and respiratory illnesses, their prevention and treatment. He need not accept the advice of mainstream medical practitioners because he has the unique ability to review the medical research and determine whether the research was done with efficacy! He also studied alternative medicine. Having an interest in traditional Chinese and herbal practice led him to enroll in the Acupuncture School of California. I can vividly conjure images of him inserting hundreds of needles into the plastic “acupuncture man” late into the night, while I steadfastly rejected any suggestion that he could practice on me! He left acupuncture, explaining that it lacked an evidence base. He is disapproving of the growing industry of alternative medicine, which was primarily based on market principles and exploited the public with false claims. Moreover, he is a staunch critic of the profit driven medical industry, and can relay many accounts of corporate malfeasance and medical negligence. Yet, he embraces traditional medicine. For example, he was a great proponent of probiotics before it became a fad, and learned how to make pickles and fermented foods at home. He also practiced Tai Chi Chuan, a martial art that incorporates deep breathing and meditation.

Rosa _ Karim at Park

Karim uses his knowledge in the aid of others. When my mother was severely burned by a gas leak accident in 1974, he took charge of her medical treatment and recovery; and he now monitors her nutrition as she has developed her own health issues. He took care of his older brother who had severe schizophrenia in circumstances that were unusually harsh, and then expertly and compassionately attended to his father who experienced brain damage after a terrible car crash. Family and friends will attest to how he has helped them overcome depression, prevent disease or resolve complicated medical issues when their own doctors were unable to. Now during the COVID-19 pandemic, we turn to him for his advice, as we remain skeptical of government or media sources of information.

This journey into medicine has literally kept Karim alive. He has diagnosed his own complex issues and determined his own treatment. He has a chronic condition caused by a surgery in the 1980’s. The type of treatment recommended by his doctors early on, would have left him dependent on pharmaceuticals, each with their own side effects. Instead, he regulates his health through strict adherence to a special diet consisting of easily digestible foods, and treatment only when necessary.  His limited food intake over the course of decades has resulted in collateral consequences impacting his mobility, sleep, speech, and the use his hands and legs. With the help of a very compassionate team of doctor’s from Muhimbili who were his former students, and his friend, Dr. Mahmood Hameer, he methodically addresses each as they arise. He summons immense will power to persevere, but mostly maintains a conviction that he will overcome his illness. My mother tends to him daily, and his brother, Rafik is a life saver, carrying essential supplies and nutritional supplements to Dar.

Rosa _ Parents at Fair

During a sudden decline in his health around 1998, he embarked upon an expansive critique of the liberal policies of the Clinton administration, called Impeachment and Imperialism. In that book, he analyzed the regressive impact of the Democratic Party in areas such as the environment, militarism, and crime policy. Noam Chomsky read some of his manuscript and wrote back with glowing responses. Howard Zinn recommended it to a publisher. During that time, he lost a lot of weight. I will never forget the toll on his health. Unfortunately, no publisher would pick it up, claiming that it was too critical. He did not give up.

When he returned home to Tanzania, despite his continued health challenges, he taught, he wrote prolifically and actively engaged with others on political issues. He reached out to and established relationships with many students, teachers, doctors, and journalists to discuss relevant political issues, and provide guidance and mentorship. He connected with journalists whose articles reflected critical or anti-capitalist themes, discussed their articles with them, and awarded them with books. After another significant decline, he became unable to go out into the community, and he and my mother invited many comrades, friends, students and associates to their home for long and stimulating conversation. They became regarded as charming hosts. His recent books, Statistics in the Media, Cheche: Reminiscences of a Radical Magazine, Growing Up with Tanzania, Travails of a Tanzanian Teacher, The Banana Girls, =The Enduring Relevance of How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, and Under-Education in Africa, and many articles, are geared towards the Tanzanian and African audience. Through them, he hopes to present a progressive perspective on Tanzanian history, and to inspire a new generation of critical thinkers.  

Karim is addicted to books. My mother frequently complained about the quantity of books that were taking over every room; and after his return to Tanzania, his brother Rafik was tasked with transporting heavy trunks laden with his books overseas. He is a fervent reader, devouring the latest on political economy, biographies, history, mathematics, health, and for relaxation, crime fiction and mysteries. His library is vast and well-organized. With his razor-sharp memory and logic, he can obliterate any opponent in debate on a wide variety of topic. Because of him, my mother is an avid reader of fiction, and prefers to read novels and biographies than watch television.

Chess with Babu in DSM

My parents now live in a house they bought in the 1970s in Dar es Salaam, that remains essentially unchanged as the neighborhood around them has morphed into high rises and fancy bungalows. Whereas his peers have modernized their homes with westernized furnishings, washing machines, and room extensions; he and my mother surround themselves with massive bookshelves, photographs of their grandchildren, a ping pong table in place of a dining table, and a perpetual scrabble game. Before my children visit, they strategically place interesting games and books for them to discover. The walls might be peeling with old paint, but the rooms are adorned lovingly with symbolic and meaningful objects. In that environment, he writes his memoirs, political books, and most recently is immersed in a massive project on religion!

Karim leaves a lasting impression on everyone that he engages because his interactions are genuine and deep. We, his family and close friends, are beneficiaries of his enlightenment. Foremost on the minds of those that love him is compassion for his extreme physical suffering and amazement of his continued achievements.


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