Mark Twain, author and humourist, was frustrated by age when he set out to write his autobiography and he remarked with tongue-in-cheek: ‘When I was younger, I could remember anything, whether it had happened or not; but my facilities are decaying now and soon I shall be so old I cannot remember any but the things that never happened.’ Readers of Awaaz know this is certainly not the case with Karim Hirji whose sharp memory, diaries, archive of documents, and revolutionary commitment has enabled him to write cogently – and often contentiously – at an advanced age. He has published more than a half-dozen books over the past fifteen years beginning in 2005 with Analysis of Discrete Data, an award-winning scholarly tome of one thousand pages in his professional field of statistics. Will his prodigious output end in November with yet another thousand-page work forthcoming from Daraja Press with the provocative title Religion, Politics, Science and Society; A Progressive Primer? His publishing dynamism over the past decade-and-a-half suggests this is doubtful.
Sandwiched in between the monumental volumes of 2005 and 2021 have been a two-volume autobiography, critical books with a historical perspective on teaching and education in Tanzania and the US, and even a novel for young adults. His knowledge and love of mathematics and statistics enables him to sprinkle ‘recreational’ math problems into many of them to challenge and educate the reader. Online at Awaaz and Pambazuka we find lots of his articles, letters, poems, commentaries and obituaries for comrades, as well as solid reviews of his books. As a historian, two of my favourites are those on the revolutionary phase of Tanzanian history in the 1960s and 1970s: the collection of documents and essays edited in Cheche (2010) and The Enduring Relevance of How Europe Underdeveloped Africa published four years ago.
This publishing record raises the question of why Karim, the mathematician and statistician, moved outside his professional field to write history? From my perspective, it was a consequence of his close alliance with Walter Rodney. Karim had the distinct privilege of working closely with him on the draft manuscript of How Europe Underdeveloped Africa and Walter’s methodology made a huge impact on him. The book was also life-changing for me. I was in California teaching African history after a decade of civil rights and anti-war activism. It was not easy to transition from activism to academia until I read How Europe Underdeveloped Africa when it was published in 1972. It opened my eyes and within a year I was off to UDSM to teach African history and learn from Walter Rodney.
In the preface to How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, two points caught my attention: its purpose and the process. The aim of writing history, Rodney says, is not to isolate actors and events in the past, but to make the past serve the present. In his words:
‘This book derives from a concern with the contemporary African situation. It delves into the past only because otherwise it would be impossible to understand how the present came into being and what the trends are for the near future…. The phenomenon of neocolonialism cries out for extensive investigation in order to formulate the strategy and tactics of African emancipation and development.’
The second thing that struck me was his selection of two undergraduate student activists, who were not history majors, to read the manuscript in draft form. Walter wrote in the preface:
‘Many colleagues and comrades shared in the preparation of this work. Special thanks must go to comrades Karim Hirji and Henry Mapolu of the University of Dar es Salaam who read the manuscript in a spirit of constructive criticism.’
So, I knew Karim’s name long before I met him and I wondered, ‘How did this honour come about?’ When I arrived at UDSM to teach, Karim was about to embark on his ‘long march’ to political exile in Sumbawanga for his radical activities on campus, and I was unable to ask him. It wasn’t until twenty-five years later in 1997 that I put the question to him by email when he was teaching in the Department of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles. His reply highlights the dialectical process of discussion and resolution between the three men and identifies major actors and issues in the struggle to build socialism at the time. Here is Karim’s email response in full:
Rough answers to some of your question[s]:
1. Why Henry and me are thanked: I think because the two of us were the only ones to whom he gave the draft of each chapter as it came out, and for each chapter, we met in Henry’s room and sat on the floor. He may have given bits and pieces to other students for comments but I think the systematic exercise (outside formal classroom teaching) was done only with the two of us.
2. Why Henry and me in particular: I am not exactly sure. But I remember initially being somewhat overwhelmed by the request. Both Henry and myself were in the Cheche editorial board and were quite active in many things where Walter was also present. But neither of us was a history major, I was in math[s] and Henry was in sociology. Walter, I think, never undertook anything as a purely academic exercise; for him all aspects of the struggle were intertwined. So he may have wanted to gauge the impact of the book on activist students and also to see whether non-historians found it readable. It was also more. From what I saw, Walter had a deeply ingrained respect for grassroots democracy; he was with students everywhere; going to Ujamaa villages, taking part in study groups and ideological classes; listening to the views of others; etc. So I think the fact that he gave his manuscripts to two students of a movement of which he was a part was an exercise in grassroots democracy. I was surprised that he took our criticisms seriously (I do not exactly remember the substance) and often we argued in relation to the need for class analysis. (We were, I think, more to the left in that respect.)
3. For me the exercise was a part of the overall learning process that we were engaged in at that time. We were devouring all kinds of books, I had stopped attending many classes (I almost failed my second-year exams), engaged in all kinds of discussions and heated arguments within and outside the progressive groups of students, and at times had pretty rigid ways of viewing the world. Walter helped us a lot in that process (and more so by his actual participation in the students’ struggles in and out of the classroom). So I remember this particular activity as among the many that overall had a tremendous impact on what we did and how we thought about the world.
4. Walter was as much influenced by the student movement as it was by him. The defining issue which propelled him (and us) forward was how to view the “socialist” experiment in Tanzania and Nyerere. Walter came to UDSM with a very sympathetic view on that and the student movement was to the left of him; more critical than him towards Nyerere. Some of us were more critical in that respect than others. In terms of the Silent Class Struggle, the possibilities painted at the end of the book for moving the situation forward was something not all of us agreed on. Some of us thought that Issa [Shivji] was too optimistic, and in that respect, there was at that time, an overlap between his and Walter’s views. But Walter was to the left of Babu, who, prior to his imprisonment, took a more Nkrumahist position (it is now time to conquer the economic kingdom), rather than the post-colonial state itself needed to be dismantled first.
5. When Walter went to the Ujamaa villages with students (to Dodoma – I was hospitalized at the time) and saw the reality on the ground, when he saw how the Nyerere government dealt with the progressive students (banning student journals etc.), when he saw how the workers’ movements were crushed after the Mwongozo, when he saw how the university administration with the blessings of TANU impeded basic changes in the academy, when education for self-reliance became a sham, etc., all these moved him (and us all) more towards class analysis of the situation.
I will stop here for now. I just wish I had my Dar es Salaam material in front of me.’
This formative experience with Walter and Henry would have been instrumental in transforming Karim into a radical historian. It clearly informs his subsequent methodology – historical investigation now had a revolutionary purpose! In the book Cheche (2010), Karim’s goal echoes Walter’s argument:
‘Accurate renditions of what happened in the past and why that happened have been expunged from the media and commonly accessed sources, and thus from memory. It is hardly in the interests of those who dominate this planet today that the person in the street acquires a comprehensive understanding of history. Yet, if Africa is to rescue itself from its current predicaments, that’s an essential requirement.’
It was our shared respect and admiration for Walter and his book How Europe Underdeveloped Africa that was the nexus of the comradeship Karim and I forged over the fifty years since its publication. Our common interest in history as an activist project cemented the bond and drew me into his work as a reader of manuscripts over the past decade. He would send them to me by email. ‘Be ruthless,’ he would say. I always complied. He never complained. He simply sent more drafts.