Our North Star

‘One of the truest tests of integrity is its blunt refusal to be compromised.’ Chinua Achebe.

Dr Rafik Hirji,

This article, a personal, close-up, and sibling perspective, is a tribute to Karim, a man of ideas, ideals, evidence, science, and social change.  He has many labels – a teacher, principled educator, scientist, author, researcher, intellectual, Professor, revolutionary, radical, Socialist, Marxist, and activist.  Karim is the leading authority in a specialized area of statistics and an accomplished professor of medical statistics with a four-decade teaching career and an extensive publication record.  His passion has been fighting for equality, justice, dignity, and the rights of the oppressed, and he has had the guts to challenge the status quo time and again. 

An established progressive intellectual giant, Karim is part of a family of well-respected progressive academics that stand out.  They include his former UDSM comrade, Walter Rodney, the assassinated Guyanese historian; Noam Chomsky, the American linguist, philosopher, historian, and political activist; and Cornel West, the American philosopher, political activist, social critic, and public intellectual; amongst others. 

Karim lives with his wife Farida (Issa Shivji’s sister) in Upanga, Dar es Salaam.  Rosa (daughter), Johnson (her husband), Emma, and Samir (their kids) live in Los Angeles.

I was born in Lindi in 1956 and grew up with brothers: Mohamed (11 years older, who suffered severe Schizophrenia and has passed away), Karim (7 years older), Nazir (4 years older), and Munir (4 years younger), and my parents (who have passed away). We moved to Dar es Salaam in 1961 and lived in Upanga, amongst a predominantly Ismaili and Asian community, near the Aga Khan Hospital and Aga Khan schools.  Karim enrolled at the Aga Khan Boys School and did his O-levels in the Dar Technical College, A-levels in Kibaha High School, Ruvu National Service, and UDSM. 

UDSM was a Mecca for progressive thought and ideals in the 1960s and 70s, when Karim was on a pilgrimage with leading progressive thinkers.  He was an outstanding mathematician, an activist, and Cheche editor, the radical student magazine that was later banned and reincarnated as Maji Maji

UDSM recruited Karim for mathematics.  In 1971, he did an MSc degree in Operations Research at the London School of Economics (LSE).  From 1970-71, my world of 14 to 15-year-old boys was in turmoil.  Over 80% of my Tambaza Secondary School Form 2 Asian (predominantly Ismaili) classmates dropped out of school; and friends as well as relatives all fled Tanzania.  The policy on socialism and self-reliance, The Arusha Declaration, and the Nationalization of banks, businesses, and property, created severe economic uncertainty, panic, and hysteria among the Asian community and led to a mass exodus.  Some people fabricated additional justifications for fleeing: (a) Nyerere’s Africanization policy targeted Asians and (b) poor quality of education.  Karim returned from LSE in late 1972 and taught at UDSM, and I finished my O-levels at Tambaza that year.

I sought Karim’s advice on future education options: ‘flee to the UK (like others) with my cousin (whose parents were willing to support me) or attend Moshi Secondary School (a boarding school) for A-levels.’  He advised that I try Moshi at least for a term.  And if I did not like it, I could opt for the UK.  He introduced me to his UDSM friend Ramzan Meghji and his wife, Zakia Meghji. They were teaching at the Moshi Cooperative College (now Moshi Co-operative University), near my high school.  My Moshi experience was unique and liberating.  For the first time, I was out of my confined Ismaili cocoon.  My boarding schoolmates included 1 Ismaili, nine other Asians, and nearly 280+ Tanzanian Africans from different regions.  I learned to lead the disciplined life of a boarding school, live and work with others, know fellow students, and learn about my prejudices.  I was with good students and received an excellent A-level education in Physics, Pure Mathematics, and Applied Mathematics and General Subjects in Moshi (1973-74).  Over 70% of my classmates went to university in and out of Tanzania.  I also met my best friends and watched my first World Cup (on black and white TV from a Kenyan station) at the Meghji home.

In 1974, UDSM expelled Karim for activism and exiled him to Sumbawanga, in spite of his mathematics skills being in demand.  His critical article on Tanzania’s education policy had touched Nyerere’s raw nerve.  In early 1975, I visited Karim, Farida, baby Rosa and my brother Mohamed in Sumbawanga.  I stayed with Mohamed while they took a break in Dar.  Before they left for Dar, I sought Karim’s advice on a crucial decision: ‘attend the University of Loughborough or UDSM, where I had secured admissions for a BSc in Civil Engineering.’  His advice was: ‘defer Loughborough, try out UDSM, at least for a semester.  And opt-out and go to Loughborough if UDSM did not work.’  I enjoyed Sumbawanga with Mohamed, who loved to sing and dance when he was in a mood.  In July 1975, I went to National Service (Makutopora Camp and Mgulani Camp) for one year. In July 1976, I started a BSc degree in Civil Engineering at UDSM.  

From O-Levels to UDSM, neither my Asian friends nor I encountered any form of discrimination. I was treated equally and with respect and judged on merit, discipline and contribution.  In Moshi, I played hockey and was in the mountaineering club. At UDSM, I captained the hockey team for two years.  My race was irrelevant; I had to earn respect, and we learned to work together, sometimes to pull each other up when somebody was down.  Teamwork was essential for scoring a goal, winning a game or a tournament, or reaching the summit. Collaboration works when members respect and trust each other.

My A-levels and UDSM education provided a solid academic foundation for admission to an MSc degree program in Environmental Engineering (1983) and a Ph.D. program in Water Resources Planning (1985) at Stanford University, California.  And a 35+ year career in water resources planning, development, and management, including 24 years with the World Bank on water projects worldwide.

Karim moved back to Dar from Sumbawanga in late 1975 to join the National Institute of Transport.  In 1981, he went to Boston for his MSc degree, followed by a DSc degree in Biostatistics at Harvard University.  He taught and researched at UCLA and Bergen University in Oslo, Norway. 

In 2004, 23 years later, Karim left UCLA and returned to Tanzania to take care of our 84-year-old dad, with severe brain injuries resulting from a car accident in December 2003.  His car was hit by a minibus near the Upanga Jamat Khana (JK) in the evening.  At that time, I was at my mother’s bedside at the Aga Khan Hospital ICU.  My dad was coming from the JK to see mom and pick me up.

Karim joined the Muhimbili University of Health and Allied Sciences, Dar es Salaam and became a Professor of Medical Statistics.   He is the leading authority on a specialized branch of statistics dealing with small samples and the author of Exact Analysis of Discrete Data (2005), the only text on the subject and an extensive list of publications. In 1989, he was awarded the Snedcor Prize for the Best Publication in Biometry. 

He retired in 2012.  He reads and writes extensively and has authored eight books.  He is the editor and principal author of Cheche: Reminiscences of a Radical Magazine (2011). In addition he is the author of Statistics in the Media: Learning from Practice (2012), Growing Up with Tanzania: Memoirs, Musings, and Maths (2014), The Enduring Relevance of Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (2017), The Banana Girls (2017), The Travails of a Tanzanian Teacher (2018) and Under-Education in Africa: From colonialism to neoliberalism (2019).  Currently, he is working on his ninth book, a likely blockbuster on religion and politics.

During my early teens, I recall Karim as a strict brother who came home and left.  We rarely interacted, perhaps because of the age difference, or maybe because he was not around often or couldn’t be bothered with young brats.  Nevertheless, I shared common interests with Nazir and Munir – marbles, soccer, cricket, hide and seek.  We swam.  We fished.  We were Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts and we went camping.  Then, in 1967, Nazir was selected as one of six (6) boy scouts to represent Tanzania at the World Boy Scout Jamboree in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, USA. On their return, the scouts met and shook hands with President Julius Nyerere.  That was a massive deal for an 11-year-old!

At home, Karim’s presence, on the other hand, evoked discipline.  I recall tea times at home when I would often pour hot tea from my cup onto my saucer to cool it, and after that, slurp it down.  He would yell at me to stop making nasty sounds. 

Over the past fifty years, however, we have grown closer.  I no longer pour tea on my saucer. We saw each other many times in Boston, LA, Palo Alto, Stockton, etc., in the US.  Karim and his family attended our wedding in Palo Alto.  We attended Rosa’s wedding in Santa Monica.  For my work with and after the World Bank, I traveled to Tanzania often and met my parents when they were alive, and Karim and Farida.  My wife and daughter visited Karim and Farida a few times in Dar.  I couriered medical supplies for my dad, books for Karim, and other supplies for a while and enjoyed Farida’s delicious meals.  I have come to appreciate Karim as a down-to-earth, caring, and decent human being, a trusted guide, and a mentor.  I have learned about his work, the ups and downs in his life and career, and complicated health challenges that ironically had origins with his surgery at Harvard Medical Department Hospital in Boston.  Reading his books and reviewing chapters of his manuscripts, I have come to understand his work, values, and sacrifices.  I am also amazed at his remarkably disciplined life and diet regime, and his caring about his very fragile health.

I have come to recognize Karim’s unique qualities, remarkable analytical abilities, and meticulous evidence-based research, and the clarity of his analysis, as evident from the breadth and depth of his written work on historical and contemporary issues.  He knows and understands data, numbers, correlations, different types of biases, and the value of mathematics in development decision-making.  Moreover, he teaches and addresses these issues better than anybody I know; he is, after all, the guru on the subject.  I have also learned about Karim Hirji, the teacher with ‘a photographic memory,’ from my unnamed math teacher of 1972 at Tambaza Secondary School, Dr Noorali Jiwaji, a physics lecturer and a champion of Astronomy in Tanzania; and Professor Clifford Da Costa, a Professor of Statistics in Australia; all Karim’s UDSM students. 

I have benefitted from Karim’s critical views on several important issues of our time: colonial education, race, class, media bias, biases and corruption in the medical and pharmaceutical industry, Vietnam war, Iraq war, colonial struggles in Africa, underdevelopment, western Imperialism, neoliberalism, Zionist brutality against the Palestinian people, and the World Bank and IMF and on the need for Tanzania to chart her destiny and development trajectory, consistent with Nyerere’s fundamental goal and slogan of ‘Kujitegemea’ (self-reliance).  I have read his analyses that debunk claims about Nyerere’s racist Africanization policy.  Such policies were implemented in Kenya and Uganda, not Tanzania – and not in the 1970s.

Like, dad, Karim is not a materialist.  He is well-read.  His home is full of books.  He is a man of knowledge, ideas, numbers, analysis, evidence, and solutions to critical social issues.  He is committed to family and society.  Dad had humble origins, worked hard, and struggled most of his life.  He took care of his family and extended family, gave us a home, met our needs, supported and assisted us in going to school – he imparted values about caring for family and the poor, frugality, sharing, and working together.  Taking care of Mohamed’s Schizophrenia was difficult for my parents and often entailed cycles of home care and admissions to hospitals in Dar and Lutindi for over two decades.  Munir, Nazir, Karim, and I supported our parents in different ways in dealing with our brother’s health challenge. 

Like Karim, dad was disciplined with his diet, cared about his health, had many friends, and was a community organizer and neighbourhood activist.  He fought authorities at the mosque for the rights of the Jamat Bhai (helper at the mosque), needy community members who faced eviction or discrimination in Ismaili welfare schemes.  He organized neighbours to jointly fund clean-up of backed-up sewer systems and municipal authorities to repair roads damaged by heavy rains. 

With little formal education of only up to grade 4, dad produced a Harvard-trained DSc, a Stanford-trained Ph.D., and a boy scout who represented the nation at a World Boy Scout Jamboree.  Dad was very proud of his Professor and used to brag about him frequently with his beer buddies. 

Doctorates from the most prestigious US universities (Harvard and Stanford) were only possible because Dar Technical College, Kibaha High School, Tambaza Secondary School, Moshi Secondary School, and UDSM – imparted a solid educational foundation.  Thus, the claim about the poor quality of Tanzanian education in 1971 is groundless.  Admittedly, the quality of education in Tanzania declined substantially later on from the 1980s, but that is a separate matter.  Karim’s book Under-Education in Africa: From colonialism to neoliberalism (2019) discusses the subject in detail. 

Karim is a caring father, husband, and granddad.  He helps and advises members of his family, extended family and friends, and colleagues on health matters.  He has a strong bond with Emma; he loved her unique shell calendar.  He is proud of Rosa’s work and follows her cases and victories against injustices and discrimination against immigrant children in the Los Angeles School system. 

After four decades, my crumbled Tambaza world started to rekindle.  Classmates who left and settled in the UK, Canada, the USA, Pakistan and Kenya and those who remained in Tanzania, reconnected by email and WhatsApp.  All with a different career, education, and professional trajectory, and other values too.  Many have families and kids.  I have joined a few as a grandparent.  Our chat group actively stays in touch and exchanges posts on various topics, jokes, humour, health matters, news events, etc.  And, sometimes also engages in spirited discussions on current issues—Covid 19, racism following George Floyd’s murder, Zionist aggression against the Palestinians, religion, healthcare, Tanzania, Nyerere, Magufuli, Modi, India, Trump, etc.  Many of the exchanges have helped me stay in touch and learn and know about each other.

In the process, I have come to value enormously my Moshi and UDSM education and my National Service experience.  My UDSM course in Development Studies has been especially helpful in understanding and interpreting contemporary issues.  In this regard, my UDSM knowledge was superior to my Stanford education. Of course, Stanford gave me depth in my area of specialization. But on the other hand UDSM offered the breadth to understand contemporary issues around the world.

We have held reunions in San Francisco (2015), Vancouver (2017), and Dar es Salaam (2019).   During our last Reunion (the 50th for the class of 1969) on 6 March 2019, I gave a talk to the Tambaza High School General Assembly, titled ‘The Power and Value of Education: Reflections from a Personal journey.’  We also visited our former Agakhan (now Muhimbili Primary) School and raised funds, bought 50 desks and a large photocopier machine for the school.

On reflection, I am very grateful to have received an excellent education in Tanzania. It opened many doors and provided the opportunity of working worldwide on water projects.  In addition, it broadened my understanding of different people and cultures, and political systems and how they can support or hamper their people’s needs, welfare, and ambitions.   

I have deep respect for Nyerere for actively supporting Africa’s liberation, establishing a nation built on the principles of equality, dignity, cooperation, and self-determination, putting in place a system that unites the different races, ethnic groups and religions.  The six presidents of Tanzania have alternated between a Christian (C) and a Muslim (M): Nyerere (C), Mwinyi (M), Mkapa (C), Kikwete (M), Magufuli (C), Suluhu (M); it is a remarkable design that equally respects, balances and empowers both critical constituencies. There is no nation in the world that has such a remarkable design.  Tanzania’s first cabinet (under Nyerere)   included two prominent Ismailis (Amir Jamal and Alnoor Kassam).  No other cabinet in the world have given Ismailis such prominence, and this adds to debunking the myth about Nyerere’s racist Africanization policy.  A racist policy would never have given the education opportunities from which Karim and I and many others benefitted.

My respect for the social foundation that Nyerere laid grows by the day.  It is reinforced by observing the growing social and economic strife in many ‘so-called’ democracies.  The current social, economic, and political climates in the two largest democracies of the World – the USA and India – suggest that the free market capitalist system is in a tailspin.   It becomes evident from observing the political lunacy, Covid 19 debacles, healthcare disparities, institutionalized racism, corruption, appalling atrocities committed against immigrants, Muslims, Jews, the white supremacist, and neo-nazi’s resurgence, widespread gun violence, sedition, and climate crisis.

I am eternally thankful that I had a trusted and experienced brother – my North Star – who provided sound and sober advice that enabled me to navigate during critical times and to learn and appreciate my country; and who continues to guide our family and fight for the rights of the needy.   

I have also come to enormously value and respect Karim’s uncompromised intellectual integrity. 

I can see a large glow in the heavens from Chinua Achebe smiling on this proud son of Tanzania and Africa. 

12 June 2021.


  • A Registered Professional Civil Engineer, is an Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM), Water Security, Water-Environment, and Resilience global leader based in Chevy Chase, Maryland, USA. He provides strategic leadership, high level policy and planning advisory service, and technical support to governments and development agencies to solve complex IWRM problems and deliver sustainable and climate resilient water supply solutions.

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