The Prolific Polymath

‘Knowledge is the only factor of production that is not subject to diminishing returns.’[1]

A prolific producer of critical knowledge from a breathtakingly wide range of topics, Karim F Hirji has been providing increasing returns through his contribution to his native Tanzania but also to humanity. In this short essay, I cannot do justice to his contributions in mathematics and statistics, on political analyses of Tanzania politics, society, education and pedagogy, and many other fields including fiction. For those who may not know Karim, he is a retired professor of Medical Statistics at the University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, with a doctorate in biostatistics from Harvard, and who has taught at a number of universities including U California, U Bergen and U Oslo. In addition he has served as planning officer at Sumbawanga District and served time at the National Institute of Transport (NIT) in Dar es Salaam. Widely acclaimed for his seminal contributions to mathematical statistics, he is also known for insisting on acknowledging the political history of mathematics.

I first met Karim in 2009 at the Nyerere Intellectual Festivals held at the University of Dar es Salaam, an initiative launched soon after the appointment of Professor Issa G Shivji as the Mwalimu Julius K Nyerere Professorial Research Chair in Pan-African Studies. I knew of Karim over many years from his work on the radical Cheche, the publication of the University Students’ African Revolutionary Front (USARF), a publication that was to have a deep influence on me in founding Pambazuka News. I think it was Fatma Aloo who introduced us, and that became the beginning of a relationship that has continued until today. I wish I had met him sooner as I would have loved to have published his Cheche – Reminiscences of a Radical Magazine, but that privilege went to Mkuki na Nyota Publishers. Soon after, Karim submitted the manuscript of Statistics in the Media: Learning from Practice for publication by Pambazuka Press, but sadly I was unable to persuade my colleagues of the importance of this text (which, fortunately, was published by the Media Council of Tanzania in 2012).

When Pambazuka and I parted company in 2012, I lost contact with Karim until a few years after I had established Daraja Press. Karim had been invited by the Walter Rodney Foundation to contribute an introduction to the new edition of Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa that was to be published by Verso. Karim wrote a brilliant and lengthy assessment of the relevance of this text for today, but it turned out to be too long as an Introduction for that book. Daraja Press offered to publish the text and The Enduring Relevance of Walter Rodney’s ‘How Europe Underdeveloped Africa’ (Daraja Press) appeared in 2017. This was my first interaction with an author who was meticulous about not only what the text contained, but also about how it should be formatted. The book helped to establish a greater appreciation of the relationship that Rodney had with Karim — who was one of the first people to review Rodney’s original manuscript. In this exceptional book, Karim argues that Rodney’s seminal work retains its singular value for understanding where Africa has come from, where it is going, and charting the path towards genuine development for its people. After giving a broad picture of Rodney and his times, Karim examines in detail the criticisms levelled against Rodney’s work, and conducts a focused review of modern day textbooks on African history showing that the claims against Rodney lack a sound basis and that direct representations of his ideas are replete with distortions, unfair selectivity and political bias. Yet, the long term influence of Rodney on African history is unmistakable. Karim’s succinct, coherent defence of an intellectual giant who lived and died for humanity is an essential read for anyone with an interest in Africa and related regions.

A year later, Karim submitted Trials of a Tanzania Teacher, effectively the next volume his autobiography that had begun with Growing Up With Tanzania (Mkuki na Nyota 2014), described as ‘a multi-faceted, evocative portrait of his joyous but conflicted passage to adulthood during colonial and early-Uhuru Tanzania.’ In The Travails of a Tanzanian Teacher, Karim makes a stringent critique of the colonial forms of pedagogy that continue to persist in Tanzania and which demean and negate the potential for nurturing minds that can think critically and aspire to freedom – trends that have been exacerbated by the decision by successive governments to implement structural adjustment programmes, becoming increasingly dependent on donors and financial institutions (the ‘omba omba culture). He describes the emergence of university education degenerating into effectively a sausage factory for degrees under conditions where chronic under-staffing and moonlighting of faculty means an inevitable deterioration of education.

The theme of education is developed further in another book where the lens is drawn wider: Under-Education in Africa: From Colonialism to Neoliberalism. Clearly drawing on Rodney’s approach of underdevelopment in Africa, Karim provides a collection of essays on different aspects of education in Tanzania, written from the perspective of an activist educator and organic intellectual. Here we learn of the history of education, from German colonial times to the period of Nyerere’s Ujamaa, and the subsequent neoliberal era. He discusses the decline of education, democracy and violence in schools, the privatization of higher education, and the revisionist history of education that is perpetuated. He also compares the situation in Tanzania and the USA, exploring the possibilities for progressive transformations in both places. As Marjorie Mbilinyi, former Professor of Education at the University of Dar es Salaam put it: ‘Despite these bleak, dire and precarious times, this remarkable collection is an antidote to despair.’

But it is not just in non-fiction that Karim excels: in The Banana Girls (Mkuki na Nyota, 2017), Karim presents an action-packed novel of two highly talented school girls who resolve to eat bananas every day. From reserved science students, they evolve to be steadfast fighters for justice, and ultimately find themselves behind bars, convicted of terrorism related charges. The novel traces that evolution through a wide cast of characters that range from school mates, teachers, family members, street vendors to state officials and businessmen, both national and international. Despite being fictional, it remains fundamentally political in telling the story of the struggle to remain human against the powerful.

There is too little space to review the more than 200 articles and books  Karim has written, amongst which I must admit that my favourite is his review of ‘Eleanor Marx: A fighter for the oppressed’ that appeared in AwaaZ Magazine Volume 18, Issue 2. Like me, he is an avid reader of mystery books and admits to being addicted to books of all kinds.

If all that was not enough, Karim is on the brink of completing what I believe to be his pièce de résistance — the ultimate crowning three-volume book entitled Religion, Politics, Science and Society: A Progressive Primer (Daraja Press: 2021: forthcoming). ‘My goal,’ he writes, ‘is to explore the interrelationship between religion, politics and society by employing evidence and reason while avoiding bias towards any system of divine faith or the lack of it. … I distill a broad range of existing historical and modern material in an interdisciplinary fashion. By combining usually dispersed material, I aim to portray modern day religious conflicts in the context of other conflicts and tendencies in human society.” This book presents an analysis of globally important religions and secular ways of thought that can provide a basis for people with different perspectives to engage with each other in a peaceful and productive manner. The book considers Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Humanism, Eugenics, Science, Mathematics and the current Pandemic.

His compromised health, as well as the current restrictions of lock-down, prevents him from being able to socialize or engage in public activity. Yet despite that, he is extraordinarily productive – no doubt because he is so lovingly cared for by his partner, Farida (and the support of his daughter, Rosa, an advocate in USA). If it were not for travel restrictions, I would have loved to visit him and to spend time to talk to him about so many things. Despite only having met him personally once, I have a certain affinity to Karim: he, like me, specialized in a very particular discipline – he in biostatistics and I in dentistry – but both of us have been politically active for many decades. However, he has been a prolific polymath in ways that I could only dream of. It is a real honour – and joy – to be Karim Hirji’s publisher. It will be fascinating to learn what this great mind will turn to next.

Cantley, Québec

May 7, 2021

[1]  Hirji, K K (2001): Exploring Data Mining Implementation. Communication of the ACM, July 2001, Vol. 44 No. 7, Pages 87-93


  • A Publisher of Daraja Press and Adjunct Professor, Institute of African Studies, Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada.

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