I met Karim Hirji way back in 1968 when I joined the University of Dar-es-Salaam, at that time known as University of East Africa. I came from a political background in Zanzibar where my eldest brother, Abdulrahman, popularly identified as Abdulrahman Guy, had formed a political party known as the Zanzibar Communist Party. It was therefore not surprising that when I was admitted to the University of Dar-es-Salaam, I joined both the TANU Youth League and the University Students African Revolutionary Front (USARF). The Chairman of USARF was Yoweri Kaguta Museveni who is now the President of Uganda.
The late 1960s and early 1970s was an era of progressive student movements with a lot of radical political activities at the University of Dar-es-Salaam popularly known as ‘The Hill’. I met Karim Hirji during these turbulent times, together with my late husband Ramadhan Meghji, the likes of Nizar Visram, Ramji, Issa Shivji, Henry Mapolu, Ramesh Chauhan, late Nazir Virji, George Hadjivayanis who later married my sister Salha Hamdani and other progressive students who were seen by some as ‘revolutionary and progressive’ but to some as ‘notorious’.
Karim Hirji, though he studied Mathematics and Statistics – hard core science subjects – and was highly intelligent and excelled in these subjects (in fact one can say he was a genius), was also very good at political issues and organizational work. He was always in the forefront in planning and implementing several activities.
One such activity was the Sunday Ideological Classes. This was organized by both USARF and TANU Youth League. It was Karim I remember, when we were discussing about which topics we should cover during Sunday Ideological classes, came out with the idea of preparing a syllabus so that we would know what topics to cover every Sunday. He also drew up a list of must read literature. These were books mainly on Lenin, Marx, Engels, Mao Tse Tung’s small Red Book, etc. So together with the reference books given by our respective lecturers, we also bought and studied these books. I remember Karim read a lot and sometimes I wondered, ‘when does he get the time to read his own books for his degree?’
During Sunday Ideological Classes, he contributed a lot towards discussion and debate and argued a lot – sometimes I thought he was being rather boastful and very critical. So, while some students, actually many students, went to church, we went to the faculty of Law to attend Sunday Ideological Classes, thanks to the hospitality of late Joe Kanywani who was head of the faculty of law. The class was mainly male dominated, and we were only a handful of females. As days passed by, more and more students joined the Ideological Classes. Sunday Ideological classes I can say helped me to be more politicized and to clarify the way I viewed society.
Together with Karim Hirji and other comrades we also organized lectures and invited people from the liberation movements. Many people also came from town, Walter Bgoya was not a student at the campus, but I remember he would attend these lectures. Others who attended were Eria Kategaya, Charles Kileo, Dan Nabudere and other progressive people from outside campus. We had talks by the late Walter Rodney who was a lecturer at the University and the late Gora Ebrahim from the Pan African Congress, the liberation movement in South Africa. These lectures became very popular and lecture theatres were packed. It is not that all the students who attended were progressive, but they gained a lot of information and ideas in those lectures which addressed their own experiences and needs.
Karim Hirji and many of us visited Ujamaa villages, we stayed there during our short holidays. We went to villages in Bagamoyo and Dodoma. He, with other comrades like Ramadhan Meghji, George Hadjivayanis, Issa Shivji and Henry Mapolu, took part in helping farmers near the University pick cashew nuts during the harvesting season. In those days Ismaili boys kept to themselves and did not mix with other students, but here were Tanzanian nationals of Asian origin who mixed so well with African students. At that time, Karim only lacked speaking Kiswahili, but was well understood as most students spoke English. Presently however, Karim speaks very good Kiswahili and I think he is proud of it. He also dressed very simply, I remember him in baggy trousers, loose shirt and suede shoes which I am not sure were ever polished. I do not remember him even once dressed in a suit.
Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, then President of the United Republic of Tanzania recognised us, and we used to go to his residence in Msasani whenever he called us. I was the only female amongst many males, I usually kept quiet unless Mwalimu spoke to me. Others spoke and I remember Karim was rather forceful in his approach, not fearing but speaking his mind and challenging in a respectful manner. Others were Ramadhan Meghji, George Hadjivayanis, Issa Shivji, Kaijuki (who later became chair of USARF), Salum Msoma, Henry Mapolu…it has been many years so I do not remember them all.
In October 1969 Cheche was born – The Revolutionary Students Magazine – Cheche is the Swahili word for ‘spark’. Some people, especially the bureaucrats, associated it with Iskra, the Russian Progressive newspaper.
Ramadhan Meghji an economic student who later became my husband drew the cover picture of the magazine.
I was in the first editorial board together with the late Henry Mapolu and Karim Hirji. I remember most of the articles of the first publications were chosen and written by Karim Hirji. We did the proof reading and helped in cyclostyling till late at night. My late husband, Ramadhan Meghji and George Hadjivayanis were also very active, I would retire to my hall of residence (Hall 3) and leave them to work throughout the night.
Karim did most of the editing and the magazine became very popular. It was critical of the political system and full of progressive ideas. It is therefore not surprising that after three publications it was banned. Karim wrote what he called ‘our last stand’ – this is produced in full in the book Cheche- Reminiscences of a Radical Magazine that he edited, and to which I also contributed an article on ‘sisterly activism’. Several comrades also contributed different articles, for example ‘Night-Shift comrades’ by George Hadjivayanis. In 1968, my late husband, Ramadhan Meghji had written a poem titled, ‘The day the Rags didn’t show up’, (it was not for this book for by then he was already deceased). I submitted it to Karim and he included it in Cheche. Henry Mapolu (late) wrote on producing a student magazine, and Karim solely worked on the production of the book, encouraging us to write, reading our manuscripts, editing, and making sure the book got published.
During our student days Karim sometimes took me and Ramadhan Meghji and other comrades to his home. His parents, both father and mother, were very hospitable. They lived in an apartment in Upanga. I remember we were always treated to tea and ‘cheuro’. When he went home himself for the weekends, he always came back with bites to be shared with other comrades, especially during late nights when producing Cheche magazine.
After we left University, we kept in touch. Karim married Farida, the sister of Issa Shivji, and they went to the USA, where they stayed for several years. Prior to leaving, he taught at Muhimbili Medical Centre. He was a Professor of Medical Statistics and a fellow of the Tanzania Academy of Science. Combining pure science with social and political science, he influenced his students with his ideology.
When he came back, he was quite frail, and the first time I saw him I was very emotional and had to control my tears. He told us he was sick since they had messed with his throat operation in the USA hence he could not eat solid foods anymore. But one thing gave me hope, he was the same old Karim, with revolutionary ideas. He gave us confidence in his life ahead. He still talked, discussed, and argued. He read a lot too and wrote a lot. He has written several manuscripts and books, and he still does.
Karim teaches us a lot to care for the downtrodden than for the wealthy. To be simple in this life. It is only recently that Karim acquired a mobile phone. Hard working, loving humanity, looking past race, colour, and creed – that is Karim Hirji.