Uncovering The South Asian Tanzanian Genius

On 8 April 2021, Comrade-Ndugu Zarina Patel wrote to me to confirm that the forthcoming issue of AwaaZ would be devoted to Professor Karim Hirji. She asked me to pen a maximum of 1500 words piece on the ‘impact he has made on you, and on society generally.’ I wondered how I will do justice to this request in that number of words. I have decided to say upfront who Karim is to me and then give a brief rundown of five (5) of his books that I have read. I believe that approach should get readers started on uncovering this South Asian Tanzanian genius.

Karim and I are graduates of the University of Dar es Salaam (UDSM). We were both admitted at the UDSM in July 1968 and we graduated in March 1971. Being a law student I came to know Issa Shivji more. He was one class ahead of me. I also came to know Yoweri Museveni very well during those days. Yoweri took some law courses for his Bachelor of Arts degree. Both Issa and Yoweri were known by all law students as members of the radical student organization, University Students African Revolutionary Front (USARF). I knew there were other students in USARF, but I did not encounter Karim during this period. It was when I went back to UDSM to do my Masters in Law in July 1973 that I came to know Karim very well.

Indeed, I was introduced to Karim by way of reading Walter Rodney’s book, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, which was published in 1972. I knew Walter Rodney. He gave us lectures in a course in law called the ‘Social-Economic Problems of East Africa’. Organized by a radical Professor, Sol Piciotto, this course introduced us to the non-legal phenomena and their impact on reading, researching, practising and teaching law within its broader contexts. In his book Walter Rodney acknowledged that two of his students, Karim Hirji and Henry Mapolu read the manuscript and gave critical comments. There was no way I was not going to befriend these students; and I did come to know Karim and  Henry Mapolu very well. I attended the same ideological classes where occasionally they were key speakers and commentators. Both Karim and Henry were now part of the teaching staff at the UDSM.

Karim is a public and organic intellectual. He is a Professor of Medical Statistics, he is also a revolutionary and a socialist. He has a brilliant, insightful, inciting, exciting and revolutionary mind. He is my mentor, Mwalimu, Ndugu and a Comrade. He has made me question why we lawyers call ourselves learned when we are spectacularly ignorant of other critical disciplines that are foundational to the law. I have learnt from him what great courage is. He has written most of his books when he has been unwell. I would go to Dar es Salaam to visit Karim and his wife, Comrade Farida, and find him in his bed, not well at all, but always with a pile of books by his side.

Let me introduce Karim to those who may not have heard of him, through his books.

Karim has edited CHECHE: Reminiscences of a Radical Magazine[1]. Cheche (Spark) is a book that every radical or revolutionary student in East Africa, Africa, and indeed the world, should read. It tells a story of why UDSM was the Mecca for revolutionaries, for both students and the teaching staff. In our era where socialism is continually discussed as an alternative to capitalism, three brilliant chapters in this book are a must read: Socialism Yesterday (Chapter12), Contemporary Capitalism (Chapter13) and Socialism Tomorrow (Chapter14). On page 191 of Chapter 14, Karim writes:

‘What I have read and experienced in the last four decades since 1970 have only confirmed to me the main lesson I learned from my early association with USARF and Cheche. And this lesson is that socialism is the sole sound option for humanity. In that respect, I remain in agreement with what Albert Einstein said in 1949:

I am convinced there is only one way to eliminate these grave evils [of capitalism], namely through the establishment of a socialist economy, accompanied by an educational system which would be oriented toward social goals. In such an economy, the means of production are owned by society itself and are utilized in a planned fashion. A planned economy, which adjusts production to the needs of the community, would distribute the work done among all those able to work and would guarantee a livelihood to every man, woman, child. The education of the individual, in addition to promoting his own innate abilities, would attempt to develop in him as sense of responsibility for his fellow men in place of the glorification of power and success in our present society.

The march towards socialism goes on. No doubt, it will be a prolonged one. But we have to start treating this matter with the seriousness it deserves.’

UNDER-EDUCATION IN AFRICA: From colonialism to neoliberalism[2]. One of the endorsers of this book, Pat Saul, a UDSM graduate, teacher and community activist for social change, Toronto, captures its purpose in the following words:

An inspiring collection of vivid stories and profound critiques of education from a committed scholar-activist who draws upon a lifetime of engaged learning, teaching, research and debate. Revealing how under-education has been spawned by global capitalism, it also inspires hope and offers strategies for educational and social change in Africa and beyond.

It is difficult to single out a particular chapter for focus in this book, but I recommend readers to start by reading Chapter 16, Education and LiberationKarim gives us a great summary.

GROWING UP WITH TANZANIA – Memories, Musings and Maths: The memoir[3] is Karim’s memoir and is endorsed by two Kenyan socialists, Zarina Patel and Professor Ngugi wa Thiong’o. The latter, in praise of the book writes as follows:

Growing Up With Tanzania is more than a personal story; it is also that of the birth of a nation and a vision. Rich with anecdotes and an amazing cast of real life characters, this thrilling memoir is an aesthetically satisfying mix of memory, musings, meditations and mathematics. People in all works of life, young and old, must read it. They will never look back at the numbers the same way.

I just want to leave you with one anecdote. On page 270 Karim reproduces his Kibaha Secondary School Report of 1967. He was, indeed, an A student, but that is not what caught my eye. The British headmaster gave him a D in ‘General Conduct’. His quest for change, activism, and revolution must be reflected in this grade. Tanganyika had only been independent for six years.

THE TRAVAILS OF A TANZANIAN TEACHER[4]. Karim autographed (To Brother Willy Mutunga, In Solidarity) this book for me when Yash Ghai, Jill Ghai, and I visited him in his home on 27 February 2019. This book is praised by Dr Anne Harley of Paulo Freire Project, Centre for Adult Education, University of Kwazulu Natal in the following words:

Karim Hirji’s account of four decades of teaching in post-colonial Tanzania is a timely call on teachers to ‘educate in ways that will promote equality and social justice’.

What I cannot stop going back to is Appendix B: Akivaga Crisis in History[5] and Karim’s wisdom at the end: ‘Those who desire social change must strive to keep the authentic memories of the past alive. The activists of the future will be inspired and educated by them.’[6]

THE ENDURING RELEVANCE OF WALTER RODNEY’S HOW EUROPE UNDERDEVELOPED AFRICA[7]. Bill Fletcher, Jr, former President of TransAfrica, writes that, ‘Karim Hirji makes a systematic case 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’. And Karim tells us:

Walter Rodney lived and died for the people. Other progressive intellectuals/activists of that era made similar sacrifices. They have left us a priceless legacy. The new generation needs to critically engage with them, to learn from their struggles, achievements and errors. I hope this book will propel that on-going but presently slow-moving process forward.[8]

In conclusion let me quote yet again Karim’s quote of the words of Joseph Brodsky.[9]There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them.’ In that vein I urge all of us to read all Karim’s books. For most students they may not be mentioned by your teachers and professors, but self-education is glorified in Karim’s books, particularly, Cheche.

[1] Dar, Mkuki na Nyota, 2010

[2] Montreal, Daraja Press, 2019.

[3]Dar, Mkuki na Nyota, 2014

[4] Montreal, Daraja Press, 2018

[5] Pages 179-200. For Kenyan students of the late Symonds Akivaga this is a must read.

[6] Ibid; 200.

[7] Montreal, Daraja Press,2017.

[8] Ibid; xii.

[9] Op.cit Note 2, 269


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