Our first encounter with Prof. Karim Hirji was in late 2010 when he emailed us asking if AwaaZ could publish an announcement of the publication of his book, Cheche – Reminisences of a Radical Magazine which was being published by Mkuki wa Nyota. Little did we know then that this would be the beginning of a most treasured comrade-ship; and an opportunity to learn from and interact with one of East Africa’s most incisive intellectuals who, as a practising socialist, has dedicated his life to ‘making another world possible’.
Karim (as he is now known to us) is a retired Professor of Medical Statistics and a Fellow of the Tanzania Academy of Sciences, widely known for the many books he has written on topics ranging from Education, Statistics in the Media, Mathematics and a positive re-evaluation of Walter Rodney’s seminal book, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa to Growing Up with Tanzania and a novel, Banana Girls. Awaaz has reviewed his books and has recently made them available to East Africans at affordable rates. The most notable fact is that all Karim’s writings are concerned with the Tanzanian masses (and can apply to East Africans and beyond) – their history; their present dire situation and the role of Imperialism in it; and finally the possible ways ahead. To add to his books are a legion of publications: research papers, book reviews and book chapters, articles, poems and opinion pieces.
What makes this degree of discipline and commitment even more remarkable is that almost all have been written under increasingly severe health challenges. For the last four years or so, Karim is virtually homebound and in strict isolation, surviving on a liquid diet which needs no digestion. He is at present working on a major volume on the subject of Religion, Politics, Science and Society – a theme of great concern, controversy and sensitivity in Africa and the Global South.
How does he do it? What sustains this dogged perseverance and dedication to ‘making a better world possible’? It is a journey which did not begin last year or even some decades ago – Karim’s entire life is a reflection of his present situation.
Whereas Karim’s writings are known and have been celebrated; his activism, his people-centred focus and socialist way of life are lesser accentuated. In AwaaZ we feel there are important lessons to be learnt from these aspects and so have invited a selection of Karim’s colleagues and relatives to share with us their experiences with him. We are living in an era when socialism is back on the table and it is becoming fashionable to be called a ‘socialist’. The word ‘comrade’ is being bandied about until it has even lost its original ideological import. We are privileged to have a role model in our part of the world whom we can identify with; and by whose humility, humanity, courage and unwavering commitment we can be inspired.
Karim is not only ‘one of Tanzania’s most sustained and consistent Marxist writers but also a fearless critic’. And this has cost him dearly. 1967 was the year of the Arusha Declaration when ‘socialism’ entered Tanzania’s lexicon. Karim was admitted to UDSM for a BSc course in 1968 and there he immediately joined the University Students African Revolutionary Front (USARF) and took on, with Henry Mapolu and Zakia Meghji , the editing of its organ Cheche, the first anti-imperialist, socialist magazine originating from East Africa. USARF and Cheche were both banned in 1970.
This political activism is noted by the government – in March 1974 Karim, then a lecturer in UDSM with an MSc from the London School of Economics, is ‘decentralized’. He is sent as a planning officer to Sumbawanga, a remote place where Mau Mau fighters from Kenya and other dissidents, used to be detained. The Siberia of Tanzania! Karim could have emigrated to Canada but instead he decided to stay and ‘be loyal to the land of his birth’.
From starting a mathematics club at the local school, building and stocking a bookshop to data collection from the villages in the Ujamaa setting; are just some of his contributions in that desolate place. When the villagers begin to bring their complaints to him about the corruption of his boss, the Regional Planning Officer, matters become tense.
In September 1975, Karim sees a newspaper advertisement for an Instructor of Transport Statistics at the National Institute of Transport (NIT) in Dar es Salaam. He longs to get back to teaching … applies … and is immediately hired. Excited, he reports to work and is warmly received by the Director of National Transport Corporation who takes him to a room with two men sitting at a round table. When Karim enquires about the main building he is told, ‘This is it. And you three are its first employees.’ For the next five years Karim helps to build an institute to meet Tanzanian needs, he does this with local and other Third World instructors who develop a research-based documentation and practice to diploma level which by 1980 receives international recognition.
But as with all projects in the Ujamaa era, though implemented with noble goals, the NIT is infected by the reality of an alienated population and capitalist interests and Karim, in trying to stem the tide of corruption and bureaucracy, becomes a thorn in the management process. It is time to move on!
This is an opportunity for Karim to fulfil his dream of further study in Statistics. In 1986 in the USA, he is awarded a doctorate in Biostatistics by the Harvard School of Public Health. In August 1989 he is awarded the Snedecor Award for the ‘Best Publication in Biometry American Statistical Association & International Biometric Society’. He goes on to lecture at Universities in Los Angeles and San Francisco and returns to Dar-es –Salaam where, in 2006, he is appointed the Professor of Medical Statistics at the Muhimbili University of Health and Allied Sciences. He retires in 2012.
In the USA, as in Tanzania, Karim did not hesitate to stand up for what he thought was right and therefore often faced ‘unpopularity or worse’. He has taken on ‘researchers and senior professors bent on misusing statistical methods, violating study protocol and using short cuts to increase their publication list and drive home pre-determined conclusions. This has included students cheating in exams and research’. At the birth of their daughter, the parents decided to name her ‘Rosa’ after the famous socialist, Rosa Luxembourg. Karim’s mother-in-law disapproved and went ahead and had the child registered as ‘Rozemin’, a proper Ismaili name. On learning of this Karim immediately had it corrected. ‘The quickest name change I have ever come across,’ the registrar remarked! Karim’s refusal to wear what he calls the ‘feudal gown and cap’ at university graduation ceremonies and his preference of the traditional blackboard as opposed to power point presentations are just some of the principled struggles he has waged over the years.
In April 2017, Zahid got a chance to visit Karim at home when he went to Dar es Salaam to attend the annual Mwalimu Nyerere Intellectual Festival at the UDSM.All the walls were lined with books. Apparently with the books in the bed rooms and an outside office, some 6,000 books on many subjects, fiction and non-fiction, were housed there. Karim not only collects books but also avidly distributes them to high school and university students as well as comrades and journalists. He has also donated many books to libraries and progressive bookstores. The lack of enthusiasm for reading among the modern youth is of particular concern to him. He has initiated book review and essay writing competitions in the local media. The winner gets two or three books. He corresponds with emerging writers and invites them at home for discussions. Usually, they depart with a bundle of ten or so books. Yet, he says that he found such tasks somewhat disappointing; only a few follow up.
Ever since our first introduction to him through AwaaZ, Karim has been to us a mentor, a guide, a teacher and a true comrade. He has been a regular writer for AwaaZ and a critique of several articles whereby he constantly strives to present the dialectical aspects of the topic in hand. His writings consistently reflect an anti-neoliberal, socialist framework for analyzing human society. At the same time, it is an evidence-based framework. Karim has no sympathy for political sloganeering, be it from the left or the right.
Two traits we greatly admire in Karim are discipline and resilience. He means what he says and keeps his word. His articles for AwaaZ always come in a timely manner. He sets high standards for himself and others. Often setting aside personal relationships, prominent authors who made logical, factual and political compromises have elicited harsh reviews from his pen. At times, we feel he is too harsh. But that is Karim.
We have come to understand the value of his insistence on thorough research and analysis, and of honesty and transparency in relationships. But most of all, in this struggle for a better world, his unfailing humanity and respect and concern for his fellow beings makes him a role model for our socialist future. Too often today, shouts of ‘Viva …,’ Marxist jargon and a glaring lack of empathy or basic humanity are extolled as hallmarks of socialism. But here we have, on our doorstep, a living example of the socialism we aspire to.
Zahid Rajan and Zarina Patel