Marxism and Maths – The Many Insights Of Karim Hirji

Karim Hirji is the only Tanzanian to have written a mathematics textbook (Exact Analysis of Discrete Data, 2005), and 69 mathematical research papers. At least four of these discredited trials which up to then had supported drugs in regular use, or dubious uses of software (for one of these see Chapter 8 of his 2019 book Under-Education in Africa). He is also one of Tanzania’s most sustained and consistent Marxist writers, and a fearless critic, as he has been since his days as an undergraduate (see Growing up with Tanzania, 2014; Cheche, Reminiscences of a Radical Magazine, 2011; The Travails of a Tanzanian Teacher, 2018; and his tribute to the work and person of Walter Rodney, 2017).

Karim was born in the small South Tanzanian town of Newala in 1948, where his father, who only spoke a little English, ran a small and barely profitable shop. When Karim was four, the family moved to another precarious existence on the coast at Lindi, though life improved when his father purchased a lorry. He first came into contact with numbers at school in Lindi (his love of numbers and their properties and patterns is expressed in many mathematical illustrations in Growing Up with Tanzania, and in his novel, The Banana Girls, 2017). In 1961 he got a place in the Aga Khan secondary school in Dar es Salaam – after a new and young Aga Khan, leader of the Ismaili sect of Muslims, encouraged Aga Khan schools to hold places for children from up-country. Two years later he moved to the Dar es Salaam Technical College, where he was the only Asian child in his class and for the first time had African friends. Then for the 6th Form he moved to Kibaha, where Scandinavian money had built one of the best equipped secondary schools in the country. But before he could go to university, he had to spend five months on National Service. The mix of military skills, political education and manual work was revolutionary for him, as for many Asians at that time, and especially young women, many of whom had not worked with African men before – it led to contacts with people from many backgrounds and opened up thinking and discussion about what Africa, and education, was for.

Karim reached the University of Dar es Salaam in 1968. It was a special time. What became the Law Faculty had been started as an outpost of the University of East Africa a few weeks before the country became Independent in 1961, before moving to a beautiful new campus on a hill a few miles from the city centre. The Social Science Faculty took its first students in 1964, the Science Faculty in 1965, with almost all its graduates required also to study education and become teachers. In 1967, President Julius Nyerere’s Arusha Declaration committed the country to socialism. There were few qualified Tanzanian academics, so staff were recruited from all over the world – the Soviet Union, German Democratic Republic, Hungary, India, the Caribbean, Europe, the USA and many other places. Many came because they were excited by Nyerere and his vision of the future of Africa. In a few short years this mix of African and expatriate teachers created the most innovative and productive university in Africa at that time. Every faculty and department, including the maths and science departments, was challenged to make what it taught relevant to the new country.

In 1967, committed students in Dar es Salaam organised themselves as the University Students’ African Revolutionary Front (USARF). Its story is told in Under-education in Africa, Chapter 9. Its founding chair, for two years, was Yoweri Museveni, who for the past 35 years has been President of Uganda. In 1969 it started Sunday morning ideological classes for students, and Karim was chosen to arrange them and to prepare reading lists in advance. He was also their choice to chair the editorial board of its magazine, Cheche (The Spark – reflecting the title of the magazine Iskra edited by Lenin from 1900).

Walter Rodney was born in Guyana, then a British colony in the Caribbean, in 1942. He studied history at the University of the West Indies, and then for a PhD at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, from where he did fieldwork in Ghana (A History of the Upper Guinea Coast is based on his doctoral thesis). Nkrumah was President at the time, but in February 1966 he was deposed. So Rodney took a job teaching history in the University of Dar es Salaam. On 10 July 1969, at a lecture he gave, Karim met him for the first time. It was the start of a friendship in which the two of them and another student met to read, discuss and improve draft chapters of Rodney’s book How Europe Underdeveloped Africa as they were written. This book, probably the strongest statement of dependency theory applied to Africa ever written, was published in Dar es Salaam in 1972. It shows how, around 1500, the African economies were dynamic and improving, but then, especially in West Africa, they were devastated by the slave trade, and after that by colonialism which saw them as a means of supplying raw materials to Europe, and hence underdeveloped – pushed backwards in economic terms. Rodney actively supported USARF and other students who were trying to put Nyerere’s teachings into practice.  He returned to Guyana where he was assassinated in 1980.The final chapter of Karim’s tribute, The Enduring Relevance of How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, 2017, shows how close they were.

Cheche was closed down by the Government after just four issues, though a very similar magazine, Maji Maji, replaced it, this time published by the University branch of the ruling Party (TANU) Youth League, again with Karim as chair of its editorial board. Karim’s 2011 book, Cheche: Reminiscences of a Radical Magazine, which is in total longer than the total of Cheche, tells its story – it was written, typed on stencils, printed on the Law Faculty’s Gestetner duplicating machine in the middle of the night, collated by a team of students walking round and round a large table, and then sold by the students in any way they could. It published work by Rodney and others at the university, or involved in the liberation struggles. The August 1970 issue comprised Issa Shivji’s long article Tanzania: The Silent Class Struggle, which was to put the whole of Tanzanian studies on a new footing by using the term ’bureaucratic bourgeoisie‘ to describe the tiny educated group who took over the Tanzanian state in 1961; it also provided one of the first critiques of the President’s concept of ujamaa from the left. The final issue was a series of comments on it. An article from the second issue by Yoweri Museveni, one of three he wrote for the magazine, is reproduced in Karim’s book.

The students did much more than read books. They went to the countryside to assist socialist farmers in their fields. They worked on basic adult education with people in Dar es Salaam who were learning to read or to count. They supported workers who, in line with the 1971 ’TANU Guidelines’ or Mwongozo attacked arrogant or corrupt managements in local factories. They sent a delegation to visit the liberation movement FRELIMO then fighting in Mozambique. And they did extensive fieldwork which was written up in their extraordinary output of articles.

The other abiding influence on Karim was Ted Phythian, the professor of mathematics. When Karim graduated in mathematics and education in 1971 Phythian made it possible for him to stay in the Department. From there he chose to go for a masters’ degree at the London School of Economics – to study Operations Research, then a new discipline which showed how mathematical and statistical methods could be applied to real world problems. He came back to the Department in 1973.  But shortly afterwards he was suddenly posted to Sumbawanga, in the far West of Tanzania, as a Planning Officer in Rukwa Region. He described his time there with his wife Farida and their new –born baby in Chapter 7 of Under-Education in Africa. It was clearly intended to keep him as far away as possible from Dar es Salaam and its university. He was able to return in late 1975 not to the University but to a newly-established National Institute of Transport, where he spent five years, during which he was able to assist the new institute in gaining international recognition for the rigour, integrity and the relevance of its courses.

In 1980 he realised that he could apply for a scholarship to study for a PhD at Harvard. He chose to study medical statistics. This led to 18 years at the UCLA School of Medicine in Los Angeles and his many publications. It also gave him long-term medical problems: he was operated on by a surgeon who removed almost all his intestines, meaning that he has survived since on pre-digested food and mineral supplements – a medical miracle.

In 2007 he decided that he should come back to his parents and family, and his many friends in Tanzania. He took the position of Professor of Medical Statistics at Muhimbili University, Tanzania’s principal medical school. It was heavy going. Not all the trainee doctors, or even all the faculty staff, were convinced that to be good doctors they needed an understanding of statistics and the basis of trials of new drugs or procedures, and the dangers of drawing false conclusions from data. By 2012 he could take it no more and retired from the University, using the time to write. His medical condition worsened, and there were times when the only way he could write was to dictate to Farida, and then read and correct what she wrote down.

His writing has already impacted on African and Tanzanian studies, and will do so in future. He has used photographs and documents to show where a number of very distinguished authors took short cuts in their writing, or were wrong in their facts. His writing on education is an unrelenting attack on declines in standards, poor educational technique, and sloppiness in research. The full story of the radicalism at the University of Dar es Salaam in the 1970s has yet to be written, but Hirji’s books provide an unrivalled picture of what it was like. His biggest ire is reserved for Mahmood Mamdani and his review of The African University in the London Review of Books in 2018. Mamdani identifies Dar es Salaam in the 1970s with Walter Rodney and Kenya in the same period with Ali Masrui. Rodney is written off as an activist, Mazrui described as a ’towering public intellectual’. Yet in December 1970 Mazrui gave public lectures in Dar es Salaam which were unapologetic praise for the World Bank and the international community, while Rodney expressed a clear understanding of the damage done to Africa by colonialism and the large modern companies and the interests behind them. However, in his recent writing Mazrui recognises that Africa has been adversely affected by its contacts with the West and that Africans must work through their challenges together if they are to build integrated successful societies, illustrating how the thinking of distinguished intellectuals can change. Mamdani meanwhile has dropped the class analysis and political economy he espoused in the 1970s and adopted policies based on racial identity.

The range of Hirji’s writing is breath-taking – from fearsome mathematics to a novel and poetry, from attacking multi-national pharmaceutical companies for their misuses of statistics, and documenting the appalling declines in standards in many educational institutions all over the world, to giving practical advice to teachers and students. In all his writing, and in his life, there is a complete seriousness. He is a communicator, all of whose work has a practical purpose. He even took this as far as to write a book for journalists warning them of the possible misuses of statistics in their journalism (Statistics in the Media: Learning from Practice, 2012). If researchers are not rigorous with their use of data, their work should be rejected. Education must involve reading and study and a commitment to explore the truth and express it in the clearest terms, whatever the personal cost. Karim Hirji is one of Africa’s most determined, committed and consistent individuals. He has kept his faith in Marxism for more than 50 years, and his belief in the beneficial uses of maths and statistics, despite all the odds.

And now about how I met Karim. Up till 1971, I worked as a civil servant in the Tanzanian Ministry of Agriculture. Office hours ended at 2.30pm so I was able to attend seminars at the University, where I read Cheche and was influenced by Issa Shivji’s work, and Karim Hirji’s, who both recognised that the Government of Tanzania had some agency in the decisions it took. This was in contrast to exponents of dependency theory who put the entire blame on Western-dominated financial institutions or multinational companies. In 1972 I started teaching economics at the University of Dar es Salaam where my first published papers started life as handouts for students: case studies of exploitation by aid donors or international companies (including the fertilizer factory built by the German company Kloeckner and the Canada-aided automated bread factory in Dar es Salaam whose roof was designed to withstand 6 feet of snow!). Also the first explicit time-frame of the use of force to create villages in rural areas (‘Peasants and Bureaucrats’, Review of African Political Economy 1975). Karim published some of my case studies in Maji Maji and invited my wife and I to his wedding in 1973, and we kept in touch after that but especially after 2009 when I started revisiting Tanzania regularly.

It would be wrong to end without saying a little about Farida. They married in 1973. A few months later, when he was posted to Sumbawanga, she was pregnant with their first child. She supported him then, later when they were in America, and especially when he returned to Tanzania and had to cope with his eating issues, and decreasing mobility. She has never let him down. He would be the first to say that without her none of his achievements would have been possible.


  • He worked in Tanzania from 1967-1976, as an economist in the Ministry of Agriculture and a lecturer at the University of Dar es Salaam. His early papers were about corrupt deals and the exploitation of Tanzania by international companies and aid agencies. He continues to write about agriculture in East Africa and the political economy of Tanzania.