The Spirals of Life

By Tunji Olalere


  • Title: Growing Up with Tanzania: Memories, Musings and Maths
  • Author: Karim F Hirji
  • Publisher: Mkuki na Nyota Publishers Ltd
  • Number of pages: 286
  • Year of publication: 2014
  • Category: Autobiography

‘I was looking for the athletic, handsome guy of the Ruvu National Service days. Instead there was a skinny skeleton with an almost bald head, scrawny face and sunken eyes. Who is this strange buffoon? Is it me? Who am I?’

At 68 and in ill health, Karim Hirji, a Professor of Medical Statistics, confronts the mirror with his identity conundrum. He was born in 1946, in Tanganyika, of the Ismaili, ‘a sect of the Shia wing of Islam originally from colonial India’, but whose dominant sense of belonging ‘was not towards a geographically defined place or nation’ but to their community and spiritual leader, the Imam. The Ismailis were not even Indian enough for the Indians.

Hirji writes about the three identities that tugged at his young soul: the imperial, the external, and the communal. With Tanganyika gaining independence in 1961, and its eventual merger with the erstwhile Sultanate of Zanzibar to birth the nation of Tanzania in 1964, young Hirji, now devoid of the colonial, was presented with another challenge, how Tanzanian could a Muhindi possibly aspire to be?

Colonial authority had employed divide-and-rule. The post-Uhuru Asians were uneasy: they were not only seen as the midwives of imperialism but also as its major profiteers. It availed little that Julius Nyerere pursued equality and integration of people of all colours: the Asians found it hard to believe and the Africans felt, with good reason, that their time had come.

Pubertal Hirji perhaps was ahead of his time. An unpopular switch from his mono-racial and sectarian Aga Khan Boys School to the heterogeneous Dar-es-Salam Technical College exposed him to ‘Africans’ for the first time. There he made friends amongst Africans and his race-based views began to melt, ‘like ice placed in bright sunlight’. This foreshadowed a life of contrariness and an impassioned dedication to the Tanzania project for which he often paid dearly – a punishment posting, alienation from the Indian community, and a sense of otherness amongst his compatriots.

The book’s first section is titled ‘Memory’ and chronicles the life of the author from birth till his completion of National Service at 22. It does more than that. We see through Hirji’s keen eyes the evolution of Tanzania from the era of colonial struggle to her Independence and the early post-Uhuru years.

The Arusha declaration of 1967 had many people giddy with optimism. However, the implementation of Ujamaa and Self Reliance was half-hearted and sloppy. The spate of nationalisations and villagisation turned the utopian dream into a mess of Augean proportions. Corruption became systemic and the wealth of the country passed into the hands of politicians and top government functionaries who led a life of ostentation and deservedly won the epithet ‘The Wabenzi’, people of the Benz.

By the late ‘70s, Tanzania was one of the poorest countries in the world. Ujamaa had failed. Not being pigeons, its Asian population, including the author, sought greener pastures elsewhere, Canada in particular. Hirji claims the motivation for the Asian exodus was mainly economic and not racism. Villagisation had dropped food production to an abysmal low and starvation was only averted by foreign aid.

Thus began a habit of omba omba, donor dependence, which has manacled the former East-African power and much of Africa till today. With the slow but sure march from socialism to neo-liberal capitalism, the torch on top of Mount Kilimanjaro went out and her pre-eminence as a crucible of Pan-Africanism and the haven of freedom fighters from other countries under colonial domination quickly passed into lore.

Education was an early casualty of the collapse of African Socialism. In the second section of the book, ‘Musings’, we encounter a piquant interrogation of education ‘on the personal and social fronts’. Earlier, in chapter four, he denounces tracking – the sorting of students into classes according to academic strength – as deeply flawed in that it engendered elitism and branded some students for life as inferior. Here, he reflects on how the Arusha’s doctrine of Education for Self Reliance (ESR) was sucked into the vortex of inexorable failure:

‘The enthusiasm that greeted the policy of Ujamaa waned rapidly… Instead of marching in a novel direction like the Socialist government of Cuba had done, what we got in Tanzania was essentially the worst of both worlds. In particular, the standards of traditional education fell precipitously…’.

Capturing the spirit of the times he writes:

‘Rule by a top-down political party the vast majority of whose leaders paid lip service to socialism in public, but undermined it behind the scenes was another key factor that turned ESR into a confused, damaging parody’.

The book also tells the story of the relationship between Hirji and numbers. The love for the poetry of numbers by this Mathematics Argonaut morphed from an earlier dread. Vatsalaben, the primary school teacher who introduced him to numbers, towered over her pupils, set in her frown, cane in hand, and ready to whack any pupil who ‘mishandled a number’. The language of instruction was Gujarati, and he recalls:

‘Multiplication tables resemble a series of songs chanted until they were firmly glued into our brains. Nowadays, I speak and think in English and Swahili… To recall the result of 12X9 in English, I pause briefly. But in Gujarati, the answer is instantaneous’.

This lends voice to an ongoing debate on the advantages of teaching children Mathematics in their mother tongue.

Other Mathematics teachers, more skilled and less menacing, came along. Fazli Datoo, though the youngest, stood out as the one who ‘turned learning into an enjoyable experience’.

We learn from the book that the situation in Tanzania today is one ‘where one teacher is expected to teach 388 pupils’ across seven grades, where journalists cannot handle numbers and data, and national examination bodies ‘standardize’ results in the wake of mass failure so that more students can pass.

Hirji laments the state of Mathematics education in Tanzania, suggesting that teachers be retrained to present the subject not as a monotonous drill but one of rapture. Appendix A to the book, ‘Recreational Mathematics’, supplies numerous links and materials on this approach.

Consider this mnemonic where each word stands for the first twelve digits of the entity pi:

‘How I wish I could calculate pi
Eureka, cried the great inventor…’.

As in the first section, the arcane beauty of numbers is made manifest in the concluding parts of each chapter of the third section, which is titled ‘Spirals’. It is through the contemplation of the spirals of life that the book attempts to rise beyond the impediments of poor editing and a gloom-ridden, self-absolving narration to something canon-worthy. We follow the author’s beginnings in a congenial but ethnocentric home to his attempts at rebirth as a worthy Tanzanian. He strives to reconcile the many contradictions of his life and his nation with the universality of numbers.

The dualism that marks the book – rascality clothed in brilliance, spurning racism for patriotism, hymn-singing secularism, socialism collapsing into crony-capitalism – is what lends the book its texture of angst. Sometimes, it reads like a literary ablution, at other times, it is just an autobiography of lamentation that comes with pages of references.

In the book, Africa’s omba omba crouch for foreign aid comes under an unrelenting attack as being the major cause of our underdevelopment. Hirji maintains that independence is really the ability to decide your own destiny, to choose what policies are appropriate for your situation, to set your goals and the pace at which you approach them. One way to escape sinusoidal fortunes, he implies, is to have your figures right. Until then, Tanzania, and much of Africa will remain at the mercy of donors and their flatulence.

Growing Up with Tanzania: Memories, Musings and Maths is an extensive meditation on racism, education, governance, and identity. It charts the life journey to self-actualization of a patriotic Tanzanian of Indian extraction and ends the journey without arriving.

At the twilight of a life of Pi and Polemics, Hirji asks, ‘Where is home?’


Photograph: ‘Black Cab’ by Darren Johnson


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Tunji Olalere writes from Lagos.

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