Teachers touch the future.
Author Unknown

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UPON MY RETURN TO UDSM in July 1972, I was bestowed the grand title of Assistant Lecturer, and was handed a full load of courses. Now I was a confirmed teacher at a university.


In each of the next two academic years, 1972/73 and 1973/74, I taught four regular courses and one advanced course. It was a big load, making me slog from morning to late evening, weekends rarely exempted.

In the regular courses, each lasting three months, there were students with subject combinations like mathematics and physics; mathematics, chemistry and education; and mathematics and economics. The regular courses were: (i) Linear Programming; (ii) Finite Mathematics I; (iii) Finite Mathematics II; and (iv) Basic Statistics. The last course had first year students from the Statistics Department as well. Class size ranged from 80 to 125. Each course comprised three hours of lectures, and two hours of tutorial sessions. All these courses were related to what I had studied at LSE.

The advanced course, Non-linear Programming, was attended by final year double mathematics students. The class size the first time was six, and the next, it was ten. It too had three one-hour lectures and an hour for the tutorial session.

In the first and second quarter, I had ten contact hours and in the last quarter, five contact hours per week. Compared to a secondary school teacher, who typically is in the classroom thirty or more hours a week for ten months of the year, this seems a lighter work load.

In actuality it is not. First, preparation is more exacting; you need to read and reflect at length. A single lecture normally covers a wide ground. Grading takes up time. Second, you as well need to conduct research and publish papers. On both fronts, you confront complex issues that tax your mental energy. It is a daunting situation at first. But you get acclimatized to the world of ideas. Ingesting and imparting knowledge, and attempting to innovate ideas, abstract or concrete, comes to define your life. It is not a nine-to-five job. Your brain cannot be switched off and on like a radio. To flourish well in the academia, you have to indulge in reflection without regard for time or place. Only that habit enables you to reach the frontiers of knowledge and probe uncharted territories. There is no short cut.

They say lecturing differs in a major way from teaching. In a school, you dish out standard material in an established style and gently guide your students through it. At the university, you present varied ideas in a dense fashion, and let your students struggle to disentangle them.

In my view, that is only partly true, and depends on whether you deal with general courses or special courses. The former have large class sizes and are attended by students of various backgrounds and major fields of study. This was the case in the four regular courses I taught. Even though such students have a higher aptitude for mathematics than a typical undergrad, they still find the university level mathematics a big leap from high school mathematics. They must be led through the subject matter with patience. If you cannot communicate the basic concepts well, they will remain stuck in one place. I only appreciated later that relevant mathematical or statistical activity, and real life examples from diverse areas form a crucial part of the learning process in this arena as well. I was not taught these subjects that way, and in my teaching during these two years, I modified the traditional approach in only a marginal fashion.

The special courses, taken by advanced students, are another matter. Here you plunge into the abstract from the start and drive them to the limit. You give hints but let them figure out the rest. Yet, it certainly does not entail rambling at random as our Multivariate Analysis instructor had done. You must devote sufficient time to prepare the lectures and systematically build up a coherent edifice. Effectively teaching each type of course is a challenging task but in its own distinct way.

In addition, there were departmental meetings and academic seminars to attend. I took part in the activities of the Mathematical Association of Tanzania, wrote papers for its journal, went to secondary schools across the nation during the long vacation to supervise teaching practice, and presented one academic seminar each year. I was appointed as the Faculty of Science representative on the Board of Examiners of the Department of Development Studies. It was a full plate, but I had room for more.


The UDSM of that era led the African universities, at least on the intellectual front, in left-wing and Pan-Africanist activism. Curricular reform was a center piece of that effort. Concerned staff, local and expatriate, in alliance with progressive East African students, endeavored to confront the conservative bias in the traditional syllabuses and textbooks, and produce relevant, forward looking, intellectually rigorous content. All areas of learning, from the natural sciences to law and the social sciences were affected to one degree or another. A key innovation, emulated subsequently by universities globally, was a structurally integrated course on human development. Initially the proposal to introduce this course faced strong opposition from the Westernized, micro-discipline oriented academics who were in the majority. But through tactics like faculty occupation, production of well formulated scholarly alternatives, public debate, academic exposé and in-class confrontations, the progressive block gained the upper hand. Two new courses, Development Studies (DS) and East African Society and Environment, entered the university curriculum. The first course was required for all non-social science students and the second, for all students in the social sciences.

Progressive students set up their own radical journal dealing with socio-economic matters. Its first incarnation, Cheche was banned within a year, but soon it was replaced by an equivalent, MajiMaji. Both magazines gained global fame. All departments within the university seethed with outstanding research work more relevant to the African condition, and many important books born at this university gained international recognition (see Cheche for details).

Throughout my undergrad years, I was fully engaged in varied aspects of such left-wing activism. After joining the academic staff, I continued in that spirit. I helped the editorial board of MajiMaji to produce the new issues and wrote articles for the initial issues. Together with comrades like Henry Mapolu and Nizar Visram, I wrote book reviews and articles for newspapers, took part in public lectures and demonstrations, and worked on the cashew nut shamba operated by UDSM TANU Youth League branch.

In my third year of studies, I had led tutorial sessions for DS classes. I continued doing that and also gave two lectures on the history and current status of science for the course on East African Society and Environment. Dr (later Professor) Mahmood Mamdani was the course director at that time.

Progressive activism was, however, not confined to the university campus. One major initiative we took was to coordinate the activities of the genuinely socialist minded former students of UDSM but who now taught in schools and colleges across the nation. Charles Kileo was in Tabora, Ramadhan Meghji, Zakia Meghji and Ramesh Chauhan were in Moshi, Shiraz Ramji was in Iringa, George Hadjivayanis and Salha Hamdani were in Morogoro, and so on.

Political Education (Siasa) had by then become a compulsory subject. As it was being taught in the dogmatic style favored by the TANU bosses, it had the effect of making students and teachers despise progressive ideas and ideals. To counter that retrogressive tendency, our group convened meetings in Morogoro, Moshi and Dar es Salaam to work on an alternative educational strategy. We produced socialistic material both in Swahili and English, distributed latest issues of MajiMaji, helped set up student run magazines, sent university people to schools to talk about contemporary socio-political issues, and assisted school libraries to obtain progressive and Pan-Africanist books. On these latter three fronts, Shiraz Ramji, teaching physics at the Mkwawa High School in Iringa, produced outstanding results. In the context of the national school system, what we did was but a drop in the bucket. Yet, it set the ball rolling, giving a locally crafted, practical example of what could and should be done.

Our inspiration came from Mwalimu Nyerere’s philosophy of kujitegemea (self-reliance). Thus our efforts did not in any way rely on the local political bosses and business entities, or external funds. But we did not form a separate political movement or party. We worked within the system to push it, using educational activities, in a socialistic direction. We saw that while Mwalimu’s call to build a socialist society was sound, his party and state bureaucracy were dominated by hypocrites who wanted to undermine it and use it to their own advantage. Something had to be done to counter that unhealthy state of affairs.

On my part, upon invitation from resident comrades, I visited schools and colleges in Moshi, Morogoro, Iringa and Dodoma. I took general knowledge and socialism related books, papers, copies of MajiMaji and gave talks on world affairs and African liberation to the students. It was a far cry from Vector Analysis. Yet, it was an integral part of my life. An academic is foremost a human being, and especially in a poor nation like ours, endowed with a responsibility to devote his/her energy to further the wellbeing of his fellow human beings. I did not view these two sides of my persona as contradictory. Rather, for me, they were eminently complementary.


Yet, life went beyond mathematics and politics; there was laughter, love, union and children. After I started visiting Issa Shivji at his home in 1968, I became acquainted with his lovely sister Farida. Our relationship progressed gradually. Her tradition bound parents, typical of the parents of that era, would not allow their youngest daughter to freely associate with boys of her age. But by the time I went to LSE, she would often be in our group when we went to the beach or movies. Her parents had no issue with it provided her elder brother was present as well.

Upon my return from London, something clicked. I began to see her in a different light and looked for chances to talk to her on her own. The opportunity materialized in a novel way. She was a secretary at the headquarters of the National Development Corporation. So as to enhance her proficiency at work, she had enrolled in an intermediate Swahili course at the Adult Education Center in Lumumba Street. It would be held twice-a-week in the evening. She mentioned it to me, and the next day, I enrolled in the same course!

Actually, her father was relieved when he came to know that I too was in the same class. He was worried that she would have to drive back alone after dusk. Farida drove the family Volkswagen Beetle, a compact, durable small car of the type you do not see these days. Now that a reliable friend of her brother would accompany her, he felt better. No one inquired into the coincidence!

On class days, I took a bus from the UDSM campus to the Adult Education Center, and returned with her to Upanga, spending the night at my parents’ place close to her flat. In no time, we started parking at the Upanga beach for half-an-hour before going home. On the last day of the course, as we parked at the seafront, I posed a query to her, speaking in a somber mood:

Farida, I want to ask you a question. Your reply will determine whether I will jump into the ocean or not.

It was a full tide day with the strong waves striking the concrete barrier and raising whitish foam high into the sky. Conversant with my habit of talking in odd ways, she started to laugh.

What is it this time, Karim?

Will you marry me?

Without a moment of hesitation, she sweetly replied:

Of course I will.

So did a new phase in my life emerge. Our parents were overjoyed upon hearing our decision. A formal proposal from my family to her family ensued, a small engagement ceremony was held, and the auspicious date was set to be the Fourth of August, Nineteen Hundred Seventy Three.

In line with my radical orientation, I had sought a simple civil ceremony. But our parents would have none of it. Farida was neutral on the subject. There were the dresses and jewels to be purchased for the bride, some pre-wedding rituals, and finally a traditional prayer house ceremony to be followed by a large banquet at the Diamond Jubilee Hall. There being no point in starting a new life in acrimony, I acquiesced and left them to handle all the preparations.

There was but one point on which I refused to compromise. I would not, under any circumstances, bow down before the photo of any spiritual deity. My stand made all in the family distinctly unhappy. The maid of honor threatened to pull out of the whole thing. But in the end, concluding that nothing could be done to sway this ‘crazy character’ and, in consideration of Farida’s future, they acceded to my demand.

Everything went well on this most joyous occasion. With her poise, gorgeous eyes, elegant hair style and endearing smile, Farida was a stunning bride. The banquet was the high point. Relatives, colleagues, friends and comrades from the campus and upcountry joined in the celebration. In May of the year following, we got the best gift of our life. Rosa, a sweet baby, came into our lives.

It takes persistence to adjust to a new mode of living. From a close knit family, Farida found it hard to be away from her parents. I had had an irregular, independent schedule. There were ups and downs. Both of us had to compromise. Now, as we traverse the fifth decade of our coexistence, I know that I could not have had it better. I am blessed with a generous, gentle, loving partner. All who come to know her recognize her as a selfless, caring person. And we have been further blessed with a dear daughter, Rosa, and Samir and Emma, two endearing grandchildren.


In April 1973, I reentered the teaching practice circuit, but now as a supervisor. It was an odd feeling: I, a trainee just a couple of years back, a novice teacher with little exposure to secondary school teaching, and whose training had not been of the optimal variety, dishing out advice to others on how to teach. I am sure those whom I supervised had concerns of a similar kind as I had had of my supervisors. Though in terms of stressing the need for relevant examples in the teaching of mathematics, I gather I did a better job.

For me, it was an educational trip, visiting schools in Arusha, Dar es Salaam, Dodoma, Moshi and Morogoro. I interacted with the trainees from UDSM, talked to local teachers and students. It complemented my earlier visits to schools at the invitations of fellow comrades. Later I also held discussions with the trainees I had not visited. All that provided me a fair picture of the conditions of our secondary schools and the teaching of mathematics.

As a socialist, one thing I keenly sought to know was how Education for Self-Reliance (ESR) projects had fared, and if the staff and students had come to terms with the policy. Had the situation changed since my days at the Popatlal school four years earlier? I was distressed to find that if anything, it had worsened. My visits and discussions painted a rather bleak picture. A school with a well-run ESR project and contented stake holders was a rare entity. Instead, complaints, from teachers, pupils and parents, abounded. I did not come across a single teacher or trainee with positive words about ESR. They followed it because it was a compulsory requirement set by the political authorities.

As a sign of the level of underlying discontent, even the controlled state and party newspapers had now started to carry letters to the editor and articles from people who were unhappy with the policy. Their contention was that frequent, unplanned manual work was lowering educational standards, and did not have an educational or practical value. These views were countered by a vocal group of politically connected supporters who, after noting a few cases of successful ESR projects, declared that the current problems were transitional obstacles and would be resolved with the accumulation of experience.

I found the quality of the debate unsatisfactory. Both the critical faction (the realists) and the supportive faction (the idealists) used selective evidence and dogmatic arguments. None presented a grounded socio-historic analysis of the role of education in society. The academics at the Department of Education of UDSM should have led the nation by presenting a factually sound case and alerting the nation on the actual state of affairs in our schools. But being a generally timid lot, their papers dealing with ESR raised marginal issues. Some wrote critical academic papers, but went on to declare the contrary in their newspaper pieces.

Through my readings, I came to know of socialist and non-socialist nations where academic and practical education had been integrated quite successfully. This had, to a degree, taken place in Tanzania as well. Viable secondary technical schools had been established in the early independence days and I had attended one of them. But now, under ESR, instead of being utilized as a sturdy foundation for building the new system, it was being side-lined.

Delving into the history of education in Tanzania, and based on my observations and interviews, I wrote a long article on the issue for MajiMaji, a UDSM student magazine. Its title was: School Education and Underdevelopment in Tanzania (Hirji 1973). I first laid out the historic background:

  • Agricultural and vocational training in schools had been introduced in the colonial era. It had been a standard aspect of missionary run schools. It was not a new idea.
  • Such training was enforced only in schools attended by the African students.
  • Students in Asian and settler schools received quality education of the type given in schools in the UK.
  • Asian and European school leavers were more qualified for higher pay white collar jobs while Africans were relegated to low wage, manual jobs or unemployment.
  • Abolishing of discriminatory system and provision of the high grade education to all had been a major demand of the movement for national independence.
  • Immediately after Independence, a national, merit (not race) based education system was set up, many new schools were built and teacher training expanded considerably.
  • The policy of ESR, with its emphasis on practical work, coming just seven years after Uhuru, was viewed with deep suspicion, especially by the African majority.

Mwalimu Nyerere had, however, presented ESR as an integral part of an overall policy for building a new society based on social equality and economic progress for all. As a popular leader who spoke to the nation in a unique fatherly, persuasive manner, he was trusted by the people. Apart from the mainly Asian, disgruntled business community, elements of the Church hierarchy, and the newly minted political elite, Tanzanians stood ready to march with him to the promised land.

Yet, his Ujamaa policy began to unravel within three years. On the educational front, numerous obstacles were seen.

  • ESR was a policy document, without a detailed plan on how it was to be out into practice. The Ministry of Education, for its part, made practical work a formal requirement but did not produce sound guidelines on how it was to be done.
  • ESR activities were not integrated into the curriculum in a formal, systematic manner. They became an appendage stuck onto the existing white collar oriented system.
  • Since evaluation of school performance remained as it was, that is, through traditional exams, teachers, students and parents had little motivation to devote time and energy for ESR work.

These negative incentives were compounded by the general trends in the economy.

  • The rewards structure in the jobs pyramid remained as before. Despite the idealistic rhetoric, white collar jobs paid much more than manual work.
  • Despite the talk about self-reliance, the stress was on dependency generating, export-import oriented economic activities.
  • Despite nationalization, expansion of the state sector and opening of new industries and firms, job growth was slower than the output of the education system, especially at the lower levels.
  • Hence, rural urban migration and urban unemployment expanded.

As the competition for good jobs intensified, parents and teachers did not want their students to waste their time in unrewarding practical work. At the same time, a widespread feeling of discontent became manifest among the students. A variety of reasons fueled that discontent.

  • In contrast to the rhetoric of democratic participation enunciated in ESR, the education system became more top-down and authoritarian in nature.
  • The Ministry issued unsystematic orders to the headmasters, who in turn made unreasonable demands on the teaching staff,  who for their part, began to discharge their duties with less diligence and dedication. The teachers were also unhappy about their remuneration and terms of service.
  • And the brunt of the ensuing dislocations in the schools was borne by the students who now faced an environment of harsh discipline and poor learning conditions.
  • On top of it, siasa (political education), now a compulsory subject, was taught in an insipid, sloganeering style. Students heard lectures on grassroots participation but encountered a singularly authoritarian reality which paid no heed to their voices. Abundant hypocrisy only bred cynicism and fueled discontent.

Despite the fine political rhetoric in ESR, Tanzania had a chaos ridden educational system lacking a sense of direction. Nations like Cuba and China had successfully combined basic subjects with practical work at various levels of the education system. Some non-socialist nations too had gone a long way in that direction. Instead of learning from these models, we were stumbling along from error to error.

Consequently, not only was the traditional educational system breaking down but it was not being replaced by a sound socialistic alternative as well. People in all walks of life, including those who had initially backed it, thereby started to hate the very word socialism. My summary of ESR was:

The major contribution of ESR is neither any profundity of analysis nor any spectacular success in implementation but the fact that it has pioneered the injection of progressive ideas into the education system. It is these ideas that are inspiring the youth to assert themselves. Hirji (1973)

My words came in the context of a well-grounded school of radical analysis that had emerged at the UDSM. Local and external scholars like Walter Rodney, Issa Shivji, Henry Mapolu, Adhu Awiti, Andrew Coulson, John Saul, Tomas Szentes, Justinian Rweyemamu, and Clive Thomas wrote pioneering papers on key issues affecting Tanzania and Africa.

The contents of my paper on ESR posed a direct challenge to Mwalimu Nyerere and TANU. It stated bluntly that what was being devised for the education system now was not much better than what was done under colonial rule. For the ruling party, I had crossed an unacceptable line. The senior administrators at UDSM were, for many reasons, also thoroughly displeased with me.

This article was the final solid nail in the coffin that was to bear me out of this place within the next twelve months. It came out in September 1973. And the order for me to be ejected from UDSM was issued in March 1974. I was one of the first victims of the post-Akivaga crisis purges at the university.


The Travails of a Tanzanian Teacher Copyright © 2018 by Karim Hirji. All Rights Reserved.

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