If you have knowledge
Let others light their candles at it
Margaret Fuller

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LIKE ALL CHILDREN, I yearned for friendship and popularity. I was a shy kid of lean stature from a low income family, with lack luster ability in sports and games. One thing rescued me. From primary school days, I excelled in mathematics while many floundered in the subject. As they sought my help and I unhesitatingly obliged, my popularity rating rose several notches. This peer-tutoring habit developed in earnest in upper primary school, increased at my secondary school, and persisted into high school, undergraduate and even post-graduate pursuits.

In the year 1960, and the seventh grade of the Agakhan Boys School in Dar es Salaam, I was a new arrival from a remote southern region of Tanzania. My odd attire and quiet demeanor marked me out as a country bumpkin (derisively labeled in Kutchi as bhar jo bhotho). As I was praised by my teachers for my mathematical ability, even the elitist fellows in the class approached me in a friendly fashion for the answer to a tough homework question.

At my secondary-technical school, the Dar es Salaam Technical College, I found that my classmates had attended underfunded colonial schools and hence had a poor background in mathematics. I, on the other hand, came from schools that had given me very little exposure to Swahili. A mutually beneficial arrangement ensued. I helped them in mathematics while they enabled me to wade through the terminology, grammar and idiom of Swahili.

In my final year, I added a subject for my certificate examination, namely Additional Mathematics. It was normally done over a two-year period, and was not taught at my college. So not only did I have to cover all the material within a single year, but also had to do it on my own. Two other students a grade below me, Abdulkarim Mohamed and Abdallah Madenge, were keen on it as well. Luckily, the needed books were available in the college library.

We teamed up and met three times a week to tackle a topic after another. Having read through the material beforehand, I effectively became the tutor. I passed the subject, though not at the grade level I had desired. In the following two years, I went to a boarding school, the Kibaha Secondary School, where I did my Form V and Form VI studies. The place lay twenty six miles from Dar es Salaam. On the weekends I was in Dar es Salaam to visit my parents, I often went to the College to help Abdulkarim and Abdallah prepare for their Additional Mathematics final exam. These interactions led to life-long friendships, a prize more valuable than any.

By high school, assisting fellow students in numeracy was but second nature to me. I recall tackling calculus and mechanics problems with Elias Kisamo, Titus Kamulali and Shiraz Kassam. I joined the Chess Club, became the school champion and taught chess to my friends in the city. I retain fond memories of chess games played with Navroz Lakhani. We sat on a cool cement bench in the elegant garden of the Upanga Jamatkhana (prayer house), staring for hours at a time at the quixotic pieces on the 8×8 board.

I confess that there was one covert reason why, especially at that juncture in my life, I helped out with mathematics; it narrowed my proximity to lovely members of the fair sex. My reserved personality prevented me from approaching or talking to girls my age on a one to one basis. Yet, now and then a pretty girl would come to me with a request to tackle a mathematical equation. A usual corollary of the task was that it yielded at least an approximate solution to my emotional non-linear differential equation.


I started my BSc degree studies at the University of Dar es Salaam (UDSM) in July 1968. My two major subjects were Pure Mathematics and Applied Mathematics, and the minor was Education. I was being trained as a secondary school teacher of mathematics. The subject combination was not of my own choosing. I had wanted to pursue Pure Mathematics, Applied Mathematics and Philosophy at Makerere University in Uganda. But a bureaucrat in the Ministry of Education decided otherwise.

Only one other student was enrolled in the Pure and Applied Mathematics stream. And, sadly, he dropped it after the first year. Normally, students took mathematics as a single subject, combining it with Physics, Chemistry or Economics. Slated to be secondary school teachers, most of them had education as the minor subject.

Of my teachers at UDSM, the two who impressed me most were Professor Ted Phythian and Mr (now Professor) Ralph Masenge. The latter gave me my very first lecture at UDSM. The course, Basic Analysis, was unlike any I had encountered earlier. Filled with abstract definitions and esoteric symbolism, it for the first time conveyed to me the crucial lesson that in mathematics, the logicality of each and every step you take, however small, matters. Nothing can be taken for granted, even a supposedly self-evident thing like 2 + 2 = 4. The abstract nature of the topics notwithstanding, he conveyed them in an understandable fashion. His friendly demeanor, there being only two students in the class, and the multitude of examples he gave went a long way towards making his courses an educational experience of the first order. In my second year, he taught numerical analysis, his specialty, in a similar style. This course was taken by the other mathematics students too.

Professor Phythian taught courses in applied mathematics and computer science. He had the habit of laughing loudly at any provocation. He would write a formula on the board, look at it for a few seconds in a semi-puzzled fashion, and break out into a rippling laugh.

Karim, don’t you realize what a majestic expression it is? Haa ha haa ha ha!

Being the sole student in the class, I would be at a loss to respond. It was like an unfathomable jumble to me. Then, in a step by step way, he would derive it from basic principles. By the end of the hour, I had to agree with his initial take on the formula. The course I recall best was Special Functions of Mathematical Physics. It was from him that I came to appreciate that even quite arcane topics in mathematics have concrete, at times indispensable, applications in the various branches of the natural sciences.

Dr David Cappitt and Dr Terry Heaps taught the advanced courses like Functional Analysis and Algebraic Topology. I could see that they had mastered their subjects, lecturing off the top of their head but in a systematic manner. But, three quarters of the time, I was lost. The approach was strictly formal, rarely went back and forth to connect up issues, and had but a few examples, and, which moreover, were not of the most illuminating kind. Only at the time of intense study for the end of the year exams did I begin to make head or tail of just a part of what they had taught.

In the few common mathematical courses I was required to take with others, I was always at the top of my class. No wonder, a number of them lined up outside my dorm room for help.

It was during this time that life imparted a most singular lesson onto me, a lesson that would reappear later on: That assisting others can at times have undesirable consequences. It happened like this: A friend I call HM, also a first year science student, was doing very well in Physics. But in some tough topics in mathematics, he came to me for help, particularly when the final exams were close by.

A week after the end of the first year final exams, Dr Masenge, and the head of the Department of Mathematics, Professor Phythian, told me that my performance had been excellent. In their opinion, I had stood above any other present and previous first year science student. It then came as a surprise, at least to me, that I was not given the annual prize for the best first year student in the Faculty of Science. The award went to HM. When this was announced at the start of the next academic year, the professor gently beckoned me to his office. In an apologetic tone, he told me:

Karim, there is no question in my mind that you deserved this prize. You are surely the best student this department has had thus far. Your overall exam score was way above that of all the first year science students. In the Faculty Board meeting, I strongly recommended you for the prize but was overruled by Professor Osborne.

Professor Dennis Osborne was the Dean of the Faculty of Science and Head of the Department of Physics. I inquired:

But why?

Well, in each of the past two years, the prize has gone to a double-mathematics student. Professor Osborne claimed that this was not fair to students from other departments. I held that the best should always get the prize, no matter what department he or she was in. In your case, I said that you were the best of the best. The majority of the academic staff, however, sided with Osborne. Karim, I am sorry to say that you lost out.

There was also a hidden reason why I lost the prize. Professor Phythian knew it but did not say so at this time. It stemmed from a book I had read. Of the title The Human Use of Human Beings, it was the work of a leading American mathematician, Norbert Weiner. A best seller in the US, Canada and Europe, I had purchased it from the university bookstore at what today sounds like an absurd price of seven shillings and twenty five cents, the equivalent of a tad more than one US dollar.

Weiner was one the originators of the then emerging discipline of computerized automation and control, or robotics as it is called now. His book reflected on the beneficial and harmful consequences of the wide utilization of this technology. Distinctly impressed, I wrote a short piece about its main points. Mechanisms of automatic control (homeostatic processes) were, according to him, commonly found in the natural environment, biological organisms and society, and were the basis of numerous human technologies at well. Two examples are the pressure control valve in a steam engine, and the intricate system to control the blood pressure in human beings. Their actual mechanisms are vastly different, but the underlying principle is the same. A key implication of his theory is that to explain the marvelous, self-sustaining phenomena of nature, a resort to an external force or super being is not called for. Automatic regulation is intrinsic to matter. And human psychology exhibits that tendency as well.

Many complex issues are addressed in this small but dense book. But in a short article written for the student magazine, The Echo, I had focused on this particular point. Its title was God and Golem, Inc., borrowed from the title of another book of Weiner. My article had appeared about a month before the first year exams. Professor Osborne had, in private, expressed displeasure towards it no small measure. A devout Christian who played a lead role in the campus church activities, he thought that my reflections were akin to nonsensical blasphemy.

I know this because he told that to Professor Phythian, who in turn warned me to not offend the Faculty Dean. Professor Phythian was also a good Christian. But, fortunately, he did not have a narrow outlook. His warning was given in a fatherly tone, more to protect me than for any other reason. This incident, I believe, played a role in why I missed out on the best student prize. But none of us referred to it.

This episode has wider societal implications. For those were the high-point years of the era of socialism in Tanzania. A common argument heard at the time was that socialism was an intolerant system that suppressed differing viewpoints. Well, here was an instance of a top-level scientist from the capitalist West exercising a form of control on ideas through covertly retaliating against the airing of views that, after all, came from a bestseller in the US, Canada, UK and Europe. It was not published in a communist nation. Nor was it written by a person espousing that ideology. The author was a prominent scientist at a top university in the US. It seemed as if we in Africa were not mature enough to discuss the ideas presented in such books.

Later in my life, I spent nearly fifteen years teaching at a major university in the US. I learned that over the years of the Cold War and beyond, thousands of US and external academics, including scientists, had faced sanctions, at times dismissal and loss of tenure, for espousing anti-corporate or anti-establishment views. I also witnessed it firsthand. Such sanctions were rarely exercised directly or openly but operated through subtle means like delayed promotion, heavy work load, loss of research funds, etc. The declared reasons for these acts were extraneous to the actual issues, but the message was loud and clear. If you do not control what you say and write, there will be consequences. Since it operates with subtlety and behind a curtain, censorship under capitalism is far more effective than George Orwell ever envisioned. The victim is under the illusion that he or she lives in a free society, unaware the he or she is being subtly influenced by multiple forces, or even being watched and censored.


One major plank of the national education policy at the time I was at UDSM was the promotion of adult literacy. The aim was to ensure that every Tanzanian adult knew how to read and write in Kiswahili, and accurately perform basic arithmetical operations like counting, addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. The UDSM student union and several smaller student organizations were also involved in this nationwide undertaking.

On the assigned day and time, ten or so members of a group would go to a village or urban locality near the main campus to teach the adults gathered there. It was either a primary school, or a small room with a blackboard. In a few places, you sat with your wards under a large, shady tree where chairs and desks had been placed.

There was no set curriculum or textbook. There was no prior plan of action. If you were lucky, there would be a couple of books for the group to share. You assessed the level of your students, and proceeded from there. You made them practice what they had been taught earlier, or exposed them to new material. The class composition varied from week to week. Usually more women than men attended. If it was raining, the class was canceled. At planting and harvest times, only a few dedicated souls were in attendance.

I began taking part in this program from the second term of the first academic year. Except in the couple of weeks around the final exams, I was always present. The class met for about two hours at a time. My group taught in the darajani area in a village adjacent to the eastern entrance of the campus. The sessions were attended well, our adult students eager to learn. And, their humility was striking. They did not address us by name but always as mwalimu (teacher), and in a respectful manner.

I focused on arithmetic, and taught one to three students on a one-to-one basis. I continued taking part in this program throughout my undergraduate years and also into the years I was a member of the academic staff of the university. After my marriage in August 1973, my wife Farida joined the program as a volunteer teacher.

In those days, participation in such programs was not deemed as anything out of ordinary. No material incentive was involved, not even a cup of tea. You went to and fro at your own cost; there was no certificate of participation; and you did not secure any public recognition either. There was no compulsion or pressure; you went of your own accord, and could end your participation whenever you felt like it. Yet, tens of thousands of students and educated adults in the nation took part in that laudable drive to help all Tanzanians gain basic literacy skills.

Your most precious reward was the smile on the face of your trainee when, after weeks of effort and frustration, he or she could write his or her own name, or do basic sums. In the current era of lavish NGO funding, when people attending a meeting to plan a voluntary activity expect at least a meal and transport allowance, what took place in the 60s and 70s sounds as if it happened on an alien planet.


From September 1971 to July 1972, I did my master’s degree in Operations Research (a branch of applied mathematics) at the London School of Economics. I describe my studies and other activities in Chapter 3. Here I note only one thing.

In the ten months I was in London, I recall only one occasion when I engaged in tutoring. In the first week of my arrival in the metropolis, I had the company of Issa Shivji who had just completed his master’s degree in law. When we went to visit Abdulla Dharamsy, a friend from Dar es Salaam now settled in the UK, we found him in a state of anxiety. His professional certification exams in accountancy were on the horizon. He was prepared for all the subjects except Statistics. Needless to say, I spent hours guiding him through the required material. Later, I was happy to learn that he passed the exam. I am glad that he remains thankful to this day for the assistance I gave him.


Tutoring fellow students took a novel turn when I went for my doctoral studies in Biostatistics at the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH). It was 1981. Boston was freezing cold and awash with snow, it being my first time to observe a totally white landscape. The foreign students, many with families, were housed at the HSPH owned International House. About 300 meters from the school, its three buildings were interconnected at the basement level. Most of us were at a loss in the not so welcoming US cultural and social environment. This place, with large areas for social activities and TV viewing, computer terminals connected to the main HSPH computer, exercise area, facilities and programs for children and weekly social events, provided a place where we could shut out the external world, and create a community of our own.

Basic Biostatistics was a required subject for most students at HSPH. Almost 90% of the first year students were thereby in one of the two such introductory classes. The most popular was taught by Professor Marge Drollett, an award winning lecturer. However, due to their poor background in numeric disciplines, many international students struggled with the subject.

Invariably, one, two, three, four and more of them began to approach me, in the school cafeteria, the residential common room and even at my door, for help with a homework problem. I was happy to oblige, but I also had a full program of studies, and it began to take up too much of my time. Not inclined to help this friend but not the other one, I devised a novel solution to the problem. I asked our residence manager if, for one evening of the week, the common room could be reserved for a teaching session. Chairs would have to be arranged and a blackboard and chalk secured. He was most cooperative; the arrangements were efficiently done; and a notice to the effect was put up.

My free tutoring sessions, lasting for ninety minutes, were held every Thursday at 7:30 p.m. There were between thirty to forty attendees, most from the International House, but a few outsiders came too. I went over the material they had covered in their Biostatistics class, and answered the questions posed. The attendees were immensely grateful for my assistance. In the process, I befriended students from Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, Sudan, India, Pakistan, Taiwan, Beirut, Mexico, Egypt, the UK, Denmark and Norway.

There was also an indirect monetary reward. Farida and Rosa, my daughter, were with me. My scholarship stipend barely made ends meet. Desirous of pursuing further studies in management at the North Eastern University on a part-time basis, Farida took up the task of typing the HSPH student reports. It was the era before the PC and word processing. We purchased a fine electronic typewriter for the job, and she charged a dollar per page.

Initially, she did not have many clients. But my free tutoring led to contacts through which she secured more work. A fast and accurate typist, she raised enough funds over a two year period to obtain the AA (Associate in Arts) degree in management. She needed two more years of study to get the bachelor’s degree. But instead of doing that, she switched to nursing studies at the Santa Monica College, qualified as a Registered Nurse, and successfully practiced this demanding profession for nearly two decades, in the US and in Tanzania.


While a professor at the UCLA School of Medicine, I had a voluntary teaching experience of the most unique kind. It was 1991. A notice on a board near the main cafeteria caught my attention. A student organization concerned with the wellbeing of incarcerated juveniles was seeking volunteers. My interest piqued, I went to their meeting the next evening. Their main activity was to teach basic subjects to kids living behind bars. I immediately signed up.

The following week on, we drove every Tuesday to the Los Angeles County Juvenile Detention Center, situated some thirty miles from the UCLA campus. Two vans, provided by the University, were at our disposal. We had ten or so volunteers per van, all of them UCLA undergraduate students. I was the only professor in the group. The students welcomed my participation, though here I was like any other volunteer. I was the designated driver for one van. Our trip started at 5 p.m., and depending on the traffic, it took twenty to thirty minutes.

The first day was an eye opener. We were first addressed by the Director of the Center, a man with a broad smile on his face, but otherwise exuding a strict military aura. He had a message for us:

The boys you will teach are between twelve and seventeen years in age. They will be friendly, even charming. But do not be taken in. This facility houses kids who have been convicted for serious crimes like gang violence, armed robbery, house breaking, grievous assault, and even rape and murder. You will not know who has done what, but be aware of who you are dealing with.

That was our introduction to the job. Then we were taken to a large hall where twenty five desks with two to three chairs per desk were arranged. As each of us took up a desk, our wards marched in, and were assigned to us on a random basis. At times I had one trainee, at times, two. Tutoring was done on a one to one basis with each session lasting for two hours. Pens and notepads were provided. The first time we did not have any books, but from the next week on, each of us was allowed to bring up to two books.

Though armed guards discretely sat in two corners, the atmosphere was jovial, and our wards were most friendly. The boys with a female tutor had the widest smiles on their faces. They would remain with that tutor for about three and a half months. We spent the first session introducing ourselves, asking about their educational background and interests, and devising a semester long program of instruction. The focus was on reading, writing and basic mathematics. Our trainees were school drop outs or had done badly in school. No one had successfully completed secondary schooling.

The jailed kids were eager to learn, full of questions. They normally did the work we assigned to them. I spent half the time going through a novel, and the other half on elementary geometry and algebra. The first novel I chose for my two boys was Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, which they enjoyed more than the mathematics part.

I participated in this program for two academic years (four semesters). And it was a revealing experience. The total of seven boys I taught were, in our interactions, no different from typical boys. Besides the setting, nothing was out of ordinary. Three of them were fast learners. They grasped difficult ideas with ease, asked probing questions, and wanted additional material. They had dreams of one day attending a university like UCLA.

During this period I read a host of books, journal papers, and news reports on the US system of justice. It was shocking to learn that the nation which claims to be a standard bearer of democratic governance in the world not only had the highest incarceration rate in the world, but that the administration of justice was inundated with injustice. Penalties were harsher for street crime as compared to white collar crime, though the latter exacted a greater financial and human toll. The media and politicians created sustained public hysteria over a case or two of armed bank hold-ups but the bankers who shamelessly scooped billions received transient, milder opprobrium. Unlike for street crime, there was no nationwide system of keeping data on white collar crime.

The poor, mainly from African American, Latino and Native American communities were targeted unfairly and dealt with more harshly at each and every stage of the justice system. Consequently, the jails and prisons housed a higher, both in absolute and relative terms, number of individuals from socially disadvantaged and discriminated communities. In fact, the inmates taught by our UCLA group were all Latino. We were told that African American and Latino inmates were kept separate due to the ongoing internecine turf war between rival gangs from these two communities.

Each time we drove away after a training session, I could not but think about the tremendous loss to society and their own lives resulting from the avoidable lock up of so many young ones. True, their harsh acts had traumatized many families. Yet, that they too were victims of a society characterized by corporate control of vital societal sectors including all the branches of the government, a huge gap between the rich and the poor, and firm, institutionalized racism in education, housing, health care, transport, bank services, employment, and environmental pollution. Growing up in these deleterious circumstances had compromised their prospects in education and obtaining well paid jobs.

An issue of interest to me was the motivation of the students who participated in this education exercise. The four group leaders (two in each academic year) and a couple of other students were obviously dedicated to the cause. In addition to the tutoring work, they were involved in raising public awareness about the nature of the US justice system and promoting reform. But the most likely reason why the majority of our group, all undergraduate students from varied disciplines, took part in this voluntary effort was of a different kind. They desired to pursue studies at prestigious graduate universities like Harvard, Stanford, UC Berkeley and UCLA. Admission to these elite institutions was competitive in the extreme. Most of the applicants had top level academic grades and applicants far exceeded the available places. What often tipped the scale in favor of entry was the applicant’s personal statement. Involvement in extracurricular activities of this type was taken as an item of special value in that statement.

My two and a half decades of experience at US universities impressed upon me voluntary work was an integral aspect of that system of going up the ladder. It added a sparkle to your record, and marked you out as responsible citizen. Most students did voluntary work because it enhanced their chances in further study, scholarship, study abroad and landing a well-paid job. You did it because others did it.

The contrast with why, in the 1960s and 1970s, Tanzanian students from different backgrounds had volunteered for the adult education and self-help programs was striking. At that earlier time, a genuine spirit of nation building and solidarity with fellow humans permeated the air. The interactions between those being served and the volunteers, and among the volunteers, reflected that spirit. We sang and talked about issues affecting the nation all in a comradely way. In the incarcerated youth project, on the other hand, we had formal interactions. When I ran into a fellow participant a few months down, I often saw that he or she had lost interest in the matter.

Yet, it is not a matter of nationality, genes or culture. It is a question of economics, pure and simple. Capitalism promotes self-promoting behavior. Tanzania currently is under the reign of capitalism of the neo-liberal variety. The get-rich-quickly tendency drives the day. College and university students and staff are ensnared by it too. On the surface, hundreds of groups exist to help people in distress or need — the Albinos, handicapped, rural girls, homeless kids, HIV infected persons, you name it. Their activities, however, do not stem from a genuine spirit of human bondage. The ubiquitous NGO culture has transformed the act of assisting fellow humans into a ritualized process that holds the prospects of material gain for the activist. Funds are dissipated through such events, of which a lower than desired portion reaches the target population. Their gain is transient, not lasting. On top of that, despite the handsome reward, and while the printed report looks glossy and impressive, the work of the activist is usually pathetic and sub-standard. And it is a self-perpetuating exercise.


Tutoring fellow students and others taught me several lessons. First, your grasp of a subject is gauged by how well you can explain it to a complete beginner. The person can raise unexpected questions which can lead you to a new perspective on the issue. Second, it made me appreciate the variation in the pace of learning, providing me a useful foundation of my work as a full time teacher. Third and more valuable, many of the instances of personal tutoring laid the basis for endearing and enduring friendships.


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

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