You do not really understand something
Unless you can explain it to your grandmother
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PALPABLE TENSION PERVADES THE AIR. A week ago, we had heaved a collective sigh of relief upon exiting the exam hall for the last time. Our undergraduate studies were over. But the euphoria is short lived. Now we hold our breath for the verdict.
Yesterday, our job postings were announced. I am to join the Kibaha Secondary School, a well-run boarding school twenty six miles from DSM. The prospect of teaching Form VI level mathematics at my old high school is not a displeasing one. Actually, its semi-urban setting accords with my temperament. Nevertheless, I am not too thrilled as my goals are loftier. I thus accept the job with equanimity.
The posting is conditional: No degree, no job. In late March 1971, as I pack my bags for Kibaha life, the exam results emerge. Not only do I have the BSc(Ed) degree but it has come with First Class Honors. That alters everything. The next day, I am told that I will be retained by the Department of Mathematics at UDSM. It means I can pursue advanced studies in my favorite subject. It also means that my work will be teaching degree level courses and doing research in mathematics. As a bonus, I can as well continue indulging into the myriad of progressive activities that are underway at UDSM, and that in the fine company of dedicated local and international comrades I have come to know intimately over the past three years. Needless to say, I am ecstatic.
The place where I have spent my last three years, and where I have been posted is spread over on a hilly terrain some ten kilometers from the city center. Popularly, it is known as the Hill.
As you enter its gates, you enter a new world, a far cry from the messy urban environment you have left behind. You find an elegant expanse of winding tarmac roads, alongside which stand modern one and two story staff houses with wide gardens, high rise student dormitories, two large cafeterias, a complex comprising a bookstore, bar and coffee place, bank and post office, and a dense academic area with lecture theaters, seminar rooms, staff offices, libraries, science labs and administration block. A huge sports arena, a swimming pool, large open fields and hilly interludes complement the imposing concrete structures. The well maintained lawns and shrubs, trees of all shapes, shades and sizes, at times bunched but mostly blooming in isolation and a shallow spring here and there retain the semi-dominance of nature over cement and tar. Spread out over some 25 square kilometers, it is a world in itself.
For the year 1971/72, the student population of UDSM stands at 2,200. Of these, 1833 are undergraduates, 264 are non-degree students and 103 are pursuing postgraduate studies. Among the last group, there are twenty five doctoral degree students.
In addition to the main campus at the Hill, the university has two other campuses. The Faculty of Medicine, adjoined with the national hospital in the city center, has 145 undergrads, and the Faculty of Agriculture, 150 kilometers away in Morogoro, has 114 undergrads.
The UDSM student population is predominantly male; just 15% is female. But it has an internationalist flavor with nearly a fifth of the students non-Tanzanians, most of whom hail from nearby Uganda and Kenya.
The university currently employs 417 academic (teaching and research) staff, of whom 219 or 53% are expatriates. In fact, the dominance of expatriates is greater if you take away the junior 84 Tutorial Assistants, who are all Tanzanians. Of the thirty full Professors, only two are Tanzanians. It is an academy in transition. The potential for growth and development is vast (UDSM 1973).
My initial title is Tutorial Assistant (TA), a probationary post. For a permanent job, a higher degree is a necessity. So the first thing my departmental head has me do is to apply for advanced study at universities abroad, and fill out several scholarship application forms.
I apply for the doctoral programs at the Oxford University in the UK and Stanford University in California. In response, both request my transcript and the syllabuses for the courses I have done. Within a month of transmitting that material, I am accepted into their programs.
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Comment: I note this minor detail to emphasize that in those days, the degrees conferred by the UDSM were, and were recognized worldwide as, high class degrees. In comparison, today the degrees from the same institution are, in most areas, not worth the paper they are printed on. It is common to find a modern day honors level UDSM graduate talking like an ignoramus in his or her discipline. Unfortunately, conditions are similar or worse at the other Tanzanian universities.
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In addition, I apply to the London School of Economics for a master’s degree in Operations Research (OR). OR is a branch of applied mathematics of relevance to industry, agriculture, transport, education and health. It is a one-year program. Acceptance is swift. With the scholarships lined up, I have to choose from one of the three places. Professor Phythian prefers I join a doctoral program. But I am hesitant. First, I have yet to figure out the area of mathematics I eventually want to specialize in. And, second, I want to explore OR. A relatively new specialty, it intrigues me. My plan is to get the master’s degree in OR, lecture for a couple of years at UDSM, and then tackle the heavy duty doctorate. Upon some persuasion, he consents. So London it is going to be, with scheduled departure in late August 1971.
During this long vacation, I am in a relaxed mood. It has been a long while since I have felt as such. I do not have onerous departmental duties; just a minor task occasionally. I read a lot, mathematics and other matters. I assist the new editorial board of the student magazine, MajiMaji, on a new issue. I visit UDSM friends who are now teaching in Moshi, Morogoro and Iringa, and give talks on African and world affairs to their students. And importantly, Henry Mapolu and I read and give comments to Walter Rodney on the draft chapters of his magnum opus, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. This terse volume embodying a trend setting method of historical analysis is to one day morph into one of the five most important works on African history written in the 20th century. At this time, we have no inkling about that future.
Two female cousins, Rumina and Shamim, have been close to me from a young age. With an only-boys family, they are my sisters. Shamim has just got her driving license. What bothers her is that keen as she is go to the drive-in cinema, her mother does not permit her, even if it is in the company of her female friends. But if I was with her, that would pose no problems. The cinema is located halfway between the Hill and Upanga, where they and my parents live. So on the weekends I am at my parents, she rarely fails to rope me into a movie show. Not that there is any reluctance on my part. Three hours of Bolywood fare inundated with song, dance and romance, and the few socialy uplifting flicks shown once in a while come with pop-corn, ice-cream, and the swell dinner her mother prepares. It is a failure proof recipe for a relaxing weekend.
Yet, all good things must end. The month of July is upon us. The campus brims with hundreds of new, eager faces. And I am loaded with responsibilities. But first, a milestone in our lives is to be celebrated. July 7th, a public holiday, is also the annual UDSM graduation day. It is with joy I greet my old friends once more. The Chancellor, Mwalimu Nyerere, will confer the degrees and we will acquire the right to be called a bachelor or master of science, arts or some such thing.
Only a year ago, this institution was a part of the University of East Africa. Now it is an autonomous university, holding its inaugural graduation ceremony. Marked with due pomp, with excited parents, relatives and friends among the crowd, the event, for all that is apparent on the surface, unfolds without a glitch. For the hundreds of graduands and their families, it is a day of joy. I too am in high spirits.
Yet, something is seriously amiss. It stems from the speech given by the Vice Chancellor (VC), Mr Pius Msekwa. His words are to catalyze a turbulent phase in the life of this young institution. As we head home to party with family and friends, none of us has a clue that in just two days, life at this university is to turn upside down. This upheaval is described in Chapter 5.
On a personal angle, while I am proud and happy on this day, I do not join my compatriots in one critical act. I do not mount the podium to get the Chancellor’s blessings. It is a conscious decision on my part. Little did I anticipate that it would color my academic life over the next forty years (see Chapter 9).
Once life at the campus settles down, I get my first formal taste of conveying university level mathematical concepts to others. I am now the Teaching Assistant for the Vector Analysis class taught by Professor Phythian. It is a higher level course with a full year of calculus as its prerequisite. A vector is an entity that has a numeric value and a direction. For example, the velocity of a vehicle is a vector but the weight of a stone is not. Vector Analysis investigates the panoply of intricate patterns that emerge from combining vectors and their functions over space and time. Though it is a subject strewn with abstract ideas and beguiling formulas, it is applied in diverse areas like physics, chemistry, astronomy, economics, all areas of engineering, transportation and the analysis of data in health and social science. When geometry is cast in a vector format, the enhanced elegance and analytic power is stupefying. Not just in real life, but in mathematics too, initial appearances can be quite misleading.
I attend the lectures, conduct two tutorial sessions per week, and grade homework assignments. It dawns upon me that passing a subject, even with a high grade, does not, by itself, give you the ability to teach it. I am unable to answer off hand some questions the students pose. The bright ones raise the difficult problems in the textbook, obliging me now and then to approach the good professor. Typically, he shows me the way. Occasionally, and with his typical loud chuckle, he declares, ‘Karim, you know this,’ leaving me to sweat it out on my own.
Professor Phythian is not just an astute mathematician, but in my view, one of the two best teachers in our department. He is also an open-minded person. I have, since my student days, tended to discuss with him things like the content of, and approach towards, mathematics in the schools and colleges of the developing nations of Africa. With my radical stance, our views frequently collide. Nonetheless, I hold him in high esteem and continue to gain a lot from him.
One positive outcome of tutoring his class is to bring home to me the centrality of developing good blackboard skills. The material I had taught during my secondary school teaching practice was easy stuff. I had known it like the back of my hand. Vectors and their compatriots reside on a higher plane. When explaining a formula on the blackboard, I pause to consult my notes or the textbook. At these moments, I feel the attention of some students wanders off, never to return for the duration of the class. While using the board or talking, it is critical to maintain a smooth flow, and face the class directly. To be able to do that, I must master the concepts and theorems. As it is, almost all the students are intimidated by them. And if the tutor waffles in class, their confusion will double. So I slog to dissect the innards of the partial and directional derivatives, chain rule, gradient, divergence and curl, and their relatives. My aim is to explain the arcane ideas as simply as possible during each encounter.
I land in London in late August 1971. Luck is on my side. Issa Shivji, a recent graduate from LSE, has a week more in London. He shows me the ropes, around the city and school. Two things awe me: you approach a door, and it opens up; you step onto a stairway, and it takes you up! The ultra-mini skirted girls titillate me. And there are the mega-sandwiches; the amount of cheese in one sandwich exceeds my three months’ consumption in DSM. That is, if it is found at an affordable price. No doubt, I am on a new planet.
My intoxication is soon dampened by the cold insularity of the Londoners. Deadly silence on buses and subways is the norm. On my way to LSE, I see a lady who has collapsed on a central island of a busy street. Likely, a homeless person. No pedestrian or car stops to assist her. Those who pass near her are as expressionless as zoned out zombies. If this is civilization, it is not for me.
And there is unmistakable racism; black people are Darkies and brown people are Pakis. On a visit to the famed British Library, I see an unoccupied reading booth. The desk light is on and a book lies open. Maybe its occupant has temporarily gone elsewhere. I ask the man in the adjacent booth. ‘Is any one sitting here?’ He looks at me, looks at the chair, under it, and under the booth. ‘I do not see anyone!’ With those terse words, he calmly returns to his book. Would a white person have elicited that insulting response?
My study program is jam packed with courses that take up much of my time. My classmates, bright minds from many nations, are scattered across the metropolis. I do not come to know them well. I also take part in external activities like supporting the people of Vietnam against American aggression and the South African people against Apartheid rule. Attending demonstrations, discussions, and reading books on political economy and world affairs takes up a chunk of my spare time. Here, in contrast, I make several good friends.
The courses at LSE are not appealing for the most part. Many are not well taught. The two I like best are (i) Characteristic Functions and (ii) The Distribution of Quadratic Forms. I do not recall who taught the first but, for the latter, we have Professor Alan Stuart of the encyclopedic Kendall’s Advanced Theory of Statistics text fame (Stuart, Ord and Kendall 1987). As a teacher, he stands in a class of his own.
At UDSM, I had developed an aversion to statistics mainly due to the course on Multivariate Statistical Analysis. It had the worst teacher I have ever encountered. Entering the classroom, he mumbles an incomprehensible sentence, scribbles a formula on the blackboard, and places another one in a slanting way in another corner. At times, he writes over what he has written earlier. From day one to the last, we have no clue what is going on. There is no room for questions. Once the rigmarole ends, he walks out and is not available for consultation. We complain to Professor Phythian — the only time in the three years we do such a thing — but he asks us to be patient, saying that the lecturer is a top class statistician in India. Whatever the case, as a lecturer, he is the worst of the lot. I do not know how we were able to pass his exam.
That was eighteen months ago. Professor Stuart stands in sharp contrast. He first tells us in a grand-fatherly style what the topic of the day is, explains his notation, and declares his starting point. In a gentle but systematic and rigorous exposition, he then leads us to the goal. Most of the steps are not that difficult to ascend, but a few pose a real challenge. The fault lies not in his teaching but reflects the nature of the beast.
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Comment: Modern day students do not realize that in any subject, some concepts are intrinsically abstruse. Sustained effort is essential for acquiring even a modicum of comprehension. Wanting their goods on a silver platter, they reflexively cast the blame on the teacher when rapid understanding is not attained.
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Professor Stuart’s exposition exposes me to the elegant foundation of statistical analysis. Invoking the language of vectors and matrices, he puts up a logical edifice that sparkles with gems of serene beauty. Remarkably, the gems are pertinent to the endeavors to unravel the truth in the natural and social sciences.
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Comment: With hindsight, I see that Professor Stuart’s integration of beauty with practicality did distinctly influence my eventual decision to specialize in the field of medical statistics. Because I had to focus on OR, I did not do the more application oriented statistics courses. Therefore, it was a decade later that I came to appreciate the centrality of the statistical mode of thinking in all pure and applied branches of science including medicine and the social sciences.
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During this period, I regularly spend a part of my weekend with three cousins who are in London; Yasmin, Karim and Rumina. We go to the movies, savor spicy delights at Indo-Pakistani eateries and walk around the city. Yasmin is a nurse; Karim pursues accountancy. Rumina, my de facto sister, struggles to find her feet in an alien environment. She works by day and studies in the evening. As my UNESCO scholarship gives me a generous allowance, I pass on a quarter of it to her for six months.
It is in the company of Yasmin that I have a unique movie going experience. The academy award winning, Soviet-made film rendition of Tolstoy’s War and Peace has come to town. The snag is that it is of nearly nine hours duration. The show starts at 8 pm on a Saturday, with a snack break at midnight, and continental breakfast at dawn. The food comes with the ticket.
We marvel at this cinematic majesty; as enriching as tackling Tolstoy himself. The scene of the injured Prince Andrei Bolkonsky first passing a lifeless looking grand oak in the depth of the winter, and later, as it begins to sparkle with life in the spring persists in my mind to this day. When the director was queried why he made such a long movie, he had a cryptic reply: ‘Can you do justice to Tolstoy within a shorter time?’
Towards the end of my stay in London, I learn that the Tanzanian Vice-President Karume has been assassinated. The details are not in the public domain, even to this day. But one consequence is that a number of Zanzibari comrades, both on the mainland and the island, are detained without trial. Word spreads that those in Zanzibar are subject to torturous ill-treatment. Some of the mainland detainees – Abdul Rahaman Babu, Colonel Ali Mafoudh, and Harko Bhagat – I know in person.
If there is evidence against them, it should be presented in a court of law, where they would have a chance to defend themselves. Indefinite detention without due process denies one of one’s basic human right. Three Zanzibari exiles in London (Ali Said, Ahmed Rajab and Mohamed Ali) and I start a campaign to publicize this fact. We aim to pressurize our government to follow the norms of justice. Our work complements the work of comrades at home and in Sweden and Denmark.
We write articles for general distribution, urge Amnesty International to take up the case, and petition progressive members of the British establishment. A face-to-face session with the director of Amnesty International is fruitful. He promises to devote due resources to look into it. Former progressive lecturers at UDSM, like Lionel Cliffe, join the effort. But by the time I leave for Dar es Salaam, no achievement is discernible. The comrades in London will continue the struggle.
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Comment: All the detainees were released without any charges pressed against them some five years later.
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By the time I left for DSM, I had visited places outside London. With Rumina, I spent a weekend in Brighton visiting another relative who was working there as nurse. It gave me an exposure to the touristic attractions of the southern English seaside. I also went to Birmingham for three days to visit my maternal great uncle. Originally from Zanzibar, he had moved to the UK after the 1964 revolution on that island. I had not seen him for many years. Though quite frail now, he was distinctly pleased to see me. And I spent a pleasant but freezing weekend in a coastal Scottish town at the home of my teaching practice supervisor, Elizabeth Connelly. This was my only contact with an indigenous British family. Her mother’s fine meals made it more than possible for my radically oriented mind to patiently withstand her father’s arch conservative political views. To round up my visit, Elizabeth took me for a long, illuminating stroll around the town. Unlike London, I did not see black or brown faces.