Growing Up With Tanzania: Memories, Musings and Maths

Author: Karim Hirji

Publisher: Mkuki na Nyota, 2014

Reviewer: Godwin Siundu

In East Africa, the seeming rebirth of the autobiographical genres of literature from the past two decades or so has equipped us with new ways of seeing our experiences through time and space. Increasingly, these forms of self-writing and self-narration have contributed to sustaining Asian voices in the region, thereby supplementing our knowledge of the issues and places that they deal with.

This is why we can now read Karim Hirji’s memoir, Growing up with Tanzania, appropriately sub-titled ‘Memories, Musings and Maths’. The latter is an interesting appendage to a work that is mainly thrust in the literary world because, as the writer correctly notes, not many people appreciate the close relationship shared between the disciplines of Mathematics and Literature. Indeed, part of the strength of the memoir, its musicality and rhythm in capturing the tides of life in Tanzania and beyond, is partly punctuated by amazing mathematical minuets, giving readers a touch of mathematics, a discipline that scares many people, including yours truly!

Overall, the structure of Growing up with Tanzania conforms to the normal trajectory of life stories generally, using the journey motif as a strategy of marking forms of growth and development at the personal, communal and national levels. The idea of movement that is occasioned by journeys is an important point because it implies seeing, learning and understanding. In fact, it is these three things that give meaning to the physical acts of travelling, and which preoccupy Hirji in this memoir that is written in a compassionate, humane and humanist manner that leaves the reader reviewing their presumed knowledge of the region, its people, politics and histories.

Apart from the mathematical anecdotes that mark the end of each chapter, and the epigraphs that signal the beginning of each, the memoir is ordered in three parts, each hinting at the key concerns. Part I, Memories, is awash with critical innocence, where the narrator encounters and is determined to understand life in a Tanzania going through transition from a British colony to a Nyerere-led post-colonial state. As a conscientious observer, Hirji notes the possibilities and limitations of the various institutions – social, cultural, religious and political – and their impact on the greatest challenge that the new nation-state confronts, namely the need to fashion a multiracial nation devoid of parochialism and other forms of narrow-mindedness.

Specifically, he notes that while these institutions were important in the formation of various identities, they were also partly responsible for the racial and other boundaries that made it impossible for the citizens of Tanzania to form a strong and united nation collectively working for the economic prosperity of the country. These boundaries, some of which were a legacy of the colonial divide and rule policy, were further reinforced by forms of material cultures that we now have come to celebrate in contemporary concern with cultural studies. Specifically, food, music and film, according to Hirji, were key in forming Asian sensibilities among Tanzanian Asians of his generation, and were partly responsible for the later wave of emigration from Tanzania to the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States of America. The point, subtly put across, is that from as early as the decade before independence, some of the Asians in Tanzania had begun to see themselves as citizens of a world by far larger than Tanzania.

And so as they went about their lives, their view of their place in the then world was not so much that – courtesy to colonial hierarchies of race – they were better than or superior to Africans, but that they, the Asians, were citizens of Britain and other similar places. It was not surprising, therefore, that in post-1970s Tanzania, many of those Asian families who could afford it actually found ways of taking off to the metropolises like Toronto, London and Los Angeles to begin afresh, where they quite often encountered worse challenges of racism, but astonishingly recorded grand success in the professions and businesses that they ventured in.

These issues are further revisited in Part II, Musings, in which Hirji reflects on the educational system as one of the most influential institutions in the making of contemporary Tanzania and shaping the lives of those who were present at the birth of the nation. For this, Hirji’s account comes out as a sincere, heartfelt gratitude to, and admiration of, Julius Nyerere, the founding president of Tanzania. The leader’s ideological inclinations, his sheer brilliance and incorruptibility are virtues that Hirji attributes the stability of Tanzania to.

With hindsight, however, Hirji notes that Nyerere, true to his human nature, made mistakes such as presuming complete support from his fellow country men and women, his misjudging of character and underrating the magnitude of the challenges that Tanzania faced. Policies that he put in place for the benefit of all Tanzanians were abused by a few of the bureaucrats who never quite bought into the ideals behind the policies. For instance, Hirji uses later reflection to assess the damage that the Arusha Declaration of 1967 caused in the country’s journey towards development, in the sense that the fear of what was to come drove most of the Asians out of the country in search of perceived security in Western Europe and North America. As a critical observer, Hirji also implicates the Asians in the decisions to leave Tanzania, suggesting strongly that the exaggeration of the problems of policies such as nationalization was due to their misreading by the Asians, who saw a racial conflict in a matter that was a necessary economic strategy meant to redress economic injustices that had roots in the colonial administrative infrastructure that rendered Africans the worst-off of the racial communities in terms of access to opportunities.

If the memoir starts off with unquestioning love for Nyerere and Tanzania, the passage of time, the numerous journeys to numerous places, and the ultimate return to Tanzania in 2004 after close to two decades abroad all open Hirji’s eyes to new realities of what Tanzania currently is – a huge country with higher populations of people who have now completely given up all ideals of education for self-reliance. What he finds, upon return, is a country with a people saddled with leaders known for relatively weak intellectual bearing: ‘The prevalence of blatant mental subservience in such an open manner bespeaks volumes as to the loss of shame, sense of dignity and patriotism prevailing among our fashionably attired, smart phone-armed political and intellectual classes’ (p166).

Hirji’s concern with this turn of events, the moral and intellectual degeneration, as well as the political ineptitude that cannot compare to the Nyerere era, is what dominates Part III, entitled Spirals, as though to hint at the confusion that one who was present at the beginning may encounter upon returning to a country once beloved, but now pale beyond any fond recognition. Indeed, in this part Hirji somewhat returns to his childhood experiences and places, in a manner echoing Wordsworth’s often cited notion that the child is the father of the man.

This symbolic return to childhood, making yet another journey in the process, is a way of posing the fundamental question that underlies the memoir: what, in Tanzania, went wrong in terms of racial polarities and economic stagnation? What explains the degeneration and disillusionment that pervades the once promising country? It is in attempting answers to these questions that Hirji offers his diplomatically articulated yet honest criticism of all those responsible for the current state of decadence. Using the rubric of ‘convergences’ and ‘divergences’, Hirji points out contributors to this malaise, from entrenched racial parochialism among the Asian communities to the misconceived economic policies and the lethargy of the intellectual and political leadership to the ultimate betrayal of the ideal of education for self reliance. In a sentence, Tanzania, according to Hirji, has been messed up from within.

Yet, in passing such stinging judgment, Hirji does so with compassion and a deep understanding that the country and its leadership was also caught in a vortex of global economic politics over which it had little influence, such as the rise of liberal democratic ideas that reduced the country from its proud standing as a continental leader in the quest for political freedom to an omba omba nation.

In all these, Hirji literally grows up with Tanzania, in the sense that as we read about the country, we also get to know about his own and his family’s struggles. The joys of triumph, the frustrations of endless drudgery of the daily routine that his parents lived through, the deaths of close relatives and friends and his own agonies of living in a family and community of hard feelings towards people from different communities – all are narrated with great sympathy and skill. To that extent, the memoir is about Tanzania’s struggles as it is his own quest to simultaneously find meaning of events and times that framed his life, and the lives of all those Tanzanians that he encountered.

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