Local poet Shiraz Ramji talks about a life of activism and education

Also the organizer of Grandparents Film Festival, Ramji is an active member of the Burnaby community

Ramji has been an educator all his life, and so his involvement with SFU makes a great deal of sense. (Photo courtesy of the Lyre)

By: Alex Bloom

Shiraz Ramji is currently the director of the Edmonds Seniors Society, and has long been affiliated with SFU in several capacities. He was a student at the university, and has been a staff member, researcher, and guest lecturer in subjects such as education, gerontology, and First Nations studies. He is still a prominent member of the SFU community; as previously noted when The Peak interviewed him in 2013, if you’re a student at Burnaby campus, the chances are high that you’ve spoken to him or read his poetry. Ramji has devoted his life to activism and education, and his poetry reflects these pursuits. The Peak sat down with him to discuss his life, his work, and his art.

     As mentioned previously by The Peak, Ramji began writing poetry at a young age. He was encouraged by his elementary school teacher, who said “You speak like a poet, write it.” That same teacher had Ramji’s poetry published in the school magazine soon after. “. . . I was writing poetry for years and I didn’t know what it meant — I still don’t know — but slowly, I kept on writing.” As time went by, he started getting published in more newspapers and magazines. “Mostly it was about promoting friendship . . .” he said.

     Ramji is passionate about a variety of issues that people face around the world. “I’m quite interested in gender justice and global peace . . . So the whole idea was to make [my art] more educational,” he noted. This passion for social justice and education was inspired by his growing up in what was, at the time of his birth, called Tanganyika. Tanganyika was the name given to the mainland of what is now Tanzania under colonial rule. Ramji was born in 1948, and it wasn’t until 1961 that Tanganyika gained independence from the British. In 1964, the Protectorate of Zanzibar (a region off the coast) gained independence as well, and together they formed the United Republic of Tanzania that October.

     Even after Tanzania gained its independence, the lasting effects of colonialism had an impact on Ramji. “When I was in high school — I finished my grade 12 in 1965 — it was a time when Zimbabwe, which was called Rhodesia, was [still] taken over by the settlers . . . we had a history teacher who taught us about this whole struggle,” he said. “When I went on to university, there were a lot of students involved with African liberation movements, and anti-apartheid struggles, so I was quite involved with that.”

     Ramji’s friend Karim Hirji wrote about him in his 2014 book, Growing Up With Tanzania. Memories, Musings and Maths, saying, “Among the activist students [Shiraz Ramji] was known as a man of the people . . . Always smiling, he befriended the old and young, and was considerate towards everyone.” Also according to Hirji, Ramji continued in his passion for activism after graduation. He went on to teach physics at Mkwawa High School in Iringa. There he started a student magazine, organized community improvement projects for the students to participate in, helped to expand the school library collection, and invited scholars and members of African liberation movements to speak to the students about African history, politics, science, and economics.

     Ramji said that he was also inspired by figures such as Angela Davis, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and John Lennon. He noted, “I was always on the pacifist side.” He went on to say, “. . . our president [at the time], Julius Nyerere, was quite involved with the theology of liberation.” Social justice movements and education have always been prominent in Ramji’s life, and so it comes as no surprise that his poetry talks about justice of all sorts: in one poem he mentions dozens of different kinds of justice.

     One of the kinds of justice Ramji mentioned in his poem was “Grandparents Justice” and his latest project — the Grandparents Film Festival — aims to provide just that. The monthly festival is open to all, and offers free screenings of films focusing on elders and grandparents. Part of the inspiration behind the festival began during his time teaching nurses in Tanzania, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe how to evaluate vaccination programs, where he often met with grandparents in the community as part of his work. “I started a lot of [promoting] of grandparent-grandchildren friendship,” he said. He also taught grandparents postnatal care since, in his experience, many of the children that were not vaccinated were in the care of their grandparents.

     Ramji came to Canada in 1994, following a family tragedy, where he began volunteering in film festivals. At these festivals, he noticed that there were relatively few movies about elders. This is where he first thought of starting Grandparents Film Festival. The goal of the festival was simple: “We want to have films with elders and grandparents,” he said.

        The next Grandparents Film Festival screening will take place on March 18 from 4–6 p.m. at the Edmonds Community Centre. The film shown will be Birth of a Family directed by Tasha Hubbard. It’s a documentary that tells the story of four siblings from the Dene Nation who were separated from each other by the Canadian government at a young age, and their eventual reunion.

     When asked about the process of decolonization in Canada, Ramji replied, “When I was in elementary school . . . we were given a lot of comic books called ‘Cowboys and Indians’ . . . I was quite interested in the ‘American Indians’ because my birth certificate said I was ‘British Indian’ . . . I wanted to see how ‘British Indians’ and ‘American Indians’ are related.”

“I wasn’t very interested in cowboys because I could see cowboys right in front of me, as [colonizers],” he explained. “So when I came to Canada . . . I did nine courses about Indigenous Peoples.”

        Ramji, who identifies as a global citizen, leads a life full of activism, art, and education. He continues to work on his poetry, among other things, today — and one thing is clear: he is still passionate about social justice of all kinds.