Since its inception in 1989, African Americans for Humanism (AAH) has struggled to attract African Americans to organized humanism. Indeed, few non-Whites are active in organized humanism throughout the United States, Canada, and Europe.
However, such is not the case in other parts of the world. There are vibrant humanist and skeptics groups throughout Africa, Latin America, and Asia. Due largely to the efforts of the Council for Secular Humanism and Prometheus Books, there are now about fifty-four humanist groups in twenty-six African countries. In June and July 2006, I visited humanist groups in Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania. Nigeria
Joining me in Nigeria was Hugo Estrella of Argentina, my fellow codirector of transnational programs for the Center for Inquiry. We traveled to Nigeria for the tenth anniversary celebration of the Nigerian Humanist Movement at the University of Benin. When Leo Igwe established the group, he was met with skepticism, because Nigeria is widely regarded as the most religious country in the world. However, Igwe persevered with his dream, and AAH was with him every step of the way.
Today, the Nigerian Humanist Movement has members and supporters in several Nigerian states. They have made an impact in the Nigerian media and have established groups on a number of college campuses. Student panelists at the conference represented Onabisi Onabanjo University, the University of Calabar, Ambrose Alli University-Epkoma, and the University of Ibadan.
Leading humanists throughout the world extended congratulations to the Nigerian Humanist Movement upon the anniversary of its founding. They included philosophers Antony Flew and Peter Singer, Nigerian Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka, and science-fiction writer Sir Arthur C. Clarke. The presentations delivered at the event were intellectually stimulating. Those in attendance were primarily young people, as is the case with most humanist groups in Africa. Steve Okecha gave a presentation on "Ritual Killing and Superstition," a hot topic of discussion for Nigerian humanists. In 1996, police in the city of Owerri in southern Nigeria arrested a man who had in his possession the head of a young boy. Police later discovered the boy's torso buried on the grounds of a hotel. They eventually found out that a network of individuals who performed certain rituals was responsible for killing people and using their body parts. In February 2003, a judge sentenced several members of the network to death by hanging.
In September 2001, the story of "Boy Adam" came to the attention of the world. Police in Britain found his mutilated corpse in the Thames River near Tower Bridge in London. He had lived in southwestern Nigeria, and some people believed that he had been the victim of a ritual killing. In July 2003, police arrested twenty-four Nigerians in Britain as suspects in the murder.
The Nigerian Humanist Movement has been working hard to fight the superstitious belief that killing people and taking their organs will bring believers wealth, good health, or power. They would like to work closely with skeptics in the United States and India in this effort. Faith healing is also a major topic of discussion among Nigerian humanists. Evangelists such as Benny Hinn and Oral Roberts of the United States and Reinhard Bonnke of Germany have made huge inroads into Africa. They are spending millions of dollars and attracting millions of converts.
There are also several homegrown Nigerian pastors who make a lot of money through faith healing. In 2005, the situation had become so bad, and so many people had lost so much money, that the Nigerian Broadcasting Commission would no longer permit stations to show the performance of supposed miracles on television.
At the anniversary celebration, journalist Patrick Nagbaaton gave a talk on "Religion and Nigeria's Underdevelopment." He was highly critical of the religious "nonsense" that is holding his nation back. He has examined faith-healing claims and exposed them. He called for increased skepticism of untested claims to knowledge among Nigerians.
There was also a session on the subject "Humanism and Women's Rights." The topics included "Promoting Girls' Rights and Empowerment," "Harmful Traditional Practices and Nigerian Women," and "A Humanist Perspective on Women's Social Status." A presentation by Grace Osakue, who heads an organization that works to instill confidence in young girls, was especially well received.
Secularism might have been the most popular topic at the conference. Most of those in attendance remarked on the differences between northern and southern Nigerians. In the predominantly Muslim north, Sharia law is widespread. In the predominantly Christian south, there is much more freedom and tolerance. Most of the participants seemed to believe that there is very little hope that peace and tolerance will come to Muslims in the north. Indeed, most agreed that holding a debate or humanist conference in northern Nigeria could only end in violence and death.
Nkeonye Otakpor, the former Dean of Arts of the University of Benin, gave the World Humanist Day lecture. The title was "The Imperative to Be Human." He discussed many ways in which faith retards intellectual development. He defended unfettered intelligent thought and talked about the importance of intellectual maturity in realizing the potential of individuals.
The conference was well attended and intellectually refreshing. Students at the University of Benin formed a campus humanist group. By all accounts, the conference was a success, and Nigerian humanist leaders seemed to be reinvigorated.
After the conference ended, the Nigerian Humanist Movement cohosted an international seminar on humanism with the philosophy department of the University of Lagos. Joining me on stage for the seminar were Estrella, Babu Gogineni of the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), and Nigerian humanist Eze Ebiske, former chairman of the Nigerian Humanist Movement. Most of the seats were filled, and a lively question-and-answer period followed. Afterward, about two dozen students came together to form a humanist group at the university.
After the seminar, we visited a veteran Nigerian journalist named Harry Nwana. He has publicized the Nigerian Humanist Movement in his column in the Vanguard, a leading Nigerian newspaper. He writes from a humanist perspective and tries to foster skepticism. He is interested in learning about conducting secular funerals and promoting humanism in a nonconfrontational way.
Since my first trip to Africa in 1991, African media have become much more progressive and democratic. There are now major critiques of and investigations into faith healing in leading African newspapers. Columnists argue for gay rights, sexual freedom, and the legalization of prostitution. The Monitor of Kampala, Uganda, published an article by Paul Kurtz, titled "Five Reasons Why There Is No God." Earlier, they ran an article exposing the tricks of a traditional healer. It is possible that the African media in general might some day be favorable toward skepticism and the promotion of humanist ideals.
In Kenya, I met with Boaz Adhengo of the Center for Inquiry/ Kenya. Adhengo and other Kenyan philosophy students were introduced to humanism at a major humanist conference I attended in Kampala in 2004. We visited the University of Nairobi and the United States International University. We met with activists from other organizations and looked at possible office space for the Center for Inquiry/Kenya. We discussed plans for a proposed humanist conference to be held in Kenya in 2007. Adhengo introduced me to Churchill Otieno, an editor with the Nation Media Group, Kenya's leading newspaper publisher. Otieno informed me that his group had investigated and exposed Kenyan faith healers and other religious hucksters. He was greatly interested in the Center for Inquiry's publications and said that his group might do more investigations into faith healing.
Like the Nigerian Humanist Movement, the Uganda Humanist Association (UHASSO) has been in existence for many years. In 1996, it initiated a campaign to stop corporal punishment in Uganda's schools. It held seminars at numerous teachers' colleges.
This year, the Ugandan ministry of education banned corporal punishment in the nation's schools and colleges, as well as nursery schools and infant classes. Dr. John Mbabazi, the director of education for Uganda, made the official announcement. UHASSO has also been involved in campaigning against land mines and in other progressive causes. Though this group is headquartered in Kampala, like its counterpart in Nigeria, UHASSO has branches elsewhere in its country as well.
The group's leader, the charismatic activist, Deogratiasi Ssekitooleko, has started a dynamic group called the Ugandan Humanist Effort to Save Women (UHESWO). Betty Nassaka heads the group, the membership of which is open to women between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five.
UHESWO works to build confidence in Ugandan women while combating sexism. Their most ambitious project to date is giving assistance to prostitutes by distributing condoms and encouraging them to further their education and to seek job training. Like the humanists in Nigeria, Ugandan humanists draw upon traditional dance, music, and drama. Putting on good entertainment is an effective way of stimulating and maintaining interest at humanist gatherings.
I distributed copies of Paul Kurtz's book Affirmations: Joyful and Creative Exuberance at all of my stops in Africa. UHASSO has established the Paul Kurtz Reference Library at its headquarters in Kampala. The library houses more than four hundred books. Many of the books are unavailable anywhere else in Uganda. The library also houses humanist newsletters and magazines from different parts of the world.
I appeared before the members of the Bukalasa Free Thought Association at the Bukalasa Agricultural College, discussing the history of AAH and the importance of fostering humanist ideals. Afterward, Deogratiasi urged members to continue to be active in defending the humanist life stance.
My final stop was Tanzania. Tanzanians take great pride in the fact that people from all religions, as well as those who practice no religion at all, are able to live peacefully with one another. Marriages between Muslims and Christians are common. This is largely due to the leadership of their former president, Julius Nyerere, who was able to unite people from various backgrounds under the Tanganyikan African National Union (TANU) in 1954. Traditional medicine is very popular in Tanzania. Many Muslims, Christians, and animists patronize traditional healers, largely because they cannot afford modern health care. Practically every African government has embraced traditional healers in efforts to combat malaria.
However, traditional medicine can be dangerous. For example, in 2005, there was an outbreak of the deadly Marburg virus in Angola. Some healers had injected home remedies into patients with reused needles or syringes. Because the virus is communicable and easily passed along by means of contaminated needles, this action helped the disease spread. This occurred despite a month-long effort by trained physicians to prevent it. The name of the Tanzanian humanist group is Sisi kwa Sisi, which means "all of us" in Swahili. The members are primarily interested in promoting humanist ideals and uplifting the Tanzanian people. Despite widespread religious tolerance in Tanzania, however, they fear that it is dangerous to promote humanism in their country. Still, they persist. Last year, they hosted Fadel Niang of the Center for Inquiry/Senegal. They have established worthwhile contacts with humanists in Holland, Africa, and the United States, and their confidence continues to grow.
In 1992, Emmanuel Kofi Mensah of the now-defunct Action for Humanism group in Nigeria told an audience at an IHEU Congress in Holland that one day Africa would host impressive humanist conferences. (At the time, there were only three known humanist groups in sub-Saharan Africa.) His prediction has been fulfilled.
There are other major conferences planned for Africa. The Center for Inquiry/Kenya is planning a conference in conjunction with World Philosophy Day in 2007. The proposed site will be in Nairobi at the Kenyatta International Conference Center. Details will be published in a future issue of Free Inquiry.
From January 17-19, 2007, the Cameroon Freethought Association (CAFTA) will host an international humanist/ atheist/secularist conference in Cameroon. On the first day, the conference will be held at the University of Yaounde in the nation's capital. The conference will then move to the town of Ebolowa at the Classic High School.
These African humanist leaders are courageously struggling to advance the humanist cause. For more information, or to find out how you can be of assistance, e-mail Boaz Adhengo in Kenya at firstname.lastname@example.org or Alex Mbom in Cameroon at email@example.com or alexmbom @yahoo.fr.
|1. The presenters at the Nigerian Humanist Movement conference (left to right): Peter Adogoke, Patrick Nagbaaton, Babu Gogineni, Hugo Estrella, Leo Igwe, Nkeonye Otakpor, Kuldip Singh, Norm Allen, Jimkelly Abegbe, and John Asokhia.|
|2. Nigerian Humanist Movement conference panelists (left to right): Enyeriba Onuoha, Kuldip Singh, Norm Allen, and Steve Okecha.|
|3. Allen with Sisi kwa Sisi member Isakwisa Lucas.|
|4. The Bukalasa Free Thought Association of Uganda. At bottom, Allen is second from the right. Standing second from the left is UHASSO Chairman Deogratiasi Ssekitooleko.|