First International Humanist Conference in Africa a Success
Norm R. Allen, Jr.
The following article is from Free
Inquiry magazine, Volume 22, Number 1.
The Nigerian Humanist Movement hosted the first international humanist
conference in Sub-Saharan Africa from October 8-10, 2001. Humanist scholars,
writers, academics, and activists from Nigeria, Uganda, and the U.S. gathered at
the University of Ibadan, Nigeria's premiere university.
The scholarly presentations were impressive, thought provoking, and
controversial. They often sparked heated debates during the question and answer
sessions. In "Combating Superstition in Artificial Human
Reproduction," philosopher Peter F. Omonzelele of the University of Benin
(Nigeria), argued that the Catholic Church opposes artificial means of
reproduction due largely to their prohibitions against masturbation and
adultery. Moreover, they are against unmarried women giving birth. Omonzelele
argued that because most religionists do not oppose life-improving procedures
such as blood transfusions, they should not be opposed to procedures such as
artificial insemination. He further argued that married and single women should
have the right to decide how they are to become pregnant.
Dr. Sanya Olutogun presented a paper titled "Biotechnology and the Fight
against Hunger in Africa." He argued in favor of genetically modified foods
to eradicate hunger throughout the continent. His presentation and many others
showed that African humanists often differ with their Western counterparts on
some issues. In the West, many environmentalists and humanists are opposed to
what they call "Franken foods." In Africa, however, many scholars are
more apt to argue that the concerns raised by many environmentalists in the West
are not backed by good science. Olutogun, for example, believes that
biotechnology holds great promise for combating hunger and starvation in Africa.
Sheila Solarin, the matron of the Nigerian Humanist Movement, and the widow
of the late humanitarian free thinker Tai Solarin, gave an excellent
presentation on the importance of humanism. She noted that human beings should
do away with the God-of-the-gaps. We used to believe in the rain god and the god
of thunder, she noted. But after we learned more about the weather, such gods
became obsolete. Similarly, in the past we wanted to increase the world's
population and we believed in fertility goddesses. But today, we want smaller
families. We do not, however, worship infertility goddesses. "We have
Planned Parenthood," she wryly noted.
Humanist leaders gave reports on the state of humanism in Ethiopia, Tanzania,
Uganda, and Black America. Gebregeorgis Yohannes is the founder of the Ethiopian
Humanist Organization. He noted that "it takes a great deal of courage to
go against established beliefs and superstitions in Africa." He discussed
the danger involved in trying to popularize humanist ideals in cultures where
there is no tradition of freedom of dissent. He called for bravery and tact
among African humanist leaders.
Yohannes and another Ethiopian humanist produced a ten-page humanist brochure
detailing humanist principles and how they pertain to Ethiopian life. Yohannes
is developing a Web site for the African Humanist Alliance (AHAL) with the
support of African Americans for Humanism. It will be utilized as a resource for
information and communication among humanists with an interest in African
Nsajigwa I-G Mwasokwa has established a group called Sisi Kwa Sisi (Swahili
for "all of us" or "together as one"). The Tanzanian group
is in its infancy, but it is growing. According to Mwasokwa, Christianity did
not enter Tanzania until 1884-1885 with the Berlin conference. The colonial
government branded indigenous African religions "primitive" and
Long before the advent of Christianity, however, Arabs and Persians brought
Islam to Tanzania between the 8th and 13th centuries. Though the Muslims also
looked down upon indigenous African religions, they saw similarities between the
Muslim faith and African traditions. Mwasokwa says that traditional African
culture embraced patriarchy, polygamy, and community oriented principles. It was
therefore easier for Muslims to gradually attract Tanzanians to Islam, rather
than trying to convert them as Christians did.
Mwasokwa says that humanism presents the new "way forward." He says
that the humanist life stance is badly needed to combat dogmas, harmful
traditions, irrational fears, authoritarianism, and intolerance. He believes
that critical thinking will help Africans break the shackles of modern slavery
in all of its forms.
Ssekitooleko Degratiasi is the founder of the Ugandan Humanists Association.
His organization has been involved in efforts to rid Africa of land mines and to
ban corporal punishment from Ugandan schools. He believes that for humanism to
prosper, the movement must gain political power. In light of the attacks upon
the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11th, he believes that
humanism is particularly crucial in the fight against terrorism and religious
Norm R. Allen Jr., the executive director of African Americans for Humanism,
discussed the profound impact that humanist ideals have had upon the substantive
development of Black intellectualism, activism, and culture in the U.S. He
added, however, that according to a recent ABC News belief Internet poll, only
3% of African Americans are non-theists. He said that this does not have to
always be the case, but that in any event, the influence of Black humanists will
continue to far exceed their numbers.
Allen gave special thanks to Emmanuel Kofi Mensah, who founded the first
major humanist group in Nigeria, Action for Humanism. At the International
Humanist and Ethical Union Congress in Amsterdam in 1992, Mensah promised that
Africa would one day host a large humanist conference. His vision has been
realized, and Africa stands poised to make great contributions to organized
humanism in the near future.
Most Nigerian humanists expressed strong concern about the violence between
Muslims and Christians in northern Nigeria. Though their Constitution asserts
that Nigeria is a secular nation, there is a constitutional provision allowing
Nigerian states to institute religious governments. For this reason, at least a
dozen Nigerian states in the north have instituted Sharia (Muslim) legal
systems. As a result, tensions have arisen and angry religionists have burnt
mosques and churches, and hundreds have been killed. Some Nigerian humanists
believe that humanism is the only answer. Others believe that religion will
never disappear in Africa, and that the best hope lies in trying to make
religions more humanistic.
The conference attracted great media attention. A national television station
aired parts of some speeches made by humanist spokespersons at the conference.
Radio Nigeria aired remarks from some speakers, and major newspapers in Nigeria
ran news of the conference.
The entertainment provided at the inaugural session was exceptional. Sheila
Solarin heads the Mayflower School, the leading senior secondary school in
Nigeria, and Nigeria's oldest secular school. The Mayflower Students Choral
Group sang to the delight of the audience. Afterward, the ASA Cultural Ensemble,
Osogbo, thrilled the crowd with traditional/modern dance routines.
Leo Igwe, the secretary of the Nigerian Humanist Movement, and the main
organizer of the conference, believes that humanist leaders should be assertive
in their efforts to foster humanist ideals. Rather than waiting for like-minded
individuals to discover humanism, humanist leaders must take their messages to
the people, Igwe says. He plans to do more traveling throughout Africa to plant
the seeds of humanism with literature and human contact. He has outlined a plan
for establishing sub-regional African humanist networks-West Africa, East and
Central Africa, North Africa, and Southern Africa. He says:
"This Action Plan should also provide for the organization of a regional
conference at least once every three years. These conferences will be rotated
among the different sub-regional networks so that, by 2011, at least one
regional humanist conference must have been held in all the sub-regions in the
It is clear that Africa-the cradle of humanity-will play a vital role in the
development of international humanism. Humanists worldwide should embrace Igwe's
exclamations, "Long live the African Humanist Movement! Long live the
International Humanist Movement!"
click on the photos to enlarge them
conference participants pose for a photo after the second plenary
painting with a humanist theme was presented to Norm R. Allen, Jr.,
(right) from Dr. Oluspgun Oladipo (left).
Norm R. Allen, Jr., is the executive director of African Americans for