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Reason and Superstition in Uganda

by Bill Cooke

The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 24, Number 6.

It has become problematic throughout the Western world to speak of reason or superstition without resorting to scare quotes. To talk of reason or superstition is naïve, logocentric, culturally imperialist, or some other fashionable pejorative. But wrap these sorts of words in scare quotes, and we can affect a pleasing irony.

Why has this happened? Probably because we in the West have lost a firsthand sense of what reason or superstition mean in people’s lives. So what a pleasure it was to get away from this postmodernist trivia last spring and go to Uganda, where things are called by their real name. In Uganda, superstition is not simply a brand name; it is a real danger that blights real people’s lives. And reason is not a token of Western imperialism but a real means by which people can reclaim responsibility for their own lives from those who seek to enslave them.

I was in Kampala, Uganda, for three conferences. From all corners of Uganda, the country Winston Churchill once called the “pearl of Africa,” and from neighboring Kenya, Sudan, Tanzania, and Rwanda, people came together in Kampala to learn more about humanism and to help strengthen the humanist presence in East Africa.

Kampala is a sprawling city, built around a series of hills and with occasional views of Lake Victoria. Uganda is a country on the way up, with some impressive development taking place. This is fine for the minority of the population who have the education and skills 
to take advantage of the opportunities arising out of development, but most people are being left behind on what is a highly unequal track. Stepping into those gaps between the haves and have-nots (an area already crowded with those holding traditional beliefs) are some well-funded evangelical groups. Unlike the missionaries of old, these groups are not building schools or hospitals. All they offer is a hysterical brand of salvation that is usually bound up with helping to fund their local church. The day I arrived in Uganda, I read about an apocalyptic cult that was spreading through a prestigious girls’ school in Kampala.

It took a long time for the humanist community to take much notice of Africa. The longest-standing commitment to Africa has come from African-Americans for Humanism (AAH), an organization founded in 1989 by Norm Allen and Paul Kurtz. Since then Norm, who is also deputy editor of Free Inquiry, has continually cultivated African humanists. He frequently published African writers in his group’s newsletter, the AAH Examiner, sending out donated materials from Prometheus Books and occasionally visiting Africa. Things began to pick up in 2001, when the first major humanist conference on the African continent was held in Nigeria. The conference was paid for by the Center for Inquiry, and the Center for Inquiry–Nigeria was set up shortly afterwards.

The first conference held last spring was the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) youth conference in which about sixty young people from Africa and Europe took part. Then there was a day-long conference at which the Ugandan Humanist Association (UHASSO) was established. And then came an international conference, sponsored by the IHEU, under the title “Humanist Visions for Africa.”

I was impressed by the youth and passion of the African humanists. Many of them had struggled to Kampala on buses; some even hitchhiked. At the conference, they told their personal stories. A young teacher from Tanzania spoke of the discrimination he faced from the religious authorities of his school for not toeing the orthodox line. A group of students from Nairobi University spoke of their sense of isolation in an environment expecting outward conformity to religious norms. And a man from western Uganda who had been a practicing witch doctor spoke about his journey from superstition to reason. No scare quotes were needed here: this man’s journey really was from superstition to reason. His relief, joy, and pride at having made that journey was a sight to behold. He is now actively engaged in his region in showing people how the witch doctors’ tricks are done and encouraging the people to resist their blandishments.

But the most memorable talk was delivered by a young Rwandan woman who spoke of the genocide in her country. She had not been scheduled to speak, and her talk was entirely unrehearsed, but she gave a full sense of the horror the country had undergone. It was very moving. One of the stories that has not emerged from Rwanda is the shameful role of many church leaders in encouraging the genocide, leading the murderers to victims or at the very least taking no action to prevent the killings.

At the conferences, I also realized the depth of respect for Norm Allen that has developed over the past fifteen years. Norm chaired sessions in two of the three conferences (the only non-IHEU person to do so) and was a major speaker, panelist, and opinion-leader in all three. Leo Igwe, Nigerian CFI executive director, and Deo Ssekitooleko, his Ugandan counterpart, both gave fulsome praise to Norm’s dedication over the past decade and a half to build the foundations of African humanism. And both mentioned Norm’s role in their own path toward humanism. Roy Brown, IHEU president, described Norm as “a pillar of African humanism.”

Besides persecution of the nonreligious, other forms of discrimination were discussed at the conferences. In Uganda, homosexuality carries with it a maximum of life imprisonment, and there is severe punishment even for failing to report homosexual activity to the police. Not surprisingly, then, the few Ugandan homosexuals brave enough to show their faces began speaking up at the conference. The conference agreed that this form of discrimination was unacceptable in an open society.

Nobody was ready for the press reaction. The New Vision paper carried an article the next day under the headline “Homos Meet in Kampala.” Suddenly, the humanist conferences had become “the first ever conference to discuss the rights of homosexuals.” A cartoon in the following day’s paper plumbed the depths of bad taste. It portrayed some very caricatured gays mincing off to a conference and taunting police in full confidence of not being arrested while there were other, larger conferences attended by representatives of nations helping Uganda still in town. The policeman replies to the homosexuals with a veiled threat to dare continue the meeting after the other conferences have finished.

This blatantly dishonest reporting did the humanist conferences a grave disservice. All the other issues discussed over five days dissolved into irrelevance as we had now been branded a “homo conference.” The hotel where the conferences were held was visited by the police, though no arrests were made. The New Vision ran a major op-ed piece a few days later in which Paul Waibale Sr. confessed to being “gravely amazed” to hear that Ugandan law had been flouted in so cavalier a fashion by “two associations I have never heard of, namely the Uganda Humanist Association and the International Humanist and Ethical Union.” Roy Brown went out of his way to correct the misinformation, but I don’t think the New Vision was interested in presenting the conference honestly. I hope UHASSO can survive the negative publicity.

Had the New Vision reporters stayed longer, they could have collected more material with which to berate humanists. Dr. Sylvia Tamale of Makerere University gave a fiery indictment of the patriarchal conservatism in Ugandan society that conspires to hold women down. There were also some good presentations on third-world debt, globalization, and the rise of Islam.

After the conference it was wonderful to see the office of CFI–Uganda/UHASSO. Just down the road from Makerere University, in a building being comprehensively renovated, the only room already occupied is the CFI–Uganda office. As one closes the door on all the concrete dust and noise, the two hundred titles donated by Prometheus Books sit proudly on shelves alongside the two tables and the two computers. The Center for Inquiry delegation had come to the conference with a donation of US$2,000 for CFI–Uganda/UHASSO (twice the size of any other gift the group received), so it was inspiring to see the money being used in this way. This office will be the nerve center not only for Ugandan humanism but for humanism throughout East Africa.

Viewing the facilities, I was able to regain confidence in UHASSO’s future. The leadership of this organization is dedicated, intelligent, and realistic. Ugandan humanists will be battling superstition by using reason, without recourse to scare quotes. And after this conference, they are now a focal point for humanists from all the neighboring countries. I couldn’t help feeling hopeful as I left the country—hopeful for Uganda and hopeful for humanism. 

Bill Cooke is director of Transnational Programs for the Center for Inquiry.

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