Ten Years of the Uganda Humanist Association (UHASSO)
The following article is from the Secular
Humanist Bulletin, Volume 20, Number 4.
The Uganda Humanist Association (UHASSO), which organized
the first humanist week in Kampala, Uganda, in May 2004, has been in existence
for about ten years. However, due to various organizational constraints, we have
had limited impact on the Ugandan society.
The founders of UHASSO were young students of Makerere
University, along with some teachers and members from the police service. We
first considered the idea for the organization in 1993. In 1994, we started
UHASSO in collaboration with Matt Cherry, who was then the public relations
officer of the British Humanist Association. It was through Matt that we were
linked to the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) and Norm Allen of
African Americans for Humanism. Allen helped us to develop a relationship with
the Council for Secular Humanism, which has been very supportive of our efforts.
Uganda: Problems and Remedies
In the nineteenth century, Protestants, Catholics, and Muslims engaged in
religious wars in efforts to gain converts. These wars have traumatized the
collective Ugandan psyche. Ugandan politics was based on sectarian tribal and
religious affiliations to such an extent that religionists formed political
parties either pro-Protestant or pro-Catholic. This sectarianism has led to
dictatorship, military coup d’etats, wars, corruption, poor
social-welfare systems, and so forth. In response, UHASSO intended to foster
national unity based on common, secular, nondenominational values, to promote
democracy, and to expose the bigots in society.
Conservative tribal traditions have always held Ugandan
society back. Women are victims of domestic violence and genital mutilation.
They cannot inherit property and lack other rights. Many men practice polygamy.
It is disheartening to observe that many of the people in
our towns and villages still believe in witchcraft. Many believe that malaria
is the result of witchcraft or caused by the angry spirits of the ancestors.
Many witch doctors have become rich through the exploitation of poor, rural
Ugandans. Charlatans claim to help spouses to have stable marriages, women to
give birth to children, businessmen to make more profits, farmers to get
rainfall, school children to score highly on examinations, and much more
nonsense. By founding UHASSO, we hoped that we could help to enlighten
communities and give a naturalistic explanation to all that looks mysterious to
our society. However, because we were not able to explain some of the tricks of
the charlatans, we could not be very effective.
Preserving Positive African Traditions
Whereas we despised backward African traditions, we also wanted to preserve
the best of African culture, which has been ruined by European churches and
culture. Africans believe in extended families, clan systems, family elders who
counsel the young and resolve clan disputes, the role of aunts in counseling
young spouses in marriages, and secular cultural ceremonies such as marriages,
funerals, and so forth.
However, religions are infiltrating many of these
traditions. Today, people identify more closely with Western religions than
their clans and prefer to attend a religious ceremony rather than a clan
meeting. In reality, many social problems can be solved through clan meetings
(how to look after orphans and the aged, how to allocate land to the landless,
how to resolve disputes among clan members, etc.). Conversely, religious
ceremonies mainly benefit the clergy while the congregations wait for a big
“harvest in heaven.”
The Dangers of Religion
When European-based churches came to Uganda in 1877 (Protestant) and 1879
(Catholic), they had become somewhat secular. They constructed schools,
hospitals, and social centers. I agree with a friend of mine who says that
churches are like big international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs) doing
secular work. Indeed, recently, I was happy to read about a Catholic priest who
preached against superstition. He told his congregation that they should not
wait for any miracles on Earth.
However, the major problem with these churches is their
desire to control morality and sexuality. They campaign against condoms, family
planning, and laws defending abortion rights. UHASSO has therefore promoted
reproductive health education as one of its programs.
The major danger to Africans in terms of religion comes
from some American churches that promote fanaticism and control the psyches of
converts—sometimes exploiting them financially and ruining their health. Some
preachers claim to perform miracles that cure diseases, produce wealth, help
students to perform well on examinations, and so forth. The only difference
between them and traditional African witch doctors is that the latter use the
names of local African gods and work in grass shrines with thatch roofs, while
the fanatical pastors perform their “miracles” using the name of Jesus, quote
the Bible, and have modern churches. One of our cardinal objectives is to oppose
the exploitation of people in our society by these religious fanatics.
UHASSO’s Goals and Achievements
Ugandan humanists hope to build an enlightenment movement based on a
practical approach. We hope to start and own schools with humanist values and
that have community-outreach programs. We want schools where students spend
their weekends doing community work and extend their knowledge to the rural
communities. By involving the schools in the communities in which they are
located, we hope to enable students and teachers to extend their knowledge,
learn the challenges of practical living, and become agents of change. Humanist
schools will also preserve local cultures and history by creating and sustaining
local cultural museums.
Merely talking against witchcraft and faith healing in a
society where the health system is weak and expensive may not accomplish much.
We therefore plan to build health centers where we give patients treatment,
health education, guidance, and counseling. The health centers would also offer
an ambulance service, immunizations, and family-health initiatives.
Ugandan humanists are committed to promoting reason and
public understanding of science. We need to establish a good program of miracle
busting, organizing science exhibitions, and teaching science teachers proper
We plan to celebrate Charles Darwin’s birthday, which will
always be preceded by a science and philosophy week. In this way, we hope to
attract scientists, evolutionists, philosophers, and other intellectuals.
Most African children are attracted to life-ruining sects
due to a lack of recreational, educational, and social activities. We plan to
establish social centers for the benefit of the youth. Such centers would
encourage secular fellowships, promote entertainment, group study, educational
lectures, voluntary work, and self-help.
The Center for Inquiry–Transnational has supplied
UHASSO with magazines that have helped enlighten Ugandan humanists about the
humanist world. The Center has also donated hundreds of books to help UHASSO
establish the first humanist library in the country. This library has been named
the Paul Kurtz Center for Inquiry Library in appreciation of his years of
dedication to our organization.
UHASSO has also managed to implement campaigns against
corporal punishment and in favor of the secularization of science education in
the schools. We have also worked to have Ugandans abandon witchcraft and avoid
religious fanaticism and extremism. We have implemented these programs not with
money but with our human resources.
Though UHASSO started in Makarere University in Kampala,
the nation’s capital, we have established affiliated humanist groups as far away
as Bushenyi (300 kilometers from Kampala) and Wobulenzi (40 kilometers away). We
have started the Bukalasa Agricultural College Free Thought Association (40
kilometers away) and the Mbarara University Campus Free Thought Association (260
kilometers away). An affiliate group in the Masaka District (126 kilometers
away) is launching a scientific and humanistic approach to education.
The Way Forward
UHASSO has been in existence for ten years with insignificant membership
fees and no internal or external funding. But it is time to move forward. We
hereby call upon our international humanist friends to join us in this
worthwhile cause. We are calling upon every card-carrying humanist to put aside
at least one U.S. dollar every year to help African humanists to establish
humanist institutions in the form of schools, centers for inquiry, and centers
for health and science education.
Let us hope that the next ten years of humanism in Uganda
will bring about a permanent and powerful humanist enlightenment and social
action programs in Africa.
Deogratiasi Ssekitooleko is the chairman of the Uganda Humanist Association.
Visit UHASSO at www.humanist.net/uganda
or contact Deogratiasi Ssekitooleko at Uganda.humanist.net,