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Ten Years of the Uganda Humanist Association (UHASSO)

Deogratiasi Ssekitooleko

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 science skills.

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, uhasso@yahoo.co.uk, or dssekitooleko@yahoo.co.uk.

[*] Secular Humanism Online Library

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