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May
31
2009
Appeared in Secular Humanist Bulletin, vol 22 issue 3

Another Great African Odyssey

Norm R. Allen Jr.


The following article is from the Secular Humanist Bulletin, Volume 22, Number 3 (Fall 2006).


From June 18 to July 2, I visited Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania. This was my fourth and best trip to Africa. As in my earlier visits (in 1991, 2001, and 2004), I met with organized, enthusiastic humanist groups in each country.


Nigeria

My first stop was in Nigeria, for the tenth-anniversary celebration of the Nigerian Humanist Movement. There, I met up with Hugo Estrella, an Argentine who also represents the Center for Inquiry/Transnational as a humanist ambassador. Some members of the International Academy of Humanism sent congratulatory messages, including science-fiction writer Sir Arthur C. Clarke, astronomer Jean-Claude Pecker, and philosophers J.J. Smart, Mario Bunge, Antony Flew, and Peter Singer.

It immediately became clear that the northern and southern parts of Nigeria differ in many ways. The north is predominantly Muslim, with many states embracing Sharia law. The south is mostly Christian, with some animists. In the south, there is a great deal of respect for secularism and opposing viewpoints. Most Nigerians at the conference believed that such a meeting could not have taken place in northern Nigeria. Indeed, they were of the opinion that not only is dialogue impossible with the theocratic Muslims of the north but that bringing critical analysis to the Qur’an in that part of the country would assure one an early and brutal death.

Rabiu Mohammed made this point in his talk addressing the importance of “Combating the Religious Crisis in Northern Nigeria.” G.G. Darah, Chief of Staff of the Government House in Asaba, Delta State, delivered a presentation titled “Defending Secularism: A View from the North.” Douglas Anele of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Lagos spoke on “Defending Secularism: A View from the South.” Each presenter painted a very bleak picture of life under religious extremists in northern Nigeria. In the past, most Muslims in northern Nigeria did not read the Qur’an, according to one panelist. However, in recent years, they have been encouraged to do so. Most have embraced the text’s most oppressive and anti-humanist messages and practice a militant form of Islam.

At the conference, Steve Okecha discussed “Ritual Killing and Superstition,” which continues to be a major concern for Nigerian humanists. Some Nigerians believe that killing people for their organs will bring wealth, good health, power, etc. There have been many sensationalist news reports on ritual killings by Nigerians, both in Nigeria and abroad. Leo Igwe has written and spoken on this topic many times.

Journalist Patrick Nagbaaton gave a presentation on “Religion and Nigeria’s Underdevelopment.” He boldly condemned the religious “nonsense” that greatly detracts from progress in his nation. As a journalist, he has investigated extraordinary religious claims, only to find that they wilted under scrutiny.

Several student activists reported on activities at colleges and universities: Jimkelly Abegbe on those at Onabisi Onabanjo University, James Ibor on the University of Calabar, John Asokhia on Ambrose Alli University, and Epkoma and Peter Adegoke on the University of Ibadan. As a result of the conference, new student groups were formed at Benin University and the University of Lagos.

Women’s rights were a topic of discussion at the conference. Grace Osakue talked about “Promoting Girls’ Rights and Empowerment.” Her organization is doing great work in instilling feminist values and self-confidence in girls and young women. Other presentations included “A Humanist Perspective on Women’s Social Status” and “Harmful Traditional Practices and Nigerian Women.” This latter subject is especially important in light of the fact that many Africans believe that a return to traditional African religions will improve their lives.

In the session titled “Humanism and Secularism Worldwide,” I discussed “The Role of Humanism in Promoting African Unity and Identity in the World.” I challenged the notion that spirituality is integral to African identity or important in forging African unity. I noted the secular worldview of Malcolm X in his latter days and his insistence that religion often did more to divide people than to unite them. I noted that W.E.B. DuBois, widely regarded as the “Father of Pan-Africanism,” was a humanist. I discussed the work of Hubert H. Harrison, one of the leading Black thinkers of the twentieth century, and the work of the great educator Tai Solarin of Nigeria.

Hugo Estrella discussed “The Role of the Center for Inquiry” in his presentation. He talked about the many Center for Inquiry branches worldwide and the organization’s various activities. He discussed the need for the development of critical-thinking skills and secular governments.

Nkeonye Otakpor delivered the World Humanist Day Lecture on “The Imperative to Be Human.” He gave an excellent critique of faith, which he called “the black hole of reason.” More important, he eloquently defended humanism by contending that we should be fully human and build our existence on human needs and human interests. We should be concerned for life in the here and now.

Estrella and I—and other humanists—spoke about humanism with Akpala Beatrice Okene, the producer of a television program called The Trice Connection. Ms. Okene was also heavily involved with many aspects of the conference.

On June 23, we met with heads of the philosophy department at the University of Lagos, Akoka, to discuss the possibility of introducing humanism into the curriculum. Later, we gave a seminar on humanism that was attended by about eighty inquisitive students. The chairperson of the event was Chiedozie Okoro, a humanist and philosopher who specializes in applied ontology (Kantian phenomenological and African traditional). Okoro repeatedly stressed to the students the importance of challenging their most deeply cherished assumptions about the world.

Leo Igwe, the head of the Center for Inquiry/Nigeria, was tireless in his efforts to put on a fantastic conference, and he succeeded admirably. Other leaders such as Otakpor, Eze Ebiske, and Enyeribe Onuoha also contributed greatly to the success of the conference.


Kenya

In Kenya, I met with members of the Center for Inquiry/Kenya, headed by Boaz Adhengo. Adhengo is the former head of the University of Nairobi Philosophical Society, Kenya’s leading philosophical association (he also once headed the Philosophical Society of Kenya). The Center for Inquiry/Kenya works with other organizations with an interest in empowering young people.

In Nigeria and Kenya, we were able to strengthen contacts with influential members of the media. In Nigeria, we had met with columnist and journalist Harry Nwana, who has promoted humanism and the Center for Inquiry/
Nigeria in his writing. He was happy to know that he is not alone as a humanist. He is interested in learning more about humanist funeral services and ways to prevent religionists from hijacking the funerals of nonreligious people.

Also while in Kenya, we met with Churchill Otieno of the Nation Media Group, the leading such organization in Kenya. The group has done reports on religious hucksters in Kenya and abroad. They expressed a great deal of interest in learning more about humanism and hinted that they might do more investigations into extraordinary religious claims.


Uganda

In Uganda, I met with members of the Center for Inquiry/Uganda at its headquarters in Kampala. The building that houses their office has received many improvements since my last visit in 2004. The group’s Paul Kurtz Reference Library now has more than four hundred books, most of them donated by the Center for Inquiry/Transnational. The books, many of which cannot be found anywhere else in Uganda, cover such topics as math, science, history, humanism, secularism, psychology, human rights, free thought, and religious criticism. Students, researchers, and academics visit the library, which also shelves publications from other countries, including Free Inquiry, the Skeptical Inquirer, the AAH Examiner, all published in the United States, and the Open Society of New Zealand.

One of the most impressive accomplishments of the Center for Inquiry/
Uganda is the launching of the Uganda Humanist Effort to Save Women (UHESWO). Betty Nassaka heads the group. The membership is open to women between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five. Nassaka founded the group with treasurer Jesca Nanfuka. The two women want to confront the special problems facing Ugandan women from a humanistic perspective.

I addressed the group on June 28. The program began with traditional dancers and musicians. One woman led the group in a humanist song. Deogratiasi Ssekitooleko, the dynamic leader of the Center for Inquiry/Uganda, addressed the group, as did other members of the Ugandan center. I noticed that the African women at this humanist gathering were generally much more confident and outspoken than the younger women at the conference in Nigeria. The leaders of UHESWO obviously make it a point to instill assertiveness in its members.

I discussed the origins of AAH and the African American Humanist Declaration, which I urged them to use as a model. I invited them to submit articles and photos for possible publication in the AAH Examiner. I talked about the influence on early feminism of the writings of authors such as Thomas Paine and Robert Green Ingersoll and discussed the importance of women expressing themselves honestly and openly, disregarding the reactions of sexists who want to stifle their opinions. I added that many men in the United States seem to fear women because girls and women outperform males in some academic categories. (For example, U.S. women have earned more bachelor’s and master’s degrees than U.S. men since 1999. Furthermore, the gap is expected to widen by 2009.)

I advised them to learn about humanist role models such as Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker, and Faye Wattleton. I talked about George W. Bush’s abstinence-only sex “education” campaign and its utter failure in combating AIDS/HIV, and I encouraged them to continue using drama, songs, and other forms of entertainment to promote humanism, just as other Africans do. Finally, I encouraged them to combat sexism wherever they find it, including in rap and hip-hop music, which many young women blindly embrace.

The following day, I spoke to the Bukalasa Free Thought Association (BUFTA) at Bukalasa Agricultural College. There were about fifty people in attendance. I discussed some of the accomplishments of AAH and expressed support for their group.

During the question-and-answer period, one woman bemoaned the harsh conditions under which many Africans have to live. I noted that all throughout history people have suffered like this. However, to give up is not the answer. Human-centered thought and action hold the key to human transformation. Human beings organized to eradicate slavery, end apartheid, improve workers’ conditions in the Western world, combat sexism and homophobia, etc. Where there is no struggle, there is no progress.


Tanzania

My last stop was in Tanzania. The group there is small, consisting of only five members, but the members of Sisi Kwa Sisi (which means “all of us” in Swahili) are very dedicated. They are teachers and serious students of African history and culture. However, they certainly have their work cut out for them.

Tanzania is a very religious country, with traditional medicine men seemingly on every corner. Unlike Nigeria, Sudan, and other African countries though, there is no widespread religious violence. People from all the various religions seem to get along peacefully. This is a direct result of the work of Julius Nyerere, the former president of Tanzania.

Nyerere considered himself to be a Catholic humanist. He developed a human-centered conception of socialism. In 1954, he united different nationalist groups under the Tanganyikan African National Union (TANU). I had the good fortune to be able to visit the former headquarters of this revolutionary group. Nyerere was able to unite animists, Christians, and Muslims under his single leadership.

The members of Sisi Kwa Sisi expressed interest in receiving books and other literature on humanism. Though Tanzania is not a country filled with religious fanatics, humanist activists still consider their work to be dangerous, as do many humanists in other parts of Africa. However, they intend to go forward, and, if they get enough support from Western humanists, they could have a significant impact in Africa.


Norm R. Allen Jr. is the executive director of African Americans for Humanism, based at the Center for Inquiry/
Transnational. He is also an associate editor of Free Inquiry and the editor of The Black Humanist Experience and African-American Humanism (both from Prometheus Books).


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