CFI–Kenya Report: African Humanism and its Agenda

July 8, 2014

This is a special guest post by George Ongere of CFIKenya.

One of the problems that have arisen in the recent times amongst humanists in Africa is the definition of “African Humanism”, or what should be termed as Africa humanism. Thus, confusions have always caught up with many Africans when it comes to connecting the two terms; “Africa” and “humanism.” Moreover, the term was also problematic amongst African scholars who attempted to come up with a workable definition. As such, in an attempt to solve this problem, many scholars believed that tracing a period in history when the term was first coined could be helpful in solving this puzzle. Thus, one of the great African scholars that have greatly contributed to this quest is Es’kia Mphahlele (1919-2008).

George Ongere and orphans receiving assistanceBelieved to be the father of African Humanism, Mphahlele wrote that African humanism and Western humanism differ by the virtue of their Greek and Roman origins. In this context, Mphahlele believes that although these two kinds of humanism have co-existed since the genesis of ideas and practices of ancient times, the difference between their geohistorical environments brought about their distinction since classical times (Mphahlele, 2002). However, this would change during the Renaissance period; Mphahlele writes that the two types of humanism begin to resemble one another when Western humanism came into prominence in reference to the Renaissance of AD 1300 – AD 1600. Here, he was convinced that the unique features of the new direction European humanism took during the renaissance correlated with some premises that inspired African humanism during this period (Mphahlele, Ogude, Ramakuela, Ramogale, & Thuynsma, 2002).

Therefore, whereas the Western humanism focused on liberating minds from dogmas, unreason, and superstitions through the use of reason and using scientific methods, the African humanism sought to bring a new kind of enlightenment to Africans, one that aimed at countering the hegemonic ways in which the African character was looked down upon by Western scholarship. Thus it was during this period that African thinkers adopted Afrocentric attitudes to counter Eurocentric bias, and this later brought about the Pan African movement. Therefore, Mphahlele believes that African humanism has some connections to the intellectual rage that black people experienced during the Renaissance period (Mphahlele, 2002).

Looking at Mphahlele’s construction of humanism, it particularly tries to mirror the kind of humanism that was preached by Frantz Fanon in the “Black Skin White Mask,” where Fanon talked of a New Humanism. However, the kind of humanism preached by Fanon has failed to be endorsed by many African intellectuals because it recommended violence; hence, from Fanon’s humanism, came the Negritude movement perceived to be another face of African humanism. However, Wole Soyinka discredited this movement from being humanistic because, according to Soyinka, it carried a very racist outlook.

Probably, many African scholars have singled out Ubuntu to be the best representation of what would be termed as African humanism. Ubuntu promises to “treat all people with respect and dignity that encompasses brotherhood” (Sindane, 1994). Even though Ubuntu has been endorsed with some of the core figures in Africa like the late Nelson Mandela, it has failed to appeal to many young humanists of today who see Ubuntu as another form of a good word with good meaning; but its main intention is still to trap the mind into dogma. This is because Ubuntu has a religious outlook that might not be understood in a humanistic way. Ubuntu entails “a belief in the sacredness and encompasses a deeply spiritual connotation that also recognizes the role of the ancestors in people’s development” (Louw, 2002).

Therefore, it is still not surprising when you meet many African humanists still unsure of which school of thought to identify with when it comes to humanism. However, young people in Africa today have come up with a new face of humanism. Perhaps this would be termed as the “African humanism of the millennium,” inspired by the free flow of intellectual materials, and the freedom of speech that has been made possible by the arrival of advanced technology such as the Internet, social media, and smartphones, among others. Possibly, the foundations of this type of humanism is the activism that was done by Paul Kurtz during his tenure with the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) as one of its chairmen, and consequently, his rigorous activity in the continent of Africa when he founded the Center for Inquiry and African American for Humanism.

In 1984, Kurtz visited Gabon, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and South Africa, and explained the importance of organized humanism and consequently organized a Growth and Development Committee of IHEU that aimed at helping advance humanism in Africa (Cooke, 2011). Moreover, in 1989, Kurtz initiated African Americans for Humanism under the leadership of Norm Allen, Jr., an organization that took on the task of mobilizing and involving humanists in Africa, starting with Nigeria and Ghana. Norm made different journeys to Africa, made contacts with many humanists in Africa, distributed some of the first inspiring humanists’ literature and helped in starting humanist groups (Cooke, 2011). It is one of these visits made by Norm that CFI–Kenya was founded in 2004 under the leadership of Boaz Adhengo; I was appointed in 2007 to replace Boaz. From then, I have never looked back and have helped steer this new wave of humanism that is rising amongst young people in Africa. Particularly, my involvement with the young minds at various institutions of higher learning has greatly exposed them to alternatives to religion, as I have distributed a great deal of literature in almost all of the public universities in Kenya.

Many other humanists in Uganda, Nigeria and other places in Africa where Norm paid a visit have also led vigorous activism at institutions of higher learning and various communities to spread the kind of humanism that Norm espoused, which was rational, and advocated for reason, science, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values. This new face of humanism embraced by the young people of today has taken the form that Paul Kurtz steered during his active days.

In addition, the growing use of social media, the free flow of literature that gives an alternative view to religion, and the freedom of speech that have exposed the rot of religion, also give another good explanation for the new direction African humanism has taken with the young people. This kind of humanism is very rigorous; it embraces atheism, secular humanism, agnosticism, and skepticism, among others. Giving his view on the reason for the rise of unbelief amongst young people in Africa, particularly Kenya, one prominent scholar, Dr. Loreen Maseno (who is the head of the Religion and Philosophy Department at Maseno University) writes that cross-cultural intermingling has enabled visitors from other countries to visit Kenya and engage young people into liberal thinking (Okeyo, 2013). The Nation newspaper reported that atheism is becoming attractive to the young people because “intellectual aggression is exposing bankruptcy of religion without much defense from believers” (Okeyo, 2013).

With the adverse problems associated with unreason in Africa, this new wave of humanism carries with it a lot of promise for Africa, particularly if young people adhere to some of the agendas that have been proposed by experienced humanists in Africa. To sta
rt with, Leo Igwe gave a good foundation to an understanding of the problems Africa faces that the new humanism in Africa should address. In his “ A Manifesto for a Skeptical Africa,” Igwe identified some areas where African humanists should focus. Some of the core areas include eradicating superstition and witchcraft belief, doing away with blind faith, and empowering African societies to embrace reason, science, critical thinking, and humanists’ values.

It is surprising that much of the African population has not opened up its eyes to see that superstition and belief in witchcraft are some of the major causes of human rights violations in Africa. Many children have been hacked to death in Nigeria and Congo, women both old and young have been the targets of misled youth in Africa, and albinos have been killed in Tanzania because of superstitious beliefs. Additionally, superstitious and religious beliefs have continued to thwart the fight against HIV/AIDS, which is the number one killer disease in Africa. Many victims of HIV/AIDS are misled in many healing crusades that force them to abandon taking ARVs, and they end up dying because of the trust they have in religion. And in recent times, many religious institutions have become centers for milking money out of the poor congregations to make their religious leaders filthy rich, all in the pretense of working in the name of God, as their followers continue to be immersed deep in poverty. And most importantly, religious institutions have also been used by greedy political leaders in Africa to manipulate the masses into voting based on ethnic lines, and as the case was in Rwanda, religion played a major role in facilitating the genocide; what else can the young people in Africa expect from religion in this century of enlightenment?

Thus, new young humanists must not look back but hold to these core agendas to save Africa from its slumbers. Critical thinking, evidence-based reasoning, and skepticism are what Africa needs to reach higher strides. I actually believe that the young humanists are moving in the right direction.

CFI–Kenya has since its founding embraced some of the agendas that humanism in Africa addresses, and we have continued to engage institutions of higher learning to spread the ideals of reason, science, and humanist values, and advocated for freedom of inquiry. We have maintained our On Campus movements at various campuses and continue to open many other groups at different institutions. These engagements are aimed at empowering young people to change people’s perceptions of witchcraft belief, and to educate their various societies to stop witch hunting and false accusations of witchcraft that lead to lynchings. In the month of June, we organized our first exchange program where Maseno University visited the University of Nairobi, an event that was sponsored by CFI. Here, the two groups discussed various issues and shared a great deal of their experiences with skepticism. This event brought good morale to the groups, and other groups are looking forward to have others visit. It is our belief that engaging these higher institutions of learning contributes a lot to the new rise of atheism among young people that has been noted in the country. Here, we give them materials we get from CFI headquarters and we recommend them other sites from which they can get additional useful materials.

Apart from On Campus groups, we have managed to sustain our “Support a Humanist Program,” even though it still requires a lot more financing. We started the year by paying the fees for the orphans, making them another new set of uniforms, and buying them books to use. Moreover, we maintained a supply of foodstuffs for them, which we do every two weeks. Then we take the time to check up on their performances and guide them to perform better.

Supporting these children, who once thought their future was bleak, gives us a lot of motivation, and we would like to thank the Center for Inquiry headquarters for being ready to support them anytime we make a special request. So far, two girls are going to sit for the major primary exams the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education, and their performance is improving. We are very confident that they will score highly to secure places in better secondary schools.

We have confidence that our activities will greatly impact the various communities that we engage with, and will give many humanist organizations in Kenya a good example of how humanists can save the situation in Africa.

George Ongere is the executive director CFI–Kenya. Our thanks to George for sending this report and for all his wonderful work. See his previous guest post here.


Cooke, Bill (2011). A Wealth of Insights: Humanist Thought Since the Enlightenment.

Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

Louw, D. J. (2002). Ubuntu: An African assessment of the religious other. Retrieved Quelle:

https://www. bu. edu/wcp/Papers/Afri/AfriLouw. Htm. Last visited 30 June 2014

Mphahlele, E. K. (2002). Notes towards an introduction to African humanism: A personal enquiry–1992. E. Mphahlele Es” kia: Kwela Books in association with

Stainbank & Associates , 134-41.

Mphahlele, E. K., Ogude, E. J., Ramakuela, N., Ramogale, M., & Thuynsma, P. N. (2002). The Fabric of African Culture and Religious Beliefs. Kwela Books in association with Stainbank & Associates , 142-56.

Okeyo, Vera (2013). The Rise of Atheism in Modern Kenya, Daily Nation, retrieved from /957860/1901662/-/cvmtnx/-/index.html, last visited on 29 June 2014

Sindane, J. (1994). Ubuntu and nation building. Ubuntu School of Philosophy