This is a special guest post by George Ongere of CFI-Kenya
When I first embraced a humanistic life stance, I believed that it was only a personal matter and that it would not compel me to trouble myself to engage in activities of social justice. Most people who have embraced a secular life stance, and mostly atheists, believe that having abandoned religion, and then trying to involve themselves with activities like helping the poor, assisting orphans and helping homeless widows, is like trying to mimic religion. Hence when one abandons the belief in God, gods, Satan, etc., it does not compel them to be involved in matters of social justice. However, secular humanism allows one to adhere to certain kinds of principles, and as such, going to the extent of working for social justice is not a problem with those who embrace secular humanism.
As an atheist in Africa, that kind of thinking used to appeal to me when I was still involved with activism on campuses. I believed that my only mission was to inspire young people at the institutions of higher learning, such that they would embrace rationalism in order to unwind the chains of dogma that religions and traditional societies had planted in them; this I believed was the only pure concern for humanists in Africa.
However, this would change when in 2009, with widespread witch hunting, where old women were killed on suspicion of practicing witchcraft, children fed poison and hacked to death for being suspected to harbor evil spirits, and women burnt alive on accusation of witchcraft, the Center for Inquiry-Transnational launched their Anti-Superstition campaign, encouraging their African branches to empower the various communities within their operational countries by educating them on the dangers of superstition. The main aim was to instill rationality in these communities and educate them on the need to seek an evidence-based approach when it came to witchcraft accusations. Many families were being accused of practicing witchcraft and there was no evidence given to support those claims. Thus, because the community just relied on mere belief and hearsay when it came to witchcraft accusations, our experience showed us that this was an avenue that was used to settle family disputes over land and other resources. It troubled us so much because innocent people died leading to a human rights crisis, and the killing of parents left children stranded without a future.
Working with the communities that had widespread belief in witchcraft showed us the reality of the plight of children. In many societies, children whose parents were lynched due to witchcraft are frowned upon even by their extended families. This is because they believe that such children would harbor evil spirits, and they would act as avenues their lynched parents would use to revenge. These children have no future and most of them either migrate to urban areas or start there as street children, believing that at some point they could compose themselves and pick up their lives. However, that would be impossible because the current situation in Africa is very challenging for street children and they might end up for their entire lives stuck in extreme poverty. Some eventually succeed but only through other evil avenues like robbery and crimes.
Inspired by this and through the continuous support of the Center for Inquiry, we took a different turn in our Anti-Superstition campaign, where our activities did not end with teaching the society about the dangers of superstitious beliefs, but made an effort to children who were abandoned after their parents were lynched, or died due to irrationality. That is how we started to work towards social justice and started Support a Humanist Orphan.
The Support a Humanist Orphan has come a long way ever since we began the initiative in 2011. The peak of the initiative came when Bill Cooke, the Director of International Programs for CFI visited Kenya and gave hope to the orphans. Bill was moved by the predicaments of these children and since then has focused on taking this initiative to the next level. Since that visit, we have seen a lot of positive steps, and the CFI-Kenya would like to thank the CFI team for sending Bill to travel all the way from New Zealand to Sub-Saharan Africa to promote humanism.
This project has also attracted many visitors who have read it on the CFI and CSI websites. Example, in early March, when we were to distribute our newly tailored uniforms to the orphans, we were contacted by a team from Finland, who were visiting in an exchange program with Maseno University in Kisumu, Kenya. They were interested in seeing our activities with the orphans and in experiencing their community life, in addition to understanding the community belief in witchcraft.
I believe the direction humanism has taken in Africa gives hope to many people, particularly to the children who would have otherwise migrated to urban areas as street children. The sad reality is that young girls who migrate to urban centers from these communities when their parents’ lives end suddenly, start engaging in sex for cash and this is where child sex related exploitation starts.
To add on, humanists in Uganda have also taken this direction. During the month of November 2013, I was invited to an East African regional conference that was organized by the International Humanist and Ethical Youth Organization (IHEYO) to represent Kenya. Many delegates from the surrounding East African countries including Tanzania, Rwanda, South Sudan, Kenya, and Uganda attended this conference. Most humanists were very enthusiastic about their social justice initiatives. Many humanist schools have been started in Uganda that help poor children, many women who were prostitutes have been empowered and given a better alternative source of livelihood by the Ugandan Humanist Effort to Save Women, along with many more initiatives. Here, delegates from the East African countries agreed to work together and promote the ideals of humanism. At the end of the meeting, it was agreed that the Center for Inquiry-Kenya, being the prevalent voice in Kenya, would host the next East African conference in Nairobi this coming August. Many delegates will arrive from Uganda, Tanzania, South Sudan, and Rwanda. We have started working towards this.
Finally, we have still maintained our On-Campus engagement to promote and defend reason, science, and freedom of inquiry at higher institutions of learning. There, we have engaged the students on freethought, skepticism, secularism, philosophical naturalism, and atheism. We have done this by continually holding debates, organizing workshops and engaging in student exchange programs.
George Ongere is the executive director CFI-Kenya. Our thanks to George for sending this report and for all his wonderful work.