An Interview with George Ongere
Scott Jacobsen: To begin, do you have any prefaces to the conversation today?
George Ongere: When I was growing, my mother believed something was wrong with me. I was the only child in the family who could not succeed in cramming the catechism to graduate and eat the sacrament. She even made efforts to make the content of the book rhyme with a song to make it easy for me but it did not go well. My young brothers did well and mastered her catechism song and got all the content. What surprised her is that even though I could not cram the creed, I was a bright student in school! In that way, she failed to understand what was happening to me. I also could not explain, but I think it was the scepticism I had adopted after interacting with my grandfather as you will learn in the interview.
All my family members, including my father who was not fond of the church, graduated to eat the sacrament; I was the only one who dropped out of the session. Along these lines, the question is, did my skepticism start right from my childhood? As you will find, I was fortunate to have a grandfather who was skeptical of Christian religion, a father who was a Christian but was not a fond of going to church frequently, and a mother who was a staunch Christian who wanted her children to follow the way of God; — that combination provided room for growth of a skeptical young person like me.
There was no pressure to have me full indoctrinated into religion. Even though I grew as catholic child, where I was taken to a Sunday school, then to a primary school where we could worship and pray in the assembly, and finally to an Anglican sponsored high school, I still found my way into humanism. From my experience, as I demonstrate in the below engagement, reading widely, and having an open mind is the key to rationality and scepticism.
Jacobsen: Do you have a family background in skepticism and secular humanism?
Ongere: My family did not have any person subscribed to Secular humanism or scepticism, but the divergence of religious beliefs within the extended family helped me develop my skepticism at a younger age. My grandfather was a traditional person and when he witnessed the way Christianity came to Africa and displaced African religious beliefs during his youth, he vowed to remain a pagan. In this context, it meant he did not follow the Christian religion but adhered to selected African traditional beliefs.
As a child, when I asked him why he did not pray, he would tell me about the traditional concepts of African gods leaving me confused at that age. The puzzlement came since my mother was a staunch Christian who made sure we attended the Sunday school, while at the same time, grandfather stole me away and fed me with the traditional concept of god. It only confused me further and that is how I started getting inkling that not everyone was afraid of the God we were told in the Sunday school could strike dead disobedient people using thunder.
Moreover, even though my mother was a true Catholic believer, my father, though a catholic, was not fond of going to church every Sunday. My mother used to call him in our Luo mother tongue language “Jakafiri”. Jakafiri can also be interpreted as pagan. Though, in this context, my father believed in the teachings of Christianity but did not adhere to the rules like everyday prayers and going to church regularly. Every Sunday, as we attended the Sunday mass, my father remained at home pretending to be attending some business functions. The only times I saw him in the church was during Christmas festive season and during Easter.
To sum up, I did not have many pressures from all sides, like most families do, to adhere to religion. In Africa, most children have pressure right from the grandparents, mother and father to adhere to one religion. I was fortunate since only my mother placed pressures that were absorbed by the traditional grandfather and my father; they did not pressure me to go through the process of eating the sacrament when all the other siblings were doing it.
Jacobsen: When did you have your first inklings of skepticism and secular humanism in personal life?
Ongere: As a young person addicted to reading all types of novels in late primary, high school and college, I met characters in the books who claimed they did not believe in gods, God and any supernatural entities. This was strange to me at the time because it was rare in the rural to find a person declaring a disbelief in gods or God; I did not even know the term “Atheism”. Even though my grandfather did not believe in Christianity, he still believed in the supernatural world like the ancestor’s power. Growing in the interior rural village during my primary and high school years, the only medium that could give me entertainment was the storybooks since there was no electricity to get fun from other mediums like the Television. As such, I could put my hands on any book that promised entertainment. I would go to local libraries and read anything that looked like a novel. Moreover, I had a cousin who was doing philosophy at the University and at one point when I was still in high school; I stumbled upon his course book on the philosophy of religion. I read about Sigmund Freud and Nietzsche. Their ideas puzzled me and this is where I gained interest in philosophy.
After completing my high school and was in early years at the University, I got engaged with the University of Nairobi Philosophy club. Here, I met the students who attended the first Humanist Conference organized in East Africa in 2004 by Uganda Humanist Association led by Deo Ssessitoleko. I received the first humanist materials. It is where I got to learn about humanist ideals. Excited with the knowledge I got from the magazines from CFI, IHEU and other humanists organizations, I declared myself a humanist.
Jacobsen: What was the reaction of friends and family?
Ongere: The first time I told my friends and family members that I was a humanist and an Atheist, they had different reactions. My family did not take this as a surprise; they had suspected I could end up in something close to that because of my childhood scepticism since I was the only member of the family who avoided taking the sacrament and was not even bothered by it. However, some of my extended relatives related this to devil worshiping. Since they are not exposed to different ideologies, they only know that anyone who does not believe in a god or God must be a devil worshipper, just the way Nigerian movies give Africans the picture that people who do not adhere to religion are in affiliation with the devil. They looked at me with curiosity and spread the rumours in the village. However, my generosities in the village, where I sponsor children to school have puzzled them and the perception is changing.
I had different categories of friends by the time I announced my Atheism. I had religious, sceptics and rational friends. I had problem with religious friends and to make it worse, I was also dating a religious lady at the time. They did not want to associate with me and they advised my girlfriend to abandon me. She did; — but that did not deter me from pursuing my new found life stance.
My sceptic and rational friends praised my steps and they were happy about it. I was the first person to establish a humanist office where Kenyans could get Humanist materials and rational books that were difficult to get in most libraries. CFI sent me important materials that could be easily read and understood by first timers into humanism and skepticism. A good number of Kenyans who have declared themselves as Atheists and humanist in Kenya got the inspiration from my work with the campus groups and CFI Office in Nairobi.
Jacobsen: You’ve written a number of articles for The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. What is the importance of major skeptical organizations such as The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and the Center for Inquiry?
Ongere: CSI and CFI have supported all my projects in Kenya. By publishing my articles, they have made my activities visible to many people who have continuously supported my endeavours. When I joined CFI in 2007, my dream was to be published in their reputable sites. I knew that as a young person, still unable to write to the standards of the scholars I read in the sites, I had to go through self study and read widely. I started writing my skeptical and rational ideas freely and sent them to Norm Allen Jr., who was the director transnational programs at the time, intended to be published in the African American Humanism Newsletter, the AHH Examiner. When I finally wrote the article How Can the Concept of Humanism Solve Witchcraft belief, Norm informed me that Barry Karr, the Executive Director of CSI, was interested in publishing it. When finally the article appeared on the site, it was my breakthrough and it encouraged me to write further. Having my article published in the two sites has made many learning institutions to trust my activities and collaborate with me; the reason I am able to mobile University and college students to attend my activities.
Secondly, most people in Africa have no access to humanist and skeptical hard copy literature. Even in most libraries in Africa, finding journals or scholarly resources that promote humanist or Atheist ideals are rare. CFI and CSI have helped to fill this gap by sending reading materials to most humanists in different parts of Africa. Anytime I need reading materials to send to any group across Africa, I simply request the organization and they respond immediately by sending a package of books and magazines.
Most importantly, ever since I started CFI/ Kenya, the two organizations have supported all the programs financially and that is why we are able to sustain the humanist orphans and the On Campus activities.
Jacobsen: How did you first come across Center for Inquiry in Kenya?
Ongere: I first came across CFI by interacting with the philosophy group at the University of Nairobi. A good number of the members were sponsored by IHEU to attend the first humanist conference in Uganda in the year 2004. Here they met the then Transnational Co-directors, Norm Allen Jr. and Bill Cooke. They came back with reading materials like Skeptical Inquirer and Free Inquiry. I read them and became much interested in the ideology.
The visit of Norm Allen Jr. to Kenya in 2006 also made me get first hand information about CFI. By then, Boaz Adhengo was the contact person. Adhengo approached me to mobilize University students to meet Norm and after attending the meeting, Norm read some of my collected articles and gave me his contacts. I started interacting with him and in 2007; he approached me to be the director CFI Kenya to replace Adhengo. That is how I became the CFI director.
Becoming the director of CFI is one of the best opportunities I have ever had. It made me to know many influential people in Africa like Leo Igwe of Nigeria, Deo Ssesitoleko and Betty Nassaka of Uganda. I travelled to Uganda through sponsorship of CFI and they also paid travel expenses for Leo, Betty and Deo to visit my office in Kenya. Without the organization, I would have not got such connections.
Jacobsen: What did you see as the major need for science, skepticism, and secular humanism in Kenya at the time? How did this inspire you to form and run CFI-Kenya as a branch of Center for Inquiry in Kenya?
Ongere: Science, rationalism and skepticism is needed in Africa more than any part of the world. Irrationality that is prevalent in the continent has led to major human rights crises. One of the examples in Kenya that featured in the international scene is the burning of old men and women alive, in the rural parts of Kisii in 2009 when they were suspected to be witches. The graphic video of old women and men burnt alive till death still haunts many people. Up to the current moment, old men and women are still targeted in witch hunts. Moreover, Albinos are still at risk in Kenya and Tanzania because most society believes that their body parts can make their business successful when put within the business premises while fishermen believe that their hair attracts huge mass of fish. Science and reason needed to respond to such unreason.
In West Africa, like Nigeria and Congo, children have since time immemorial been accused of witchcraft and become abandoned. Majority of the children are left to roam the street to become street children, some are hacked to death and fed poison. Close scrutinies reveal that parents who are incapable of raising children or look after distant relatives use witchcraft as a scapegoat and run away from responsibility. The most vulnerable children are orphans whose parents have died, those born with HIV/ AIDS, and those with disabilities. Abandoning children to fake bleak future is gagging the future generation and only through reason that they can be saved.
Moreover, religious institutions are not helping in any way. With many obstacles that African people face due to unreason, religious bodies have not tried to help but to immerse people deep into unreason. Currently, Africa still has a big challenge: HIV/ AIDS. Every year, about millions of people get infected. Instead of approaching the issue with logic, churches and other religious wings have advised people to seek religious healings instead of taking the Anti-Retroviral Drugs. The approach has caused many deaths and this leaves you to wonder if an all knowing, all present God celebrates the wiping of mass population of Africans!
The above problem statements made me to search for an organization that could respond. Before I got CFI connections, I was a youth volunteer at an organization called Kumekucha. Kumekucha is a Swahili word meaning sunrise. The organization promised to liberate youths from the dogmas of the society. However, the organization did not give much to the youths. In this direction, when I was introduced to CFI, I believed it was the organization to respond to the problems Africans faced and it had the capabilities to take action to the irrationality in Africa. That is how I started running CFI Kenya!
Jacobsen: What has been the plight of children in Kenya? How has a humanist message improved their and their families’ livelihoods?
Ongere: Currently, it is estimated that there are about 300, 000 street children in Kenya. Increasing poverty and deaths of parents due to HIV/ AIDS are the major causes for the children to scavenge the street to look for ways of survival. In many cases, fathers who are not able to support their families leave behind mothers in the rural with even more than six children. Staying hungry and unable to go to school, most of the children migrate to the streets to try and find ways of survival.
In my article, The Plight of Children in Africa and our Humanist Efforts, I address the issues that children face in Africa. Even though declaring children as witches is not widely practised in Kenya, I am afraid that with the current inflation and rise of prices in essential commodities, Kenyans will look for ways of avoiding supporting orphan children whose parents were wiped by HIV/ AIDS. The only way they can do this is by adopting the Nigeria and Congo style where such children are declared to be witches. Declaring a child to be a witch is the easiest way relatives avoid the burden of protecting vulnerable children who have lost their parents. Killing children because they are a burden is hurting and that is why the humanist message is important. The spread of HIV/ AIDS in Kenya is rising and soon many children will be left without parents and it means many distant relatives will start using witchcraft as scape-goat.
CFI Kenya’s program The Humanist Orphans Project is a strong humanist message responding to the plight of children. Demonstrating to the society that orphaned children are harmless members of the society is core and that when given education can become potential members of the society is important. As such, the dedications of CFI Transnational to help the children is one of the social justice stories that should be told across to inspire other African groups to join hands to save the future generation.
Jacobsen: Reflecting on the 2014 article on the agenda of African humanism, in 2017 now, what is the state of humanism in Africa? What is the agenda, in brief?
Ongere: As I wrote in the article, humanism in Africa has undergone different phases. The first phase, which was explained by reputable scholars in Africa like Es’kia Mphahlele (1919–2008) was a kind of humanism that needed to give Africans hopes by trying to reconstruct their history from that which was given by the western scholarship. From that phase, came Ubuntu, which even though gave good promises but still had hidden agendas of promoting religion.
With the changes in technology, where people across the world have access to information due to internet, African humanism is adopting another face. Whereas the forefathers of African humanism focused on reconstructing the African face in the international world, the current young generation are responding to the irrational beliefs that have held the masses captive. They believe the only way for Africans to be free is to delete the dogmas of religion and embrace, science, critical thinking and rationalism.
In Kenya for example, the Atheist movement have raised many contentious issues. First, they have demanded religious educations to be removed out of the curriculum since it is one of the avenues children are indoctrinated. They have also challenged faith healers who use tricks to steal from the public. It demonstrates that African humanist is catching up with the agendas that global humanists’ movements are seeking and this is very important because it give room for many Atheists and people who are not easily accepted in the society, like gays and Lesbians to come out of the closet. With such developments, it demonstrates the Atheist movement is making progress in Kenya.
Jacobsen: How can humanism support the least among us?
Ongere: Humanism as a life stance compels many African humanist to work for Social justice. When I went to Uganda in 2009 together with Norm Allen Jnr., I witnessed how Uganda Humanists Effort to save Women (UHESWO) was liberating prostitutes and giving them financial empowerment. They took them away from the streets and taught them income generating skills like tailoring and salon work. Most of the women eventually left the streets and became employed in salons and others got sewing machines to become tailors. I also met Deo Ssessitoleko who had a humanist school that was sponsoring vulnerable children. I was inspired by the works of Ugandan humanists and believed humanism in Africa was capable of helping the less fortunate amongst us.
In 2011, I conceived the idea of starting the Humanist Orphans Kenya. I witnessed the plight of children the rural areas during the Anti-Superstitious campaign. Many children lost their parents due to HIV/ AIDS scourge when religious institutions started healing campaigns advising them to abandon taking Anti-Retroviral drugs. With many children left behind, we believed that our humanists’ endeavours would try to solve the situation. In this way, we selected 11 children who were vulnerable and gave them essentials of life like education, basic needs and empowerment.
In this way, I believed that if African humanists can embrace social justice, then we will be a good example just the way Ugandan humanists have demonstrated trough their projects.
Jacobsen: What are your lifetime hopes for humanism, skepticism, and secularism in Kenya, and Africa?
Ongere: I am happy that the young generation in Kenya today can easily declare their Atheism without fear. This was something I had hoped for. Kenya is not a very much radical country like many African countries where religious fundamentalism is core. When I started running CFI, I had hoped that a time would come when young people would come out of the closet and declare their unbelief. At the time, the internet was still expensive for the fact that people could not browse through their cell phones but to go to the cyber cafes that charged expensive. However, when cell phones were introduced, we had a revolution in humanism where youths had access to many reading materials. It became easy to engage the youth and direct them to important sites.
My hopes for humanism are that as youths become radicalized to abandon religion, they should focus on the gaps that humanism can fill in Kenya and Africa. I have always wished that humanism should not be another avenue of colonization just like religion. In my much engagement with youths who have abandoned religions, a good number of them do not understand the cause; they only think becoming a humanist is linked with intellectualism and fashionable. To me, being a humanist is to respond to the many unreasons in Africa and trying to help the situation through advocacy and social justice.
Jacobsen: Any closing thoughts or feelings based on the discussion today?
Ongere: Thanks for having me in the interview today. In sub-Saharan Africa, spreading humanism is still an obstacle. Many Africans still feel vulnerable when religion is deleted away from them. The bible promises them life after death and they believe they are the children of God because of the obstacles they undergo. They believe they will be rewarded in heaven and hegemonic nations that have conditioned them will be punished in hell.
What African humanists need to do is to empower Africans. Critical thinking is one of the areas that need to be explored. Being that African forefathers were superstitious, it is not inherent to be superstitious in the current global world. There needs to be a change in mind and thinking. Humanism promises this kind of change for Africans to abandon blind faith and focus on the realities life.
Jacobsen: Thank you for your time, George.