Humanism and its Possibilities in Africa
By Leo Igwe
I want to share with you the reasons why I am a humanist and why I have devoted the last two decades of my life working and campaigning to promote humanism in Africa. Humanism is a way of thinking and living that emphasizes the agency of human beings. It stresses the fact that we human beings are capable of changing the world, of living ethical and meaningful lives without leaning on a god or dogma. Humanism is not theistic and provides an alternative to religion. It is not opposed to religion.
Personally, I was not born into a humanist family. Becoming a humanist has been quite a journey. I come from a religious Catholic family in southeastern Nigeria. My parents were traditional religionists but like most people of their generation, they changed their religion during their youth. My father told me that he embraced Christianity because that was the only way he could get a formal education. So I had a religious upbringing. My parents made sure that we prayed regularly. But I particularly disliked saying the rosary because I found it to be too long and monotonous!
When I was in primary school I became an altar boy and assisted priests at the local church. I did most of my early education in Catholic seminaries. In fact, it was while I was studying in the seminary that I came into contact with the idea of humanism. The humanist outlook resonated with my own ideas of how to live. I found it liberating and empowering because of its emphasis on our ability and possibility to thrive due to our human efforts and initiatives.
More importantly, I thought that humanism could benefit Africa. It could be useful in combating traditional practices, religious and superstitious beliefs that destroy too many lives in this region.
I thought that humanism could help in combating osu caste discrimination. Among the Igbos in southeastern Nigeria, the Osu are considered inferior human beings. People believe that the Osu descended from those who were sacrificed to the gods many generations ago. As socially unclean people the Osu are not allowed to marry persons from the higher caste, called Diala or sons of the soil. Due to Osu belief and tradition, marriage plans are suddenly canceled. One woman who lives in the United States told me how she met and married her ex-husband in the US. But his family forced him to divorce her after they discovered that she was an Osu. A man from Imo state told me that he got his girlfriend pregnant but when the parents discovered that he was an Osu, after the birth, they sold the child.
Humanist ideas could also be helpful in eliminating ritual killing and beliefs. When I was a child there was this notion that people could become rich and successful through ritual sacrifice of human beings. In fact, I was brought up to fear people the Igbos call Ndimgbuisi, which means, those who cut human heads. Unfortunately, the practice of ritual killing continues till today and the fear of ndimgbuisi persists both in rural and urban areas.
In fact some years ago I visited my hometown in Southeastern Nigeria and I was told that a high school boy beheaded the uncle. They said the boy went to a local medicine man to do money ritual and the man asked him to bring the head of someone in his family. This young man came back and lured the uncle to a nearby bush and cut off his head. I was told that the boy took the head to the medicine man and he rejected the head. The medicine man said that was not the kind of head he wanted for the sacrifice. Parents have killed their children for money rituals. Children have murdered their relatives. Ritualists target people with albinism, those with hunch back, and as I recently learned those with a bald head.
Furthermore, humanism could help in eradicating the persecution of witches in the region. Witches are human beings who are believed to have magical powers to harm others. As a child, I was told that witches called Amusu, turn into birds, cats or insects at night in order to harm others. So people who suffer misfortunes such as death, illness, accidents, failure in exams or childbirth difficulties sometimes attribute the cause to witches in their families. Suspects are usually women, children or elderly persons. People indulge in accusations after seeing these persons in their dreams or after consulting a pastor, prophet, marabout and medicine man that revealed the identity of the witch. People attack, torture, lynch, banish or abandon those suspected of witchcraft.
Humanist values could help end or at least drastically reduce the scale of religious extremism, violence, and bloodletting in the region. Since independence, Nigeria has witnessed too many cases of religious conflicts and carnage mainly in the Northern part of the country. Religious fanatics agitating for sharia or protesting the visit of a Christian evangelist, or the alleged desecration of their holy book indulged in wanton killing and destruction of lives. Some people practiced their faith in such a way that they valued their religion, the sacred text, tradition or dogma more than human lives. Humanist ideas could be used in correcting this twist and imbalance between religiosity and reason, faith in a deity and value for humanity.
So in 1996, I started the Nigerian Humanist Movement and as you can imagine this was a very challenging task given the high level of religiosity in the region. A scholar of religion, John Mbiti described Africans are notoriously religious. In 2009, a Gallup survey in 114 countries showed that religiosity was highest in the world’s poorest nations. In fact, 6 of the 10 nations where 95 percent of the population said that religion was an important part of their daily lives were African. Since the colonial times, Anthropologists have noted the fundamental place of magic in African cosmology and psychology.
So in the beginning, it was difficult for me to organize, mobilize and promote humanist ideas. Few people openly identified with us. Some who came to our events discontinued after a while following warnings from their families and friends. I can recall this young man who attended our meetings regularly but suddenly stopped. I went to see him at his residence to know why he was no longer attending our events. He explained that when he informed the girlfriend about our movement she said to him: “Come out! Come out! These people are atheists!”
Some people thought that humanists were Satanists, that we worshipped the devil. Others were of the view that humanists had no morals and that the humanist movement was a dangerous cult.
However, despite these negative perceptions, our support base has continued to grow. From a few contacts we had in the 90s, the Nigerian Humanist Movement now has hundreds of members and supporters as well as affiliate groups across the nation. We have organized a number of meetings and conferences in cities and universities, at the Universities of Ibadan, Calabar, Lagos, Benin, Owerri, and Uyo. We have also met in Abuja and Port Harcourt. In fact, the Nigerian Humanist Movement organized the first international humanist conference in sub-Saharan Africa in Ibadan in 2001.
Since then humanist organizations and individual activists have emerged in other African countries — in Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Botswana, and Zambia. Secular schools have been established in Uganda. In fact, a wave of rational awakening is silently sweeping across the region.
Humanism is becoming a force for social change and transformation. Humanists are shining the light on the rights of non-believers, apostates, and blasphemers. We are trying to help Africans to understand that is it is quite normal not to believe in God and that those who renounce their religion should be treated with dignity and respect. Humanists in Nigeria initiated the campaign that led to the release of Mubarak Bala whose family consigned him to a mental hospital after he renounced Islam. I have used the humanist platform to speak out for the rights of gays and lesbians and to make it categorically clear that homosexuals are fully human and must be treated with dignity and respect and accorded their full human rights.
Humanists have been educating and enlightening Africans to understand that claims of making money or enhancing one’s fortune through ritual sacrifice are baseless, that witchcraft is an imaginary crime and nobody commits it. And that osu caste discrimination is a vicious meaningless custom that should be abandoned.
Humanists have extended support to victims of witchcraft allegations. In Nigeria, children who were accused of witchcraft have been rescued. There was one particular occasion of an 8-year-old, Girl X. Her father accused her of killing her mother because the mother had died soon after giving birth to Girl X. The father drove her out of the house and she went to live at the village market. A 40-year-old man kidnapped girl X and raped her several times. I rescued Girl X and handed her over to the state child welfare board in Akwa Ibom. The state agency took custody of the child for some time and later sent her back to her father. The father drove Girl X out for the second time and she went back to live with the same man. I rescued girl X again and took her to a private childcare center. Girl X is now doing well for the time being. She is attending high school at the moment.
In Malawi, I campaigned with the local humanist organization to secure the release of over 40 women who had been jailed for witchcraft. Local magistrate courts sentenced these women after some children confessed that these women were witches and had been teaching them witchcraft.
In Northern Ghana, I am working with the Humanist Service Corp to reintegrate alleged witches who had been banished from their communities and forced to live in what they call witch camps that are located in various parts of the region. At least ten alleged witches have been reintegrated with their families. We will continue to work to ensure that all accused persons in these places who could return eventually rejoin their families.
So humanism makes the case for life, liberty, dignity and happiness in this life in situations where some people sanction death, cruelty, oppression, and discrimination often due to or supported by irrational beliefs. Humanism seeks to uplift not degrade and denigrate human beings. Where superstition or religiosity causes people to abuse and abandon, humanism urges us to extend love, care, and rational compassion.
While the humanist campaign has recorded some gains and progress, it has also faced challenges. I have been arrested, detained, and beaten up by those who opposed our humanist ideas and positions. In 2009, a mob from a witch finding church, the Liberty Gospel Church invaded the venue of a conference that we had organized to discuss witchcraft accusation and the rights of children. They beat me up and took me to court for violating their right to believe in witchcraft, but they eventually lost the case.
In the course of rescuing alleged child witches, I have been arrested, detained and beaten up by police officers. They accused me of kidnapping although they never told me whom I had kidnapped. In the course of my interrogation, the police only said that I was among those who were giving the state a bad name. I was kept in a room with four windows and 50 other ‘suspects’. All the inmates ate, took their bath, urinated and defecated in the same room. I was released two days later without a charge.
Spreading humanist ideas involves risks and challenges but these risks cannot be compared with what Africans are suffering every day due to religious extremism and superstition. So humanists should not give up spreading humanist ideas, for goodness sake. The humanist spirit is the Promethean spirit. It is the spirit of defiance in the face of odds, of unyielding optimism and commitment to human flourishing and the full realization of human potentials and possibilities in what is the only life we have.