The Challenge of African Humanism
by Deo Ssekitooleko
Deo Ssekitooleko is the Chairman of the Uganda Humanist Association.
To all of you fellow humanists, I say see, hear, and learn, for the onus is on us to fund, organize, and support humanist activities over the next 50 years. It is our task to carry the “humanistic mission” in this new millennium. It is our responsibility to continue with the civilization “crusade” that was started by our forbears. Without us there is obviously no continuity.
Good ideas never die on an institutional level, though they do so on a personal level. Let us all know that with the deaths of communism, fascism, and blind nationalism, humanism is the new lifestyle, philosophy, and intellectual dimension to which one can feel proud to belong. After all, did you not read the interview when the young President of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Joseph Kabila, was asked about his worldview? He replied, “It is not communism or capitalism, but humanism.”
Humanism is still in its primordial stages at an organizational level in Africa. African peasants have lost hope in this earthly life. Their potential to think, invent, create, and change the world around them has been lost. The struggle to feed and maintain the physiological process is too burdensome for them to have enough energy to ratiocinate about worldviews. The African peasant’s hope is in the posthumous life elsewhere. Moreover, many peasants believe that ghosts, demons, and gods will solve their earthly problems. The poorest of the poor are undergoing a dehumanizing phase in their lives. Africa experiences war, hunger, AIDS, Ebola, and floods—despite the fact that there is much scientific knowledge to contain the situation. Our good climate is, on the other hand, our problem. Whereas it is good for us human beings, it is also good for the pathogenic microorganisms and for the vectors such as malaria-transmitting mosquitoes.
The so-called elite leadership in Africa either did not acquire the relevant education to change the world, or they have been enslaved by other powerful, though negative, ideas. The most frequent means of elite survival is to exploit the peasants through politics, religions, taxation, armed struggles, and corruption at work.
Humanism in Africa should depend on the young people who have not been completely indoctrinated by exploitative religions and political ideas such as communism and capitalism. They have lived during a period of post-cold war, post-colonial, and post-experimental ideas. Young people dominate the Uganda Humanist Association (UHASSO), the Nigerian Humanist Movement (NHM), and the Ethiopian Humanist Organization (EHO). Should we then say that the flag bearers of humanism on the African continent are young people, and that therefore, any necessary initiative to promote humanism in Africa must target the young people?
Africa needs humanism more than any other continent. We need this humanist movement to reach people’s potential in the sciences, arts, politics, literature, and so forth. Indeed, for the last 100 years our potential for initiation and invention has been overshadowed by Western religions, which in combination with African mysticism leave no serious rational humanity on the African continent. Begging for assistance from the developed West has become the norm for African politicians, as if we had no lives before colonialism. Can you imagine the fertile soils, the rivers and lakes filled with fish, the green forests, the minerals, the wild life, the abundant fruits, and many other natural resources that Africans have not used productively? The problem is that Africa must be liberated from the worst enslavement of the mind. And the only liberator is humanist enlightenment. We cannot live in medieval times when other members of the same species are talking of postmodernism!
The Uganda Humanist Association is an initiative of young people, many of whom are former students of Makerere University, Uganda’s premier academic institution. The founding of this organization was a response to the ugly history of Uganda, which has been dominated by wars, political instability, and ethnic and religious conflicts. We wanted an organization that looks at human beings as human beings. We despised ethnocentrism, dogmas, human exploitation, and bad politics.
We chose the motto: “Towards a Free, Humanitarian and Scientific World.” We started our campaigns in primary teachers colleges, where we organized seminars against corporal punishment of children. We encouraged the young teachers of the future to appreciate science, and to teach it not merely as a subject, but as a set of skills that can change one’s life and worldview. We thought that this was the way to produce competent and rational Ugandans who could change the world.
We have also started initiatives that encourage young Ugandans to marry across the “barriers,” be they religious, ethnic, or racial. We are starting humanist fellowships, which can promote human brotherhood/sisterhood. Originally, the African society was built on an extended family, then clan and tribe. But we are saying that this is not enough. There must be cross-cultural brotherhood/sisterhood, for we must share ideas, cultures, and civilizations. We must pick the good and discard the bad. If Catholics say to love your neighbor, that is good. But when they say we should not question the Pope about celibacy and family planning, we must resist with all our intellectual energies.
Factors Affecting the Growth of Humanism in Africa
Several factors hinder humanism on the African continent, and I will outline some of them:
Poverty dehumanizes to the extent of almost degenerating its victims into another imaginary species. When a potential scientist gets pre-occupied with the struggle to meet the basic needs of life, he becomes stagnant. According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs theory, this is the physiological stage at which all other species are stunted. But human beings become so because they are above other species. When one is trapped at this level, genuine primitive competition in the form of aggression arises to help sustain life. Most African leaders are products of poverty and childhood dehumanization. They resort to wars and other forms of aggression to acquire power in order to distribute meager resources to themselves and their relatives. They look at people of other families, clans, and ethnic groups as their former tormentors. Because most African rulers are products of poverty, that only managed to get education through mere luck, hatred and oppression of other human beings become part of their philosophy.
One hundred years ago a typical African family had enough food, abundant livestock, traditional clothing, access to medicinal herbs, and other basic requirements. The problem is that Africa was swallowed into a capitalistic world economy where she had not been prepared to fit comfortably.
Poor Educational System
The education being offered to Africans is not education in the real sense, for education must change one’s life and must start from one’s immediate environment. What we get is a mere transplantation of facts into our brains. We do not study how to process our natural resources, make paper, design engines, and think critically. We learn about how the Jews crossed the desert and how rockets are launched into space with no emphasis on philosophy or critical thinking. This causes humanism to hit a rocky road in Africa.
Asian and European religions brought into Africa have completely tamed the African mind. The belief in another life after death has helped to cause African people to postpone innovation about life challenges. Can you believe that various churches in Africa call themselves Life Ministries, meaning that they are targeting life after death? Unlike Indians, Chinese, and Japanese who insisted on their traditional spirituality, which is part of their culture, Africans have either become Arabs or Jews.
Whereas each religion is part of world civilization at a particular stage, Africans have failed to filter the relevant ideas from these religions to improve their lives. Rather, they have completely swallowed everything. Though African traditional religions might be regarded as primitive, on the other hand, they did not suspend life, as have those that have been imported.
My view is that humanism in Africa should start by secularizing religions, encouraging tolerance, promoting unity, and advocating a scientific outlook. In Africa, those people who have come out to challenge imported religions unfortunately have been the bad guys—like Zaire’s Joseph Mobutu and Central African Republic’s Jean Bokasa.
The belief in miracles and events happening by themselves is a hindrance to the development of rationalism, free thought, and humanism at large. Had the education being offered been relevant, this would not be a problem. It is alarming to find many educated people still believing in witchcraft. In Uganda, young children are found dead with body parts cut off by witch doctors as sacrifices to the gods and ghosts. It is sad to note that the government has done nothing to combat this madness. Should we say that typical African leadership believes in witchcraft and fears disturbing the ghosts? This is a serious project for humanists.
It is my wish that humanists participate in politics and help to change the status quo. Poor politics has led to a poor social situation in Africa. It is surprising that the developed West continues to donate funds to African governments, though the funds are not translated into development. Much of this aid is shared by the ruling classes, and in most cases, used to buy weapons to keep them in power.
The Way Forward for International Humanism
Humanists must come out with a work plan that does not only target Europe, North America, and Asia. Humanist conferences must be organized in Africa to address the many social evils that have kept the continent stagnant. We propose that international humanist conferences be organized even where humanism is not yet developed, for this is the only way to popularize it.
Humanism must work practically to address world issues including such calamities as wars, refugees, child soldiers, AIDS, and other world problems. We hereby propose the formation of organs to address this point, such as the Humanist Relief Services (HRS) or Humanists Without Borders (HWB).
We appeal to the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) to establish a Youth Humanist Fund (YHF) to support the International Humanist and Ethical Youth Organization (IHEYO), which would support youth humanist groups throughout the world.
There is an urgent need for humanist missionaries to address various issues throughout the world. We appeal to humanists from the developed countries to visit the Third World and address some of these negative issues such as witchcraft, wars, bad politics, epidemics, and religious fundamentalism.
UHASSO in particular requests that all willing humanists donate old computers and textbooks on philosophy, humanism, science, world history, and education. This will help us to start our information technology training and projects.
Long live humanism. Long live the Enlightenment.
For more information, contact the Uganda Humanist Association at P.O. Box 4427, Kampala, Uganda. Or email Deo Ssekitooleko at email@example.com.