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Anti-Witchcraft Campaign at CFI/Kenya

George Ongere

December 31, 2009

The Center for Inquiry/Kenya started 2009 on a high note, organizing the celebration of the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth on February 12, 2009, in collaboration with the Anthropology department at the University of Nairobi. Many themes were discussed about the progress of science during the celebration. The Center will continue organizing this event every year and will include many learning institutions and organizations, for events like this are the best way the Center can spearhead public understanding of science in the republic.

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February 17–19, CFI/Kenya organized a series of lectures and a workshop when Leo Igwe of the Center for Inquiry/Nigeria visited. Here, we engaged students at the University of Nairobi and Kenya Polytechnic with a talk on the dangers of superstitious beliefs. Leo also met with humanist leaders in Kenya and discussed the future of humanism in Africa. Students appreciated Leo’s enthusiasm and asked the Center to continually invite speakers to enlighten them with topics provoking their skepticism. The Center will continue inviting speakers through the help of Norm Allen Jr., transnational director at the Center for Inquiry/Transnational.

Afterward, in April, I embarked on strengthening the on campus movement by traveling to Maseno University and Kenyatta University. I met members of their student groups to discuss ways through which the movement can be strengthened and attract wider membership. There is a lot of potential for the on campus groups because students are known for being positive and flexible to new ideas. Most welcomed the ideals of secular humanism and believe it is the only means of liberating them from the many obstacles faced in a third-world republic like Kenya. We at CFI/Kenya have considered many ways to actively motivate the movement onwards, like starting essay-writing competitions and organizing debating competitions with other learning institutions.

Suddenly unreason and superstition started springing up in full force in some parts of Kenya and in other republics of Africa. The most publicized case, which made headlines in both the local and international news, was the burning of five suspected witches in Kisii, an interior village in the Nyanza province of Kenya. Then in Malindi, a small town in the coastal part of Kenya, old women and men started to be targeted with witchcraft accusations that resulted in their lynching.

In Nigeria, the witch accusations by evangelicals resulted in many children being hacked to death and others being fed with poison. News of these actions elicited a strong reaction with the public. The situation worsened further when news broke that Tanzanian albinos were being killed for their hairs, which fishermen believe can accrue large harvests of fish. Some businessmen also believe that body parts of albinos can make their businesses flourish. Hence albinos’ lives are at risk. We thought this was Tanzania’s situation, but it soon passed borders into Kenya, where many albinos went missing. After some investigation, it was brought to light that Kenyan albinos were being killed and their body parts sold to Ugandan witchdoctors who in turn sold them to businessmen.

In response to these events, the Center for Inquiry/Transnational launched an anti- witchcraft campaign, which aims to educate affected societies in Africa about the dangers of superstition and sound a call to the witch lynching that has rocked many African societies. And as other African branches embarked on this call, the Center for Inquiry/Kenya took the campaign in hand and went to the ground.

CFI/Kenya’s first approach was to visit the places where lynching took place to carry out various interviews of villagers who engaged in the lynching. In Kisii, a group of youths known as Sungu sungu were at the forefront of the lynching activities, and they believed that the witches possessed evil powers to harm the people. Hence they believed they were justified in hacking them to death. We then identified the youth organizations in these areas and made contact to engage them. Starting in February 2010, the Center will organize many anti-witchcraft educational campaigns with these youth organizations.

CFI Kenya

We also interviewed Mama Jane, whose story made both local and international headlines. Mama Jane was accused of being a witch by Pastor Muthee, and the town was about to lynch her when the police intervened. Mama Jane told us of her experiences when her life was endangered.

After carrying out the interviews, the Center embarked on anti-witchcraft activism that included organizing campaign seminars at institutions of higher learning and engaging local groups in the places where beliefs in witchcraft is most prevalent. With the materials we accumulated from this groundwork, we developed articles that we can use to educate the public. Our findings reveal that most belief in witchcraft is a result of lack of information about various phenomena. For example, in the case in which five old women were burned as witches, a report afterward on BBC revealed that the boy who was suspected having been bewitched was suffering from epilepsy. Those who did not understand this cause assumed that witchcraft was the culprit.

CFI Kenya

Of course superstitious ideas have been recognized as one of the main causes of human rights violation in most countries of Africa, which is why the United Nations listed it as its number one agenda for that area.

On September 1, taxi operators in Nairobi staged a protest against the murder of thirteen taxi operators. They were the victims of killings by unknown people who are suspected to have been working for various witchdoctors in the month of August. The bodies were found missing parts and organs such as the brain, skull, and tongue. These taxi drivers were approached by people who pretended to need transportation from the capital city, and they never returned. To the public’s surprise and dismay, their mutilated bodies were found dumped on the roadside.

CFI Kenya

We had our last campaign seminar on November 14 at the University of Nairobi, whose students saw the need to be actively involved in the campaign. They believed that with the right education and reading materials from the Center, they could spearhead the fight against superstition. The Center will continue to take the lead in this fight and will continue engaging other organizations and learning institutions.

As a leading humanist movement in Kenya, the Center has been consulted by many humanist organizations. On November 25, the executive director of the Center for Inquiry/Kenya was the guest of honor in the Launching of Kenya Humanist Movement. The Center and Kenya Humanist Movement have written a petition that has been distributed to humanist leaders for signing in support of initiation of the International Day against Witchcraft Violence.

Right now we see homophobia in Uganda, where the right of gays and lesbians are at risk because fundamentalist conservative leaders in the parliament have introduced a bill that prohibits same sex marriage. We hope it will never cross the borders and reach Kenya. As humanists, we will strive to see that each and every individual is given the right to practice what they think is best for their lives without interference from religion and authority. And as we prepare to vote for our new constitution, humanists have been keen on the rights of individuals; rights should not be interfered with by religious leaders who want to plant their slave morality on the heads of the masses.

The Center for Inquiry/Kenya will continue to work hard with institutions of higher learning. In 2010 and after, the Center will start working with the media as well. This is because our works have attracted the Kenya Times, which has shown particular interest in our anti-witchcraft campaign.

Onward!

George Ongere

George Ongere's photo

George Ongere is the executive director CFI-Kenya.