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CFI–Kenya Report: Spreading our mission of “science, reason, and free inquiry” beyond borders

George Ongere

February 1, 2012

Despite the advancement of science and technology in this century, many African republics have incessantly clung to belief systems that are a thwart to human progress in this age of enlightenment. To begin with, it is fateful that the values of science education have not been considered a necessity by various governments in many sub-Saharan republics of Africa. The resulting effect of this negligence is that poor public understanding of science is so massive—allowing wide room for the spread of superstitious ideas into the minds of society.

Regrettably, in most of the African republics in the Sahara region—where the majority of citizens live below the poverty line, with an ever-widening gap between the rich and poor, and with governments that are not concerned with the welfare of the people because of corruptions, impunities, and dictatorships—superstitious ideas often turn into something so lethal that if the population is not sensitized against such beliefs there are bound to be increasing human rights violations in the coming years and beyond.

First, HIV/AIDS is one of the nightmares in the region. It is estimated that 22.5 million people live with the disease; of these, 2.3 million are children. During 2009, an estimated 1.3 million people died from AIDS. This situation led to many children orphaned at a young age. As a result teenagers are left with the task of looking after families; most girls resort to prostitution and a majority of young men engage in crimes just to fend for the family.

Unluckily, despite the effort of science to let HIV-positive individuals lead normal lives by providing anti-retroviral drugs, which delays the virus from turning into AIDS, religious bigots and traditional witch doctors have been using this epidemic to exploit superstitious beliefs, thwarting this positive effort to help the human race.

Recently, the situation of Loliondo stunned many people. Loliondo is a village situated in the Nyorongoro district of Arusha in northern Tanzania. In Kenya, everywhere you went, you could not fail to see posters and signs of this place advertised. This village became famous when word spread throughout sub-Saharan African countries that retired Lutheran pastor Ambelike Mwasapile had found a miracle cure that many believed could cure incurable diseases like HIV/AIDS, cancer, ulcers, and many more. Ambelike, who is widely known as Babu wa Loliondo, used a tree from the Apocynacea family called Carissa edulis to make his famous herb, which was administered in a cup.

Suddenly, it became a shock when patients were taken out of bed in hospitals and rushed to Loliondo. Drinking the herb invoked the superstitious nature of many HIV/AIDS victims and they believed they had been healed; hence almost all abandoned taking anti-retroviral drugs. However, this fakery did not last when victims who had abandoned taking the anti-retroviral drugs started dying and a large number deteriorated in health.

Despite such kinds of failure, many religious institutions in Africa have copied this fakery and continued to organize miracle healing of HIV/AIDS. Sadly, after such healing crusades most individuals are told to throw away anti-retroviral drugs. As much as there is a struggle to help and sustain people living with the virus, irrationality advanced by religious dogmas and traditional societies has continued to usher people into deathbeds even when they could live longer lives.

Many people who have been liberated from irrational beliefs in Africa have wondered whether our great grandparents believed knowledge was expensive and decided to plant these irrational, superstitious ideas into the minds of younger generations, causing unwanted human crises up to this century. The situation in Africa, caused by irrational beliefs, is so disturbing that if it is not tackled by rationalists, freethinkers, skeptics, and others who have been liberated from the dogmas that thwart knowledge, many human crises will be massive in the upcoming years.

That is the reason why, at CFI–Kenya, we have held so dearly to the anti-superstition campaign. This year we managed to organize four major community-based workshops where we expressed concerns about how irrational beliefs were becoming a thwart to the fight against the HIV/AIDS epidemic. We demonstrated this by giving examples of the Loliondo saga, now widely known because of the crisis it brought, which was publicized in various media houses. For example, we printed a piece from the Star, which covered the story well (http://www.the-star.co.ke/national/national/30533-aids-patients-reject-arvs-die-after-loliondo-visit), and also one from Allafrica.com (http://allafrica.com/stories/201103280148.html and http://allafrica.com/stories/201105241304.html). We printed many copies and distributed them during these workshops.

We organized debates about the issue on the campuses where we have established movements. The University of Nairobi Academic and Freethinking club organized a debate sponsored by CFI–Kenya on 22 October, 2011, with the title, “Does religion kill HIV/AIDS Victims in the name of God?” This debate had a controversial title and the attendance was overwhelming. Nevertheless, the message was clear and many, even the religious who attended, saw the need to change perceptions. This approach was the best towards extending our mission. The Moi Freethinkers at Moi University also organized two workshops and closed with their annual meeting.

In the month of November, the humanist movements in East Africa realized that if they don’t double their efforts and give much of their time to the empowerment of the various populations, then irrationality would soon threaten to consume the human population because of widespread superstition.

As a result, from the 25th to 28th of November 2011, East African humanist leaders gathered in Kampala, Uganda, to discuss the way forward and how humanist organizations could work together to spread the ideals of reason and science to combat widespread irrationality. Here, leaders from Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania drafted a two-year work plan (2012–2013) that would make sure their objectives are met within this framework. This included organizing joint meetings, mobilization, workshops, and conferences within the countries of East Africa.

East African HumanistsEast African Humanists’ Meeting, Kampala, Uganda: 25 November 2011

This plan also included going into schools and institutions of higher learning where we could launch debating clubs and sponsor publications. In Kenya, the Center for Inquiry–Kenya was given the task of coordinating these activities; hence I was appointed the country coordinator for these events. Jackson Ezekiel, who is the chairperson of Tanzania Humanist Movement, was chosen to coordinate Tanzania, and in Uganda, Betty Nassaka, who is the head of International Humanist and Ethical Youth Organization, will act as the chair of this process. Also in the meeting, a resource mobilization plan was drafted outlining how the involved groups would solicit for resources to make sure that this mission is effective within the two-year plan.

To add, I also managed to meet students from Dar-es-salam University in Tanzania and Makerere University in Uganda who were interested in our On Campus program. Already they are in the process of starting On Campus movements and I have been invited to give a talk to a mass of students in February 2012 at Dar-es-Salam University.

I believe that with this initiative taken by the humanist body in East Africa, a lot of impact is going to be felt and we shall be steps ahead in the fight against irrationality in the two-year plan. Again, this is going to give CFI–Kenya an advantage in spreading the ideals of the Center for Inquiry beyond borders. We hope for the best in the year 2012 and beyond.

African HumanistsFrom second-to-left: George Ongere; Robert Bwambale, director of Kasese Humanist Movement and Kasese Humanist School; Jackson Ezekiel, chairman of the Tanzanian Humanist Movement; and Esther Nakate of the Ugandan Humanist Effort to Save Women.
George Ongere with Betty NassakaGeorge Ongere with Betty Nassaka, Secretary General of International Humanist and Ethical Youth Organization (IHEYO), in Kampala, Uganda, 27 November 2011.
Deo SessitolekoDeo Sessitoleko, East African Representative of International Humanist and Ethical Union, presenting at the East Africa Humanist meeting.
Bob ChurchillBob Churchill of the British Humanist Association presenting a point.
George OngereGeorge Ongere leading the meeting in drafting an activity plan.

George Ongere

George Ongere's photo

George Ongere is the executive director CFI-Kenya.