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How Can the Concept of Humanism Solve Witchcraft Belief in Africa?

George Ongere

July 16, 2009

In the past months there have been shocking reports of witch hunting and burnings of suspected witches in Kenya. The most dreadful incident was the burning deaths of five alleged witches in Kisii. This incident made international headlines and raised confusing questions among many as others dismissed it as common in African culture to believe in witchcraft, a personal choice that should not be interfered with. In this incident, it was believed that those witches had bewitched a young village boy, making him unable to talk. This angered villagers, who without any further investigation attacked the suspected old women and burned them.

However, a report on BBC on June 26 by Odhiambo Joseph in “Horror of Kenya’s Witch Lynching,” makes it clear that the boy who was suspected of being bewitched was suffering from epilepsy. The child’s mother, upon seeing her son in that state, became scared and thought her son was bewitched and accused the old women. The full account of this story can be viewed online at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/8119201.stm.

This reveals how Africa’s unreason regarding certain phenomena is continuing to cost the lives of innocent people. It is also shocking that NGOs like the Kenya Human Rights Commission approach this disaster not by eliminating belief in witchcraft but only by voicing caution on the killing of witches. How can you convince someone who believes that witches cause diseases and possess evil powers not to kill those they suspect of having those powers? How can you approach this topic when you have a belief in witchcraft? Even the police who can solve this situation fear witches because they believe witches have supernatural powers.

Most Africans believe religion can solve situations like the witch problem but have nevertheless promoted belief in witchcraft and witch hunts. Pastor Muthee of The Word of Faith Church in Kiambu discovered that by protecting people against witchcraft his church could attract funding from abroad. Pastor Muthee rose to prominence after he declared a woman in the Kiambu town a witch. The London Times reported that “after Pastor Muthee declared Mama Jane a witch, the town’s people became suspicious and began to turn on her, demanding she be stoned….” The full account of this story can be found online at http://youngphillypolitics.com/palin_muthee_witchcraft_and_maimed_children. Here we also find the details of Pastor Muthee healing a London woman of witches, which garnered more funding for his church.

Most of the people in the republics of Africa have become desensitized to the fight against belief in witchcraft. This is because most in the African republic has a strong belief that witches possess power, and it seems they are comfortable with seeing witches burned. However, the cost to the families of those who have lost their lives because society thought their relatives had evil powers cannot be counted. When you sit down with the people who have lost their close relatives due to a belief in witchcraft, you will realize they were not even aware of what society thought of them. If you visit http://whatstheharm.net/witchcraft.html you will find account of people who have died due to belief in witchcraft and you will see how people’s lack of reason has cost the lives of millions of people.

Since mid 2007, children have been kidnapped and murdered in Uganda in what are believed to be bizarre rituals to attain wealth. In Tanzania the killings of albino people are rampant because fishermen believe that the hairs of albinos bring good luck and accrue large harvests of fish. In May 2008 Amnesty International found out that 1000 suspected witches in Gambia had been kidnapped by witch doctors employed by the government in a nationwide witch-hunting campaign. In Nigeria children are chased from their homes, and some are killed because they are believed to possess evil powers.

Until now, there have not been any major organized efforts to critically analyze witchcraft. Belief in witchcraft is based on fear, magical thinking, and inadequate education, and many are regularly being exploited by unscrupulous individuals in positions of influence.

Humanism might be the only concept that can help us find a solution and begin to understand the reasons why belief in witchcraft persists in the minds of the African people. Through its approach of reason, science, and freedom of inquiry, it seems humanism is the only philosophy that can save Africa from this situation. The Center for Inquiry (CFI) is an international, humanist organization that has dedicated its effort to eradicating belief in witchcraft.

In a May press release available online at http://www.centerforinquiry.net/newsroom/witchcraft_and_its_impact_on_development_seminar_to_combat_superstition-bas/, CFI announced a campaign by its African branches against the ongoing atrocities and in favor of education of the public about the issues. The release sounded a call to arms against the violence and tragedy fostered by a belief in witchcraft. Norm Allen Jr., director of international programs, said “superstitious ideas, many of them rooted in religion, continue to thwart social and economic progress throughout the African continent….What African humanists are doing is uncompromisingly challenging these harmful ideas and offering a humane and rational alternative, drawing upon humanistic ethics and an appreciation for scientific methods of investigation.”

Of course the Center for Inquiry has in-depth experience in the field of paranormal investigations through its sister organization the Committee Skeptical Inquiry (CSI; formerly the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal). CSI (www.csicop.org) over the years has investigated many paranormal phenomena and offered a scientific explanation to the misunderstanding of the suspecting public. The organization publishes the Skeptical Inquirer magazine, which publicizes detailed explanations for the misunderstandings about different phenomena that the public have always claimed to be paranormal. The organization is credited with reducing belief of ghosts, witchcraft, and many other supernatural claims.

This is the kind of rational approach that is needed to deal with belief in witchcraft in Africa. Because they don’t understand certain phenomena that lead them to accuse others of witchcraft, societies in various corners of Africa need to be empowered through education and taught methods of inquiry. With this kind of approach, Africans will realize their misunderstandings and stop believing in witchcraft. And when people cease believing in witchcraft, we will no longer have cases of witches being burned.

George Ongere

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George Ongere is the executive director CFI-Kenya.