Courage and Commitment
Jim Herrick reports from Africa's first humanist conference
Uganda is a remarkable and welcoming country not, perhaps, to be seen as typical of Africa as a whole. Africa has had a bad press in recent years: the wars, the dictatorships, the poverty and famine, genocide, child soldiers, Aids. The two books I read before visiting were not encouraging. The journalist and broadcaster, George Alagiah, wrote in A Passage to Africa of all the crisis spots, as journalists do. Ryszard Kapuscinski's brilliantly written The Shadow of the Sun gives a grim picture of travel and daily life in the 'dark continent'. But that colonial cliché 'dark continent' is all wrong, as my week in Uganda demonstrated. I attended four days of conferences comprising a day conference of the Uganda Humanist Association (Uhasso), an international twoday conference 'Humanist Visions for Africa' sponsored by the International Humanist and Ethical Union, and the General Assembly of IHEU. There was also, taking place independently, a conference of the International Humanist and Ethical Youth Organisation. A clutch of talking shops to make your head spin with the emphasis on the practical, the future, and the possibilities for hope.
The need for humanism in Africa is pressing. The influences of Islam and Christianity (often extremist) are well known. A quick survey of the Ugandan government newspaper The New Nation fills in the details. There has been a war taking place in northern Uganda for many years a rebellion on the part of the Army of the Lord. A driver told me that he had left the area because of lack of safety; his father had been injured and his cousin killed. The paper reports: "Send a Cow Project has suspended plans to operate in the north because of the insecurity of the region...". Then we read: "The Vatican is sending his Eminence Rafael Renato, the Cardinal President of the Pontifical Commission of Justice and Peace, to Uganda for the Martyrs Celebrations on Thursday." Presumably not the martyrs of the wars of religion in Africa. Many conference delegates complained that the religious were offering prayer rather than medicine for people with Aids. (Uganda has been better than most African countries in dispensing information and condoms to reduce the spread of HIV/Aids. They use the slogan ABC Abstinence, Be faithful, Condom use.)
Some of the highlights of the conferences were the Uhasso reports from all parts of the country practical and optimistic with their plans for the future of an organisation which is already ten years strong. One associated venture is the Praag Centre for Scientific and Humanist Approach, which is building a school. Another humanistic organisation is the Women and Free World Association aimed at empowering women in Uganda and beyond. The Chairman of Uhasso is Deo Ssekitoleko, who spoke with grace and eloquence of the determination to overcome the obstacles of slavery, colonialism and neocolonialism. There was some argument about whether it was still appropriate to call for an apology for slavery or to blame the problems of Africa on colonialism though there can be no doubt that both have been key problems for Africa's development.
As well as from Uganda, there were attendees from Tanzania, Sudan, Rwanda and Nigeria, which provided one of the most forceful speakers, Leo Igwe. He said: "We bring forth the courage, creativity and commitment to reinvent the humanist outlook in the cradle of humanity." I am a sucker for rhetoric and a bit of uplift in some circumstances can be helpful.
Several people spoke of how widespread witchcraft was: I talked at lunch with an exwitch, who had seen the error of his ways, and when I asked for lessons in cursing he declined my request.
One of the most percipient speakers was Dr Sylvia Tamale, a lawyer and academic specialising in gender issues, who spoke on 'Women's sexuality in the African continent'. She said she had once been called the "worst woman in Uganda". She was particularly effective in talking about indigenous precolonial behaviour, where women's sexuality was much freer and homosexuality was also well known. I got caught up in the issue of homosexuality myself. I was talking to a homosexual at lunch and a journalist heard me talking about the Gay and Lesbian Humanist Association of the UK, which I had helped to found. He interviewed me and reported in the government paper what I said about gay and lesbian rights quite accurately. However, perhaps from editorial pressure, he said the entire event was a homosexual and lesbian one. This caused a stir and a subsequent article dripping with homophobia and hate was published. The punishment for homosexuality in Uganda is up to life imprisonment, but there are a few small LGBT rights groups trying with great courage to bring about change. My slight risk in coming out to the press was as nothing compared to the dire risks these groups take. I shall stay in touch with them. They need support.
The most inspiring moment in the conferences was the launch of the African Humanist Alliance. Leo Igwe said it was the best moment of his life. I had a lump in my throat. Looking through the window of the hall we could see in the distance Lake Victoria, the source of the Nile: inside we had the source of a movement which I hope is going to be equally powerful.