Help Build a Humanist School In Uganda!

This is a guest post by Sean McGuire. Sean lives in Montreal with his wife and young son. He blogs under the pseudonym Godless Poutine at My Secret Atheist Blog, which is becoming less and less a secret every day.

Kasese Humanist Primary School students display books that were donated to them by the non-profit group Books Abroad

Some readers of this blog may recall Cathleen O’Grady’s excellent guest post The Less Than 1%: How Uganda’s Atheists Are Fighting Back. It’s about how atheists and secular-minded people, a tiny minority in the African country, are striving to make things better for their community:

In many countries around the world, religious groups are pushing for conservative social policies and retaining their grip on society by dominating the public discourse and provision of social services. In Uganda, an extraordinarily religious country, the small but vocal atheist movement is pushing back — hard.

Uganda is at a crucial crossroads now as a society. American Christian fundamentalist churches and other organizations have sent waves of evangelists to this country. To some degree, they have brought about rampant and violent persecution of gays and lesbians. It is now unsafe to be publicly gay in this country — people have been killed. This is, of course, the home of the Kill the Gays legislation.

Superstition is also a major problem in this country. Humanist activist Leo Igwe recently reported that:

In Uganda, the belief in witchcraft and ‘black’ magic is very strong. The term witchcraft evokes fear in the minds of people across the country. Very often people attribute death, diseases or any misfortune to witchcraft. Witchcraft accusations often take place among neighbours, family or community members. People hate or react violently to anybody suspected of using occult powers to harm or destroy. A witch is generally seen as an ‘enemy within’ who should be eliminated.

Recently, a man suspected of practicing witchcraft was beheaded in the nearby Kayunga District. These occurrences are not uncommon in Uganda and can often be justified with passages directly from the Bible.

In such an environment, there is a real need for critical thinking and science-based education, unclouded by superstitious beliefs.

Well, in her article, O’Grady mentioned a school that was working to develop those very skills: the Kasese Humanist Primary School, which is located on the western side of Uganda, on the grounds of an abandoned train station. It was founded in 2010 by Bwambale Robert, who only a year earlier founded the Kasese United Humanist Association:

KHPS staff standing in front of one of the current school buildings (Bwambale Robert)

The school offers nursery and primary school education to kids ages 3-13. It runs on a foundation of science and embraces Humanist values and ethics.

The Story So Far

I want to start by telling you how I became involved with the school and what I’ve seen happen there, in the hopes that you will see that great things can be done with relatively little money.

My connection with the school began in May 2012. I was researching secular charities after being deeply impressed by [The Thinking Atheist] Seth Andrew’s 44th birthday fundraiser that successfully raised $30,000 for two secular aid organizations.

I wanted to learn more about the school, so I emailed its director, Bwambale Robert, and he agreed to let me profile him and his school on my blog.

Bwambale Robert

While writing the profile, I learned that an American, Daniel Loving, would be volunteering there. It was during one of my many online discussions with Daniel that we came up with a plan to help the students. It all stemmed from this comment from Daniel (edited below):

I would say nearly everyone at the school — both administrators and students — is suffering from some level of malnourishment. So sometimes, a few times a day, I go and get extra food for the students. It makes them more placid and easier to teach. If their brains are working properly, I do not have to repeat lessons, either.

There is more starch here than you can eat. They need vitamin B12 (e.g. meat or eggs). Three eggs will run you just around 20 cents American here.

Some of the local population maintain gardens to sell produce. (Daniel Loving)

And so, with Bwambale’s support, we launched our first fundraiser to build a chicken coop at the school. We planned for the structure to be made of brick, but changed it to a more portable wood design since the land was being rented from a railroad company and erecting anything permanent wasn’t productive in the long term.

Word was spread though several blogs, Canadian Atheist and Pharyngula in particular, and with the help of over seventy generous donors, the fundraiser was a resounding success. I remember having to go to the local Western Union office twice and having the attendant ask me both times if I was sure this $2,000 was being sent to a legitimate organization.

It was very legit. Construction of the coop began in August 2012 and it is now complete. The chickens are healthy and are producing eggs for the children on a daily basis. Readers of atheist and Humanist blogs were making a tangible difference in the lives of children in a country that has been riddled with famine.

The next challenge came in January of this year when I was contacted by Bwambale and informed that the school was in the process of acquiring land of its own. Remember, the school was (and still is) renting its land and building from a Ugandan railroad company, making its long-term future uncertain and permanent improvements to the land risky. Potential school projects were also put on hold so that “rent” could be paid from the donation amounts.

More recently, the Ugandan government has begun to remove the old tracks on the school’s current site in anticipation of running a new modern rail system through the region. Although Bwambale assures me that their land is secure in the short-term, there is no telling how this will go over the next few years. Things can be unpredictable politically in Uganda, and public land has been known to be sold to private developers at a moment’s notice in the past.

But for the time being, the land was theirs… but only if they could pay for it. The school only had enough for a 50% down payment. The other 18,000,000 Ugandan shillings (around $7,000 dollars) had to be raised in order to finalize the transaction.

Students on a tree-planting exercise at the new land.

Again, with the help of some prominent bloggers spreading the word, the fundraiser was a success and the land transaction went through! This time, Atheist Alliance International graciously let us use their donation page and the rest of the required money was transferred to Uganda — saving me many more awkward visits to Western Union.

The land has a single building on it with a large gaping hole in its side — robbers stole the metal door that had once been in the wall! There was also no power. So work began to patch up the hole and make this building usable for classrooms.

Worker repairing Building One, the sole abandoned building on the new land, which will house some small classrooms (Bwambale Robert)

Once the repairs were complete, I started up another fundraiser to bring electricity to the land. We raised $600, which was enough. Holes have been dug and the process of erecting the power poles is now in progress.

On September 11th, the Pathfinders Project will arrive in Kasese to work with the students at the school. During their stay, the Pathfinders will be blogging about their experiences. They will be bringing special kits donated by the James Randi Educational Foundation to teach the children how to think critically.

In addition to all the positive developments above, the school has benefited from other innovative initiatives such as the Curly Questions Project directed by Swinburne University of Technology’s Faculty of Design in Australia. According to project lead James Marshall, the project has two aims:

“We wanted to support Kasese Humanist Primary School in achieving its mission, which is ‘with science, we can progress’,” he said.

“But we also wanted to engage our digital media design students and world-leading scientists in affecting real world change.”

The university donated computer equipment and an overhead projector along with funds to renovate the existing school computer laboratory.

In addition to educating children, this school provides real benefits to the community at large:

  • Employment to locals: teachers, cook, bursar, computer instructors, security guards and gardeners.
  • Library services are open to the general public as well as the children.
  • The school operates a barber shop which cuts hair at half the regular going price. This improves hygiene for many people in the community.

Your donation to the school will not only have an effect on the minds of future generations of Ugandans, but will also have an immediate benefit for the parents of the children and the entire town.

Where we’re at now.

That’s the story so far. The vast majority of this success has been due to donations from blog readers like you.

I wanted to tell you the whole story so you would see just how much we can achieve in the atheist and secular community when we work toward a common cause. The school wasn’t build by wealthy benefactors, but rather by people who read a blog post or listened to a podcast and donated a few dollars online. They’ve made a real difference in the lives of children in another part of the world.

As it stands, the school has this new land but it’s not suitable for use just yet. The majority of its classrooms are still located on the rented land and its long-term future is unknown. The next step is to construct classrooms on the new land and move the school there.

To do this, I’ve set up another fundraiser and the good people at Atheist Alliance International have agreed to collect the funds and send them to the school. My goal is to spread the word and get people donating.

You can help us by giving a little bit here.

Yes, I know, the $35,000 goal seems very high, but we’re talking about building a whole new school on permanent and secure land so that real learning can begin without Bwambale having to divert a large portion of his school’s funds toward rent.

We can help these kids learn how to think critically and get a real education. At the very least, it’s a respite from an ongoing onslaught of fundamentalist Christian dogma and religiously-motivated homophobic attitudes.

At the same time, by helping this school prosper, you’re helping change the perception of secular institutions in this highly religious environment.

The school’s mission is to foster critical thinking free of religious and supernatural dogmas. You can help teach these kids how to think and not just what to think. Please donate if you can.

An elderly Muslim woman makes a point at the most recent parent-school meeting. This is a testament to the bridges being built between this secular school and the surrounding religious community.



About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • kaydenpat

    Good work. Hope the goal is met soon.

  • CommentMaker

    It is not violent. Only atheist and their warped mindset see it that way.

    • Matt D

      Thanks for the input, I’m sure it will go great with the rest of your comments.

    • Mario Strada

      WTF is this about? Trolling the wrong article? You are despicable you POS. I was really uplifted by this story and I donated what little I could. I think the work they are doing is fantastic and I really wish I could do more.

      Then I have to read your drivel here too? Off topic to boot? Don’t you have something better to do? Maybe sing hosannas at your local church or something?

      People like you almost make me wish your fantastical mythology was true, because there is no doubt in my mind that a just god would love to barbecue your ass for eternity.

      I heard The Blaze is looking for trolls. Why don’t you post there? You’ll be in good company.

      • Keyra

        Actually the majority of trolls on The Blaze are New Atheists. And just because there’s people who misrepresent the faith, doesn’t make the faith itself any less true

        • Obazervazi

          EVERYBODY misrepresents the faith! A huge part of Christian mythology is that everyone is a worthless sinner. Do you really think you’re spreading the gospel without sin or error? Do you really think you represent the faith as well as Jesus Christ? Pah!

        • C.L. Honeycutt

          Are you seriously fool enough to think that changing the wording of your No True Scotsman claims will fool anyone? Nevermind, of course you are.

          The majority of trolls on the Blaze are LIBERALS. Most of those are Christians. Deal.

        • Edmond

          Is there anything that DOES make the faith itself less true? Is there ANY evidence which contributes to the identification of myths and fables? Or is your religion completely unassailable from criticism of ANY blatant misuse, misinterpretation, internal contradiction, disproof due to scientific study, or logical analysis?

          If all the people who have received messages from God can’t agree on the message, does that do anything to the credibility of the message, or of the faith? If people who have murdered their own children, or who have denied life-saving medical attention to their children who need it, and have claimed to do so on God’s command, do they affect the veracity of the faith? If the people who have placed themselves in the highest echelons of authority, and who claim the greatest levels of devotion to communion with God, have sexually molested children, or have hidden and protected child molesters among them, does this have any bearing on the likely truth of this faith? Do talking animals, magic powers, dragons, satyrs or unicorns play any part in supporting the truth of this faith?

          Is there any measured, controlled testing of anything that we can do, to confirm the truth of your faith? Is there any way that magical, supernatural beings show up in confirmable, understandable ways in any databases, spreadsheets, graphs or pie charts, that will clue us in to the truths you’re talking about? Is there any verifiable checking that we can do, complete with a clear method of falsifiability, that will sort out the truths from the falses about the things that you believe, and which you might like to convince someone else of?

          Don’t get the wrong idea from what I’m saying. I don’t mean to be mean, or disrespectful, or condescending, or dismissive, or even satiric. I realize it probably seems that way, with every word I said. But, wouldn’t it be interesting, from MY point of view at least, if I could get a “YES” answer on any of these questions? If, instead of “faith” and “believe” and “personal revelation”, we could find a way to consistently repeat the miracles of relgion in any setting, and publicly demonstrate these truths for everyone’s benefit?

          It just seems strange to me, and disappointing, that the truths that you want atheists to believe are so dependent on personal interpretation, and yet people are free to completely “misrepresent” it, with no intervention from the original author. We have no more confirmation on your opinion that these ARE misrepresentations, than we do that anything YOU say represents your faith correctly. And then, anyone who adheres to these alleged misrepresentation is doomed to hell. They are destined for eternal and endless hellfire and flesh burning. In fact, they DESERVE this fate.

          I wonder what this faith says about people who don’t share it. Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Shintos, Mormons, atheists, and more. Is a lake of fire to be our final “resting” place? Is this the proper and just penalty for such people? Is such punishment an example of the perfect morality of your faith? Couldn’t you yourself conceive of more generous ways than God has to look at people who were raised in different cultures, or who have decided to look closely at these stories with a skeptical eye?
          I don’t get this religion thing. No proof of any kind is required, and people believe the most reality-bucking claims of resurrection; sperm-free pregnancies; spontaneous alcohol; penguin, panda, and parasite migrations from eastern Turkey; or the invention of linguistics at the failure of a cooperative engineering project, languages being intended by God to discourage cooperation.

          None of this rings true, for many people. When we ask for proof, we are told that we must find it in our hearts, or that we should fear torture just for asking, or that by asking, it proves that we are already convinced against any answer. But we only want non-magical answers. We want answers we can be SURE of, despite any contradictory claims by people who say YOU are misrepresenting the faith. WHO can be believed? HOW can we be sure that they are believable? What happens when someone decides that NONE of these claims are believable. If they are still good and kind, generous and compassionate, is there some sense of universal justice satisfied by casting them forever into burning, tooth-gnashing pain forever and ever and ever?

        • Mario Strada

          Ask me if I care about what goes on at the blaze. And just because there is people that believe a faith, doesn’t mean that it’s not just another religion with no basis in reality.

          I still don’t know what that post was about and how it related to building a school for kids to learn the sciences and critical thinking in a country where the vast majority of people believe in magic and witches?

        • Matt D

          Sorry sweetheart, but even if it’s true that the “majority of trolls on the Blaze are New Atheists”, you’ve been copying their behavior for some time now, so it’s puzzling that you would complain about trolling when you practice it.

    • RobMcCune

      What “it” refers to is unclear. Which do you believe is non-violent, the religious mob violence, or the religious child abuse?

    • Obazervazi

      People literally losing their heads over imaginary crimes… totally not violent.

  • LesterBallard

    I wish I could be more optimistic about things like this, but I can’t. Still, they’ll be getting a donation.

  • Mario Strada

    Great work. I donated what little bit I could (different name if anyone is checking. I don’t run my social life under my own name) and I really wish I could have donate more. I think this is a fantastic case and what’s really great about this is that any money raised goes directly to the people affected.

    I hope Hemant will give us frequent updates on what’s going on at the school.

    You know what would be also great? If the kids could write essays about what they are learning. Their perspective on school, on their daily lives. I would love reading of their experience.

    Any chance that could be organized?

    • GodlessPoutine

      I will direct school director Bwambale Robert to this comments section. Here’s my answer.

      The closest thing to this right now is the Curly Questions project put on by the Swinburne University Department of Design in Australia:

      http://curlyquestions.com.au/

      Check out the questions, they are videos of actual students.

      I too would like more personal stories. The closest thing I think I got to that so far was when I profiled a volunteer (Daniel Loving). But the Pathfinders Project will be going to the school soon! So perhaps something like that will be in the works!

      Thanks so much for your donation!

    • Bwambale Robert

      Mario,

      Thanks so much for the donation, well we try as much as we can to have the children pose questions and seek answers currently in the curly questions project now to be renamed Science Q & A project we are having with Swinburne University and a section of scientists globally.

      I however promise to engage the children write personal stories about their lives and how they find the school and its current state of foundation in its efforts to able them think critically and possess rational minds.

      My children do make articles in a local magazine by HALEA (Humanist Action for Leadership association Open talk and have appeared there twice where they engage in writing articles. http://www.haleauganda.org/halea%20magazine.php

      Earlier in 2011, a skype conference was held between Lincoln University Atheist Club in New Zealand and KHPS where children freely asked questions and got instant answers from a section of Lincoln University students. I think this is a good start and will try and expand on this matter.

  • Ransford Hyman

    Thanks for making this post. This looks like a great cause for the people of Uganda.

  • Keyra

    I just don’t see what good would atheism do, to a poor country; it’d be just the same as it is now, only without hope

    • Obazervazi

      Oh, there’s hope. They just don’t have to wait until they die to get what they’re hoping for.

    • C.L. Honeycutt

      “Hopeless” is having what makes you you removed so as to turn you into a brainwashed, happy drone in Heaven for eternity.

      Enjoy.

    • SphericalBunny

      Yes, education and nutrition without being told you’re a worthless piece of shit that deserves to die would totes keep up the status quo and make people feel hopeless. [/sarcasm]

      Thank you Keyra, for continuing to be a remarkable demonstration of bankrupt Christian ‘morality’.

    • DavidMHart

      Given that part of the school’s mission is ‘teaching critical thinking’, which is a skill that all religions try to at least some degree, at least in some areas of discourse, to suppress rather than encourage, then at the very least you are going to get kids coming out of that school who are better able (on average) to sort fact from fiction than their peers. This is obviously a good thing in a country where fiction-based ideologies, such as the idea that witches are real and ought to be killed, or that gay people are such a threat to everyone else that their rights, or even their lives, can be justifiably curtailed. If you disagree, then I suggest that you may have a very warped idea of what ‘good’ means.

      And if you genuinely would have ‘no hope’ if you ceased to believe in a supernatural creator, then that is your problem, not ours, and also not the problem of the kids in the school. It’s obviously incorrect that atheism necessarily leads to hopeless despondency, given the preponderance of psychologically well-adjusted atheists (and to the degree that there is a discrepancy in psychological wellbeing between the religious and the non-religious, this can be accounted for by the fact that religious groups tend to have better-organised community support networks, which is good for psychological wellbeing, and which is also something which atheist groups are working at improving for themselves).

      Yet all the time we hear religious people claiming to know our minds better than we do; claiming that, whether or not we think we are in fact at peace with ourselves and the world, we must somehow be in some state of psychological trauma simply because we don’t believe our conscious existences go on forever. Do you understand how this is an annoying and arrogant attitude to take?

  • edgar ayala

    This article is what humanism is all about, We need more stories like this.

  • Bwambale Robert

    A big thank you to all those who are donating to our cause of ensuring Kasese Humanist Primary School students study in decent classrooms and i am so grateful seeing the funds mobilization exercise going on fairly and am optimistic together we can make this world a better place for us all.


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