Here is an excerpt from a chapter in a previous anthology of mine with chapters from writers here at Patheos Nonreligious (Not Seeing God: Atheism in the 21st Century) [UK here]. This chapter is by Warren Alan Tidwell (Kudzu in the Pines). It is not the whole chapter, but gives you a taste.
Humanist Service and the Problem of Witchcraft Allegations in Africa
There was a point in 2014 where I knew my lifestyle would mean I wouldn’t see much of 2015. I put the bottle of wine down and left my high-paying high-stress job in sales to go to work at a local hardware store. As an atheist in Alabama, I had to be careful who knew of my nonbelief. I wanted to return to humanitarian work from years past but, without a church membership, there weren’t many organizations I’d find who would work with me long term and I just couldn’t fake being a Christian to be a part of someone’s organization. I say that because most every disaster relief organization in my area, where I could work in my area of expertise, was led by Christians or was a Christian organization themselves.
In 2015, I found out about the Humanist Service Corps, an organization founded and managed by atheists, that was working in Northern Ghana in support of women who were victims of witchcraft allegations. Within a year of leaving my high stress job that was killing me, I applied for the organization and six months later I left my wife and son to spend a year in refugee camps of women accused of witchcraft in rural West Africa. It was a whirlwind of a time to say the least.
When I speak on the Humanist Service Corps, the question I most often get asked is what exactly does humanist service entail and, soon after that, I’m asked of the presence and makeup of atheist and humanist groups in Africa and how they are treated by the populations in each country. I can only speak of my experience in Ghana, but I have gotten to know leaders in other countries in Africa very well and now know of many groups and the issues they’ve faced. In the past five years, there has been an explosion of atheist, agnostic, and freethinker groups in Africa. From Ghana to Nigeria, from Kenya to Uganda, nonbelievers have started to stand up and demand to be counted as they work for progress in their home countries.
What exactly is humanist service?
The founder and director of the Humanist Service Corps, Conor Robinson, defines humanist service as “service designed by humanists as an expression of humanist principles.” He goes on to say,
Humanist service focuses not only on what resources the community lacks, but also on the emotional and psychological needs of the people involved. Humanist service seeks neither to convert nor to deconvert. Instead, it aims to connect by focusing on shared values. Humanist service emphasizes the growth rather than the sacrifice of the volunteer. Above all, humanist service empowers communities. The first way we can do this is to wait for an invitation to collaborate before volunteering in communities that are not our own. The second thing we can do is just that: collaborate. Although we may bring valuable skills, perspectives, and resources with us, this does not entitle us to dictate what solutions to implement. Even when we think we see a more efficient or effective way to do things, we must weigh that relative value against the immense value of a community’s self-determination. Sustainable change occurs when community leaders develop their own skills and confidence by taking the lead in designing and implementing community-driven solutions to problems identified by members of that community.
That means, to me, service that is meaningful in expressing my values as a humanist within the context of the culture where we will be working. It is a way of working that supports and empowers others with no effort to proselytize. Humanist service allows me, as a nonbeliever, to work in the humanitarian arena free from the constraints and motives of religious groups. My atheism only says I reject the idea of a god. My humanism is how I choose to interact with the world around me. The people I have worked with in Ghana, I have learned, do not care about my lack of religious beliefs and are often taken aback that I don’t have an ulterior motive of wanting to share my worldview with them. They appreciate the fact I simply want to spend time with them and work with them. Ghanaians, however, are suspicious of other Ghanaians who do not adhere to a religion. Culturally you are expected to have a religion as Ghana, per a number of polls, is one of the most religious countries in the world. It doesn’t make sense to some Ghanaians that their fellow citizens would choose to be nonreligious.
What does it mean to be an atheist in Africa?
There is a growing group of atheists in Ghana and Africa as a whole. The Humanist Association of Ghana (HAG) has a healthy group of individuals who support the work of the Humanist Service Corps in any way they can. In my travels throughout the country of Ghana, I have often been given a place to stay the night. The Humanist Association of Ghana has a podcast that airs regularly and they take part in many meetings and activities in the capital city of Accra. There is push back on social media at times, but the members of HAG bravely defend their worldview when pressed. They are quite open about their atheism.
There is a very active humanist group in western Uganda, near their border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in the town of Kasese. The Kasese Primary Humanist School is growing in both size and number thanks to numerous atheist sponsors from around the world. In the past two years, they have moved from an abandoned rail yard to newly constructed buildings purchased by patrons from England, Australia, the United States, and Canada. Using the internet and social media, the headmaster Bwambale Robert, has been able to secure donations for a computer lab and a library. The flip side of that is that locals outside of the school have started accusing them of witchcraft and using dark magic to make their money. While there is a growing humanist community in Uganda the traditional beliefs are very strong and the associated superstitions are firmly entrenched with many in the community. The coming years will tell the story of where humanism, and by extension the school, will end up in Kasese.
Nonbelievers working in Africa
Atheists in Ghana are tolerated, but in African nations like Nigeria there is more of a hard line taken against them. A Gallup poll once reported that the nation’s population is two percent nonreligious. It may be a higher number but there are apostasy laws in parts of Nigeria that would certainly lead many atheists to keep their lack of religion private. However, in March of 2017, a group of Nigerians joined their counterparts in Nigeria and founded the Nigerian Humanist Association. At the time of this writing, nearly 300 had joined in on the Facebook page for the organization. Their focus is ending the stigma of nonbelief in Nigeria and working to end witchcraft allegations against children.
In Uganda, a teacher named Masereka Solomon has helped with the organization of the Kasese Humanist Primary School from its inception. Along with that, he has used the power of the internet to create a worldwide network of like-minded individuals to support his work in Uganda. Many days he posts pictures of the projects he is working on, from beekeeping to a soccer team he coaches. In doing so, he keeps people engaged with what is going on with the projects they support. He is also quite outspoken online in the forums in Uganda and often advocates for a world based in reason and rationality and not superstition. He is hoping to be a light for other Ugandans who fear coming out as a nonbeliever.
The Humanist Service Corps started out in 2015 in Ghana with five U.S. volunteers and one Ghanaian. The 2017-2018 team will consist of one United States citizen, one Kenyan citizen, and 4 Ghanaian citizens. They are supported by the Humanist Association of Ghana, based in the southern part of the country. Even though the Humanist Service Corps is based in the United States, it is now staffed and supported by a majority Ghanaian group. From the beginning, the focus has been on working towards ending witchcraft allegations and banishments in the Northern Region of Ghana.
Witchcraft Allegations in Modern Day Africa
Leo Igwe, an atheist and noted authority on witchcraft in Africa, hails from Nigeria. He started out as a Catholic in seminary in Nigeria and left the church after studying the tenets of humanism and rejecting the mix of traditional African tribal beliefs and Christianity in which he was raised. In Ghana, I was introduced to Leo by my fellow Humanist Service Corps volunteer, Baako Alhassan. Baako had served as Leo’s research assistant in Ghana in the year of 2013. They both traveled around the Northern Region of the country to study cases of witchcraft accusations and speak with the women who were banished from their village as a result. In one case a woman was accused after a child in the village had a bad reaction to a vaccination. The woman was banished and the child eventually recovered but the woman was not allowed to return home. In another case, Leo was told a woman turned herself into an electrical current and traveled to the south to the capital city of Accra where she electrocuted her victim through an appliance.
While there is still a widespread belief of witchcraft in Ghana, it is only the northern area of the country where violence is still inflicted on the women. Men are very rarely accused and, even if they are, it is often of a benign nature. In the instances of witchcraft allegations, the overwhelming majority accused are women. Allegations can occur for most any reason. If someone has a bad dream where someone else tried to harm them, they’ll accuse that person of witchcraft. If someone falls ill or dies in a village, an accusation can occur. When that happens, a woman is most often blamed and said to be a witch. Many times, the dreams are the results of things like a fever from malaria but the superstitions from the traditional beliefs dictate someone is plotting against someone else using witchcraft. The dreams, to those having them, are very real and tie in to their daily experiences.
Women have been killed and beaten as a result of these allegations in Ghana. In June of 2017, a woman was lynched and then burned in the Upper East Region of the country.
As a result of the persecution, sanctuaries for those accused have been created in Northern Ghana and are known as witch camps. As of 2017, there are seven witch camps spread throughout the Northern Region of Ghana. No one knows exactly how long they’ve existed, but it is before a time anyone currently alive can remember. The women are allowed to live there because the local village priests say the land takes their powers away. The camps are all set apart from a local village aside from the instance of the village of Kukuo where the women are allowed to live in homes throughout the village.
When it comes to witchcraft allegations in Nigeria, those accused can also be children. This is where Leo Igwe began his mission to end witchcraft allegations in African countries. In the beginning of Leo’s work, he spoke out against certain pastors in Nigeria who claimed witchcraft is real and that children can be possessed. At a conference for human rights in Nigeria in 2009, he was attacked and beaten by members of a church he had spoken out against. The attackers also stole his possessions, including his wallet and phone. The church the members belong to is led by the controversial Nigerian Pastor Helen Ukpabio. Ukpabio has made many claims in the past that children in Nigeria can be bewitched and, as a result, many children have potentially been harmed. Leo Igwe is tireless in bringing these issues to light.
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