Posted: Tue, October 11, 2016 | By: Humanism
by George Ongere
When CFI launched the Anti-Superstition campaign in 2009, I thought it was all about empowering the different communities in Africa to abandon backward belief systems. I did not know that the experiences encountered during the campaigns could compel us to work for social justice. Sensitizing the communities we engaged about the dangers of superstitious belief, we were dawned by the reality of the plight of children in the rural of Kisumu, Kenya. The humane nature of CFI allowed us to address this problem. Thus, we established the Humanist Orphans Center, a center that empowers vulnerable children to achieve their maximum potential.
this essay was first posted HERE
In Africa, dictated by traditional and religious beliefs, many parents make irrational choices that make their lives end abruptly, leaving behind children who have to struggle to survive. Few of the children eventually make it through with the help of their extended relatives. However, a big number is forced to choose paths that will keep them in poverty the rest of their lives.
<—- Ghana Humanist Association receives reading materials, badges and fliers
To start with, the Humanist Orphans Center is established in Masogo, a rural market center in Muhoroni Sub-County. In this area, the majority of the population is Luo, who make up about 96%, with few Kisii and Nandi. Since time immemorial, the Luo community has believed in the powers of witchcraft, which in their language is termed as “Juok”. Luos still believe that some people harbor bad evil spirits that they can use to harm people at any time. A person who harbors the bad spirits (a witch) is called ‘Jajuok’ in Luo. Therefore, a witch is believed to cause death by planting bad spirit in people’s compounds, use their eyes to poison food, bring diseases to children, cause accidents, and many more. Mostly, the witch is believed to be jealous of successful people. This explains why the Luo community has for a long time never progressed because flourishing Luo people in the town believe that if they go to the rural homes and start development, they will be bewitched or killed through witchcraft. It explains why in the early 1980s and 90s, people who owned vehicles could hide them far away and trek the long distances to their rural homes since going with a car would give the impression that they were successful and attract witchcraft spell. As such, many Luo areas have not developed because of witchcraft belief. Many Luo people would rather build a good home in town than in the community where witches will cast spell and cause their deaths.
To explain more, the concept of “Chira” in the Luo community has for a long time made parents to make wrong choices in containing the devastating effects of HIV/ AIDS. Currently, HIV/ AIDS reports indicate that areas around Kisumu and its environs leads in HIV/ AIDS in Kenya. Perhaps, wife inheritance, a widely practiced tradition in Luo could explain the reason for high spread of the disease and Lake Victoria that attracts widows who sell sex for fish. With all these obstacles, traditional belief like Chira has still thwarted the fight to contain the disease within the Luo community. One of the best commentaries of Chira and its consequences in the Luo community is the discussions by Dr. Stephen Cook in his article, The African Concept of “Chira” and Ezekiel’s “Sour Grapes” Proverb. In the Luo community, Chira is the belief that if you do something that is against the set Luo traditions, then you could suffer the consequences. These consequences could manifest themselves through diseases, famine, hunger, drought, and many more. As Cook explains, Luos believed that the suffering of children could be as a result of Chira. In this way, many parents have always chosen the path of ignoring the suffering of their children to blame it on Chira. Worse is the way many parents even up to these moment in the Luo communities have ignored the AIDS scourge. Cook puts it, quoting from Ezekiel’s Poem Sour Grape: “For a long time the Luo people denied the existence of the devastating effects of HIV/Aids. The symptoms of HIV/Aids were confused with the wasting away of chira.” To put an emphasis on the quote, it is true that when parents who have HIV believe in Chira, they fail to take Anti-Retroviral drugs and end up dying. This is sad because if they could have chosen the right path of taking drugs, they could have lived for more years to educate their children to reach their potential.
Worse, instead of religions to take up the challenge and help empower these parents, they use the scourge to their advantage. Many religious crusades have aimed at healing HIV/ AIDS. Victims turn in masses and when they are prayed for, they are advised to abandon taking Anti-Retroviral drugs. In Uganda, many teens have been reported to have abandoned the drugs over faith healings. The same case has also been a threat in Malawi where parents are told to stop taking drugs. The same trend is very rampant in Masogo area where after attending healing crusades, parents stop taking medication and die within few months leaving behind many children who have a bleak future.
As such, setting up the Humanist Orphan Center was a response to the above irrationality. First, the approach was to empower the abandoned children and as we do our best for the children, we engage the community through advocacy. We started with empowering the extended relatives of the orphans we sponsor. We educated them about the dangers of some irrational traditional beliefs. We teamed up with HIV/ AIDS educators to give thorough education about the disease. Currently, we are seeing progress!
In this direction, I would like to thank the Center For Inquiry International for its massive support. When the former CEO and President of CFI, Ron Lindsay, visited Kenya in late 2015, he launched the Humanist Orphans Center and he was touched by the plight of children. He was confident that the Center would respond to the needs of the children and the community as a whole. True to his word, Ron made sure that the Center was one of the unique Humanist resource centers in Kenya and in early January 2016, the Center received massive support from CFI and he also made sure that the Center will continue to operate by allocating a sustaining package for a number of years. Accordingly, children in Masogo first saw a real computer for the first time at the center and they have continued to study computer packages free of charge.
<—- Children learn computers at the Humanist Orphans Center
To add more, we also received a huge package of literature materials from CFI. In Africa, getting publications that advances rationality is still very hard. In most conferences I have attended across Africa, I have always noted that most Africans rely on the internet to look for resources. A good number do not have comprehensive books and hard copy materials that can be read to fully comprehend some of the arguments against backward thinking. As such, many Africans still do not have enough reading material to break away fully from the chains of religion. In this direction, receiving such a bunch of resources from CFI was a great experience and a break through.
<—-Reading materials from CFI International
Surprisingly, words about receiving such massive literature reached many humanists across Africa and the first group that came in touch was in Ghana: the Ghana Humanist Association. Led by the current IHEYO African Working Group Secretary, Roslyn Mould, the group requested few reading materials and we sent them a package. On receiving the package, from CFI/ Kenya, they convened a meeting to celebrate receiving such unique gift. Already, we have received request from Tanzania Humanist Group led by Nsajigwa and Lucas Isakwisa. Moreover, the South African Humanist Group led by Bogani has also contacted us.
To finish, I would like to thank CFI for having sustained the activities of CFI Kenya since 2007 and have never stopped helping at any given moment. Working with an organization that transforms the lives of people in Africa is a great experience. When you pick a child who is giving up and see that face that was once dull bright again, I will never forget such a great human experience! Thanks to all the entire CFI Team I have been working with: Bill Cooke, Paul Fidalgo, Pat Beauchamp, Debbie Goddard, Tom Flynn, Barry Karr, Sarah Kaiser, and the rest of the CFI family. Your kindness and patience has given me the morale to continue with my work!
George Ongere is the executive director CFI-Kenya.