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The Future of Freethought in Africa is Campus Activism

Posted: Thu, September 01, 2016 | By: Humanism

by George Ongere

When one of the largest news agencies in Kenya, through their daily newspaper, published a surprising report on the rise of atheism in Kenya, most religious fundamentalists could not believe it. In this report, using data from Pew Forum, it was established that in sub-Saharan Africa the median age of most atheists is 20, unlike other nations such as those in Europe and Japan where the median age is 34.

Obviously, this is the age of many campus students, providing evidence that universities and colleges are the best place to spread the ideals of reason, science, free inquiry and humanist values in sub-Saharan Africa. Once at these institutions of higher learning, many students begin to evaluate themselves because they are exposed to intellectual freedom and thus they get the opportunity to analyze the dogmas planted in their brains by religions and traditional societies. Besides newfound freedom, they get exposed to various intellectual materials that give alternative views to religion, hence they unchain their minds from the forceful doctrines that they have been fed throughout their lives.

To start with, in 2008 when I started activism on university and college campuses, I was surprised by the overwhelming attendance despite the fact that the topic of discussion was very critical of religion. As I had experienced at past conferences that I had attended in other African countries, where there was low attendance, I thought it would necessarily take a longer time to attract a sizable turnout. In awe of good turnouts, I would sit back, reflect and ask myself repeatedly whether the youths at the campuses came in such large numbers to grasp the knowledge, or whether they came because they had other expectations which were contrary to my objectives. To answer such curiosity, I organized different brainstorming workshops thereafter where students could speak their minds about their views on humanism. To my surprise, most students disclosed that they had distrusted religions throughout their entire upbringing.

However, because they were unsure of whether their instinct was right due to lack of intellectual materials that could give an alternative view to religion, they remained stuck in the dogmas. Most of them believed that by attending workshops organized by CFI–Kenya, they would get literature materials like Free Inquiry, Skeptical Inquirer, Skeptical Briefs, and other publications from CFI–Transnational that were sent to the Kenyan branch.

Moreover, many fresh students, mostly the first year students, who still were not exposed to rigorous intellectual readings believed CFI–Kenya would develop reading materials that would smoothen the intellectual jargons to their level of understanding. In that regard, I recommended this idea to CFI in 2011 through then International Director Derek Araujo. Derek spoke to CFI management and a grant for developing a booklet was awarded to CFI–Kenya. Hence, CFI–Kenya was able to develop a simple booklet, The Importance of Freethought, that was easy to understand, and a good number of copies were produced and distributed to various on campus groups.

Just as the report published that atheism is becoming popular in Kenya due to intellectual aggression which is exposing the impoverishment of religion, the Center for Inquiry–Kenya has been doubling this effort to make sure that more and more on campus students get access to reading materials that give alternative views to religion. This has been done through continuous contact with the CFI team who do not tire to send literature to Kenya, primarily through the efforts of Sarah Kaiser and Debbie Goddard.

The most motivating factor is that in Kenya, morale is rising for humanists and most can speak openly about their stance. At a recent conference organized by humanists, the objective put forth was to continue engaging the public such that the current data, which numbered religiously unaffiliated Kenyans at 992,128, or about 2.5 percent of the population, should increase significantly over the next two years.

At CFI–Kenya we are convinced that this is an achievable objective if we continue with rigorous engagement on university and college campuses. In that regard, we will continue with our on campus engagement and reach out to other campuses where movements have not been established.

George Ongere is the executive director of CFI–Kenya, and works with campus groups throughout the region.


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