African Humanism has been a hot topic recently. It is generally agreed that Africa needs humanism more than any other continent. However, what is African Humanism is a bone of contention to both humanists and African scholars and stands apart from Western Humanism.
The two forms of humanism have co-existed for long. Scholars have argued that the two began to resemble one another when Western humanism came into prominence in reference to the Renaissance of AD 1300 – AD 1600 and in the process also inspired African humanism during the same period (Mphahlele, Ogude, et al, 2002).
Before colonization, Africans relied on traditional cultural beliefs to understand and make meaning of the world around them. Witchcraft, occultism and other metaphysical practices formed the bulk of their cultural life. Beliefs in supernatural and anthropomorphic gods was intermittently mixed with and reinforced by superstitions and mysticism.
Although colonization of Africa affected every sphere of African way of life, these beliefs still found their place within the new institutional missionary and Pentecostal dogmas. The African psychosomatic baggage in this respect became even heavier and more mystifying. Africans had traditional gods to appease, the new biblical God and the white man to serve. There were also the occasional witchdoctors, sorcerers and wise men to consult. Together with Western ideologies, Africans were bombarded with more than they could chew. However, after years of struggle and seeking scientific knowledge, Africans are now looking at humanism as a way of understanding life as it should be and free themselves from the yolks of metaphysics, mysticism and religiosity.
This started with Africanizing the new found freedom of thought and according to Ongere, the executive director Center For Inquiry–Kenya, “Whereas the Western humanism focused on liberating minds from dogmas, unreason, and superstitions through the use of reason and using scientific methods, the African humanism sought to bring a new kind of enlightenment to Africans, one that aimed at countering the hegemonic ways in which the African character was looked down upon by Western scholarship” (Ongere, G. 2014). Africans were therefore able to counter Euro-centrism bias with Afro-centrism, forming the foundation for early Pan-African humanism movements.
African Allegiance Away from Dominant Faiths
In his paper, Magic and Witchcraft: Implications for Democratization and Poverty-Alleviating Aid in Africa, Dirk Kohnert observed that most Africans; peasants, business people or politicians, internationally renowned scientists and leaders of Christian churches, are convinced that witchcraft constitutes a real threat to society in Africa (Geschiere 1995; Raynal, 1994:124-25; Awolalu 1979:81- 84; cf. Marwick 1975; Multhaupt 1990). This means that Africans have traditionally viewed life using a highly complex combination of old and new cultural and religious lenses, the bulk of which is being abandoned in favor of scientific explanations. The average African adult has therefore been in a church, mosque, shrine and witchdoctor dens. Previously, Africans would find it baffling that a mosquito bite can cause malaria (or harder still, microscopic parasites called Plasmodia). A curse or a spell was a better candidate for this and dictated the intervention and remedy sought. Even today, there are still some people that invoke cultural and religious explanations for issues that need conventional, scientific and practical solutions.
It is now clear that most Africans appear to pledge allegiance to the dominant faiths such as Christianity, for social rather than religious reasons. This is especially seen in people that are in political leadership positions. Most of these consult magicians, sorcerers and other traditional “forces” in secret and identify themselves as Christians and Muslims in public. This has garnered international interest with the BBC reporting that “Africa goes to church, the mosque and the witch doctor” at the same time. Scholars such as Dr Loreen Maseno the head of the Religion and Philosophy Department at Maseno University have also argued that the African way of life has no separation between what is sacred and what is secular. “One, for instance, cannot attend or conduct funeral rites, then claim to be atheistic because funeral rites in the African context are acts of worship. Religion and culture in Africa is one and the same thing,” (Okeyo, V. 2013).
According to a recent report, the continent had 517 million Christians and 248 million Muslims in 2010. These numbers according to Pew Research are expected to grow to 1.1 billion and 670 million respectively in 2050. The same report indicated that adherents of the folk religions and the “nones” would experience modest growth during the same period. Yet, the report failed to recognize that religion in Africa is more of a social necessity rather than religious programming. Additionally, with increased scientific milestones, the upward mobility of the middle class and increased access to technology, Africans especially the young are looking for alternatives to the traditional cognitive tools and resources and are tapping from the global resource-base through such technologies as the internet.
Is Ubuntu the Right Form of African Humanism?
With its promise to “treat all people with respect and dignity that encompasses brotherhood” (Sindane, 1994), Ubuntu has received positive consideration and endorsement from prominent African personalities and scholars including the late Nelson Mandela.
Christian B. N. Gade (2011) in his essay The Historical Development of the Written Discourses on Ubuntu provides some of the best definitions of this form of African humanism during his research. He presents Ubuntu as a human quality, a philosophy or ethic, as African humanism, and as a form of identity and belonging based on the community (I am because we are). This last meaning of the term, Mark Tschaepe posits, “Is best for understanding moral obligation to community because it entails the general meaning of humanness, but specifies how the human being becomes constituted as a being through the community. In addition, ubuntu as “I am because we are” does not require a supernatural backdrop or dogmatism of any kind” (Mark Tschaepe, 2013).
However, some scholars hold that this form of humanism has failed to win the hearts of young African humanist who “see Ubuntu as another form of a good word with good meaning; but its main intention is still to trap the mind into dogma” (Ongere, G. 2014). Others hold that it encompasses deeply spiritual connotation that also recognizes the role of the ancestors in people’s development” (Louw, 2002), something that African humanism should not harbor.
Whether this is good or bad “humanism” Africa is making headways towards emancipation from cognitive dogmas and mysticism with the young generation championing the trend.
The New African Paradigm Shift towards New-Age Humanism
With increased access to technology, Africa is benefiting from a new wave of free flow of information, intellectual materials and other resources. The internet, smart phone technologies and social media have brought new tools that promote freedom of speech and increased access to knowledge. This has greatly influenced the world views of the younger generation making them to interact with and share in the global cultural and intellectual marketplace. Formal education has also been made more accessible in Africa.
Increased access to huge volumes of literature that is made possible by the internet (and formal educational institutions) has provided an alternative view to religion where young and informed Africans now know better that take things at the ‘mere belief” level. They have increasingly questioned and reasoned to come up with world views that are shaped by intellectualism, scientific methodologies and verifiable justifications.
The increased freedom of speech on the other hand, has provided a medium through which the rots of the mainstream religions and folk beliefs can be exposed. From the many extremely wealthy church leaders to the poorest of followers in the congregations, Africans have been able to discuss these issues at online public forums. This provides an excellent way through which these followers can learn and question the particular faith “status quo”.
Increased interaction with visitors from other continents has also fostered the changing of world views. African humanism is therefore live with rationalism, freedom of thought and inquiry, and power of reason. This has yielded great numbers of atheists, agnostics, secular humanists, and skeptics in the continent.
Yet, these free-thinkers were brought up in highly religious and ideologically mixed environments, meaning that past experiences can be dealt away with and new values acquired to reflect the changing circumstances. These individuals use modern technologies to congregate and share. For example, national and regional associations such as The Free Thinkers Initiative in Kenya (FIKA), uses online tools for members to share and interact. The vices that bedevil the continent can be highlighted here with ease and devoid of the associated stigma. One member points out that “The regions with the highest population of unaffiliated members are most food-secure, peaceful and have the best social services globally, such as Norway and Denmark…. Look at Africa, the most religious of all places and how people disregard life and the well-being of even the most vulnerable?”
This voices the notions of many young Africans who see religion as an impediment to progress. It is seen as keeping people passive “waiting for their prayers to be answered” to the detriment of science, pro-activity and medical advantages. According to scholars, “intellectual aggression is exposing bankruptcy of religion without much defense from believers” (Okeyo, 2013). This provides a healthy ground upon which free-thinkers can practice humanism and shed away negative effects of religiosity and other dogmas.
Humanism to Counter Adverse Effects of Unreason in Africa
The new wave of new-age humanism in Africa provides a perfect recipe for eradication of many diverse problems that have been brought or encouraged by unreason in Africa. With more and more young people adhering to the main tenets propagated by experienced proponents of African humanism, this new-age humanism provides a healthy foundation upon which the negative effects of unreason can be rooted out.
Some of the areas that humanism is addressing are rooting out rampant beliefs in witchcraft and superstitions in Africa. Allegations of witchcraft in Africa have led to blatant disregard of human rights and dignity in Africa. Old women have lost their lives after being lynched on witchcraft allegations while young children, albinos and other vulnerable minorities have been killed in these rituals. Africa can benefit from humanism by doing away with blind faith and encourage more science, reason, critical and free thinking, human dignity and other humanistic values.
In conclusion, humanism can therefore save Africa from cultural and historical injustices that have held it in shackles for long. Negative cultural practices that discourage free thinking while promoting unreason should be replaced with the more scientific and humanistic alternatives. Science and reason can perfectly discourage blind religiosity and beliefs in superstitions and witchcraft.
The effects of colonization and consequent euro-centrism should be replaced with the more appealing humanistic values and respect to the human species with all its diversities. The new-age African humanism should continue being fuelled by modern technologies and increased access to formal education, global information and renewed vigor in seeking values that enhance rather than limit human prospects. African humanism can root out exploitation by mainstream blind faith leadership that is selling paranormal beliefs and making fortunes out of Africans’ apparent gullibility and desperation.
Gade, C.B.N. (2011). The Historical Development of the Written Discourses on Ubuntu. South African Journal of Philosophy 30, no. 3 (2011): 303-329.
Igwe, L. (2015). The Necessity of Humanism in Africa. Retrieved from http://brighterbrains.org/articles/entry/the-necessity-of-humanism-in-africa Last vited on 05 September 2016.
Kohnert, D (1996). Magic and Witchcraft: Implications for Democratization and Poverty-Alleviating Aid in Africa. German Institute of Global and Area Studies. World Development, vol. 24, No. 8, 1996, pp. 1347-1355.
Okeyo, Vera (2013). The Rise of Atheism in Modern Kenya, Daily Nation, retrieved from http://www.nation.co.ke/Features/DN2/The-rise-and-rise-of-nons/- /957860/1901662/-/cvmtnx/-/index.html, last visited on 05 September 2016.
Ongere, G. (2014). CFI–Kenya Report: African Humanism and its Agenda. Center for Inquiry-Kenya. Retrieved from http://www.centerforinquiry.net/blogs/entry/cfi_kenya_african_humanism_and_its_agenda/ Last visited on 05 September 2016.
Tschaepe, M. (2013). A Humanist Ethic of Ubuntu: Understanding Moral Obligation and Community. Essays in the Philosophy of Humanism. The American Humanist Association vol. 21, no. 2, 47–61