Bertrand Russell in Busota
Caspar Melville introduces our appeal to help secular education in Uganda
This magazine’s publisher, the Rationalist Association, is a charity dedicated to the stimulation and promotion of “freedom of thought and enquiry in reference to ethics, philosophy, and kindred subjects, paying particular regard to the principles of rationalism.”
That, clearly, is the mission of New Humanist. But the Association’s charter also includes a requirement to educate, and in particular to reach out to audiences other than already sympathetic English-speaking western free-thinkers.
And the perfect opportunity to fulfil this brief arrived recently in the form of a single unsolicited e-mail from Moses Kamya.
Moses introduced himself as a 34-year-old school teacher from Uganda. He had been dismissed twice from teaching posts in Christian schools, because as a humanist he was thought to be anti-Christian. Prevented from working, Moses decided to establish a secondary school of his own “based on humanist ideas of free inquiry, scepticism and rationalism”. With meagre resources he formed the Mustard Seed school of Busota, in Kamuli district, 130 km from Kampala. He started out in 2005 with just four students, but quickly expanded. Currently there are 157 enrolled, of whom 19 are given full bursaries.
Moses’ personal story is fairly typical of that of his students. He was brought up by religious parents – an Anglican mother, a Catholic father – and himself went through a period of indoctrination into Pentecostalism, before discovering, for the first time, that there was a tradition of atheist and non-religious thought. “I came to learn,” he wrote, “that there was a way of thinking that makes man the controller of his destiny without recourse to metaphysical religion.” And now he runs a school and has a mission: “The challenge before us is how to penetrate a society deeply entrenched with religious dogma.”
Moses’ was not a begging e-mail – what he wanted was to establish contact with like-minded organisations. But as the details of his project grew with each exchange, and the difficulty of his task as well as the depth of his commitment became clear, it was obvious we could help. I asked him about his students – who were they, what were their stories. Some weeks later a bundle arrived with letters he had asked them to write. On paper ripped from exercise books students ranging from 14 to 30 years old wrote candidly about what had brought them to the school. Jamira Timugibwa wrote, “My mother is occupation peasant. My step father refused to give me school fees because I refused to be a Catholic. Mr Kamya gave me bursary. On my future, I would like to be a nurse.” Fifteen-year-old Salim Kudhaga said that his father had died and his mother was too sick to work to provide for him. Nearly everyone who wrote was the child of religious parents – often different religions – and nearly all had lost at least one parent. Emmanuel Longo, a 30-year-old from Sudan, wrote that he was a refugee whose parents had died in the war: “I don’t know how I reached Uganda but it’s where I have grown up. I am married with four children. I went to school up to primary seven and stopped there due to lack of school fees. By luck I met Mr Moses Kamya. He sympathised with my situation and offered me a bursary. I am happy that there is no discrimination at Mustard Seed even if I am a refugee. My goal is to become a success, so that I can help other suffering people.”
Elizabeth Namakose wrote of how she was made pregnant by a fellow student when she was in primary school, but how with Moses Kamya’s support she is pursuing her dream to be a nurse. She ended her letter with “I love the way we are taught our rights.” Rose Nakiito, an orphan, was being raised by her grandmother, a witchdoctor, when Moses Kamya came to ask that she be allowed to attend school. For Balya Neilson the problem was more straightforward: “My father have two wives and have 22 children and my mother have 10 children. I am 7th born in the family.” There is simply no money to pay for education. The same goes for Alex Tabusibwa, one of ten siblings. Sophia Kampi’s Muslim father has nine children and decided not to educate the girls. After Samuel Mugeere Junior’s parents died he lived with his Muslim grandfather, who paid his primary fees, but refused to pay for secondary school unless he converted. All of these students now have access to secondary education because of Moses’ bursaries.
Among the objectives laid down in the charter of the Mustard Seed school are: To demystify dogmatic and irrational ideologies based on religious fiction, fallacies, witchcraft, superstition. To inculcate a sense of scepticism and rationalism based on research and pragmatism among students. To make students appreciate their sexuality and to develop self-esteem and self-confidence in themselves as controllers of their destiny. The well-worn familiarity of such sentiments in the west should not blind us to the fact that superstition, religious oppression and sexual exploitation are everyday and ubiquitous for these youngsters. Access to ideas that challenge them is vital, as they told us in the letters they sent thanking us for the parcel. “I like such books with ideas that challenge religion since it is under the cover of culture and religion that our parents subject us to oppression,” said Tolopheina Namugeere. “I need more such books to liberate my mind from religious slavery,” wrote Salimu Kadhaga. “Now I can see,” wrote Ivan Mirimo, “that there is life outside religion.”
Kalera Azed was particularly taken with Betrand Russell’s The Faith of a Rationalist from 1947. “I liked the argument for us to conquer the world by intelligence and not by fear. A good world needs knowledge, kindliness and courage: this is going to be my guiding principle in life.”
When the Rationalist Press Association was formed in the 1880s it was still dangerous to be irreligious and to challenge the powerful Christian institutions. That this is no longer the case in Britain is testament to the power of free thought but it does not mean that the battle has been won. As Meera Nanda pointed out in our March issue, in relation to India, struggles against superstition and religious intolerance that we in the west might think redundant or simplistic are still vital in the developing world.
In Uganda, where 66 per cent of the population are Christian, 15 per cent Muslim and local forms of spiritualism are still widespread, the Mustard Seed students need access to any and all arguments which challenge the dominance, ubiquity and unaccountable power of religion, as well as the basic infrastructure – walls, lights, books, pens – which will allow them to make the most of these ideas. The Rationalist Association is going to help them. We hope you can too. ■
Help Mustard Seed growA one term bursary for for a child at Mustard Seed Secondary School costs £27. The cost for a year (three terms) is £71. The school also needs a digital camera (£70). Moses is hoping to build some proper permanent classrooms for the school, which will cost 5,000,000 Ugandan Shillings (£1,667) each, the total cost for the four is 20,000,000 Ugandan Shillings (£6,667). They also need books, writing equipment, computers, an overhead projector and support for their annual humanist jamboree. To sponsor a bursary, purchase equipment or offer any other help, call us on 0207 436 1151.