My journey to Humanism
Betty Nassaka is the founder president of the Ugandan Humanist Effort to Save Women (UHESWO) which is affiliated to IHEU member organization UHASSO. In this personal account she writes about how she developed a critical and independent mind in a country where religion and tradition dominate and rarely give women the opportunity to grow.
What my Parents Taught Me
I grew up in a family that worships both God and gods. My father was killed in the war of liberation; my stepfather, who was a traditional healer, went to church with my mother on Sundays.
After noticing that most of my stepfather’s clients were victims of AIDS, I asked him one day why most of his clients would eventually die? He responded by asking me if he was God to be able to save their lives. On another occasion I questioned my mother on why she was going to church, and yet prayed to other gods too? She responded by asking if anyone was forcing me to go to church or to a shrine.
My parents were insensitive to my need to know and to understand. Whenever I asked them a question, I was
rewarded by another question. So, I stopped asking them and, instead, started on the path of thinking for myself and looking for logical answers to the questions I had.
What God Taught Me
I prayed to God regularly when I was a kid. Instead of going to church on Sundays like the rest of the children, I was ordered to dig, and to collect firewood for the shrine. On Mondays, I was then punished for not attending Sunday school. I prayed to God to rescue me from garden work, which was a major problem for me at that age. He never helped me and I began hating him and cursing him for this. When I got tired of praying to God, I finally thought of something that would save me from digging. I began by surprising my mother by waking up very early, cleaning the house, preparing tea and washing the utensils. My mum was very happy and exempted me from working in the garden – so that I could concentrate on domestic work.
I realized soon that without depending on God I could find solutions by thinking and reasoning.
That didn’t yet stop me completely from praying to God. I prayed to God to stop Satan from tempting me to climb the old man’s mango tree. Result: I never stopped. I stopped only when I could think of a constructive alternative activity. That taught me that God would not guide me to behave well. I had to do it myself.
My mind kept asking inquisitive and critical questions. How strong were the gods? When I was fifteen years old, I wanted to check whether the gods in my stepfather’s grass-thatched shrines could prevent it from catching fire. When I tested, the shrines burnt as if they were soaked in paraffin. I tried to control the fire, but in vain. Funny enough, it seems the gods told my stepfather that the shrine was burnt by our neighbour. From then on, I stopped fearing the gods. I soon learnt that miracles, and all forms of the supernatural were really a myth.
When I studied about evolution in my secondary school, I got a good opportunity to further enhance my spirit of skepticism. I learnt that a human being was an evolutionary product of nature; I developed rationalism during my practical work in chemistry, biology and physics classes. The experiments posed a lot of puzzling questions: I asked my religious education teacher why he could not give scientific explanations for what he was teaching.
I gradually developed a critical and independent mind, and in 1997 I came in contact with the Ugandan Humanist Association. I was then at college and my science tutor Deo Ssekitooleko, together with other UHASSO members, conducted a seminar on human rights. During this seminar, they argued against corporal punishments and gave us some books with information on Humanism. After I completed college education, I kept in touch with Deo who sent me copies of Free Inquiry magazine. Through these books I discovered that religion was a product of human fantasy, fanaticism and unreason that exploit and enslave the weak and the ignorant.
It was in 2002 that I joined the Uganda Humanist Association-Youth (UHASSO Youth), which helped me to become more active in the humanist movement. Being active in UHASSO, I started looking at sexism, racism and other forms of oppression. I began to look at reality in its entirety. Through free and critical inquiry, I am now aware that we should always pursue knowledge and learn about the universe, though we may never be able to answer all the questions about life.
I took my own destiny in my hands. Together with a few other women we decided to form the first Ugandan humanist association for women. And in 2006 we managed to launch the organisation.
The Ugandan Humanist Effort to Save Women (UHESWO) was inaugurated by Levi Fragell and Babu Gogineni on 17th June, 2006. It is founded to specifically attract more young Ugandan women to Humanism. I realized how important it was to address issues that affect women – surrounded as we are with the fact that the cultures and religions in Uganda are exploiting, oppressing and cheating women mostly. UHESWO puts the human being at the center with no regard to social status, life choice, creed or ethnicity. Advocacy for women’s rights and women’s welfare is the core of UHESWO and our formal aims are to
• Educate women about Humanism and Skepticism.
• Advocate for human rights.
• Oppose oppressive religions and cultures that keep women in bondage.
• Encourage moral excellence, positive relationships, and human dignity
• Seek ways of solving problems of life with out the dogmatic authority of secular or religious institutions,
• Eradicate poverty amongst women.
We have already taken up initiatives which are new (see box item) in Ugandan society and we have been attracting the attention of other young women. We hope to help all of them on their journey to Humanism.