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Power to the People: How humanists in Africa are feeling empowered

By Lynda Tilley

Lynda is a founding member of United African Humanists and a Board Advisor for Humanist Global Charity. In this article she explains how those in power use religion as a tool of oppression, and how John Lennon's song Imagine has become an unofficial anthem for African humanists.

As a result of the introduction to Africa of that powerful tool of control and oppression commonly referred to as 'religion', we've allowed a mysterious, unheard, unseen, yet supposedly all-knowing and all-powerful supernatural entity to exert its power over us, and we obey it without question. The power of our rulers and the power of religion now, effectively, control every aspect of our public and private lives, to such an extent that we don't even think to question these powers anymore. We blindly accept them and we don't dare to disobey them.

Power - a legally acceptable way to control the masses

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines the word 'power' as a 'legal or official authority, capacity, or right' and the 'possession of control, authority, or influence over others.' In other words, power is an acceptable and legal way to control the masses. This explains why, even as a child, I've never liked the word 'power' very much. I've always associated it with control, fear and intimidation, and with people who tell you what to do all the time. And yet, on the other hand, I've seen people with no power who are kind and fair, and who lead people who are willing to follow them out of respect and not out of fear.

I suppose that we all question and test power at some point in our lives. For many of us who've seen through the scam of the power called religion, we tested it even as children. Looking back, I did this in small ways like not saying my bedtime prayers and not reading quietly during the afternoon quiet time. The powerful and all-seeing God never punished me for this and nothing bad happened to or around me, despite me disobeying this 'powerful being'. In fact, I feared my mother more than I feared God, because I knew what would happen if she found out that I'd told her an outright lie when she asked me if I'd remembered to say my prayers, or if she caught me playing instead of reading a book. I was far more fearful of my 'powerless' mother than I ever was of this 'powerful' God, because I felt guilty for lying to my mother. Not because I was told it was wrong to lie, but because lying made me feel really bad inside for not being honest with my mother, who I loved very much. Throughout childhood, we followed school rules and regulations which were put in place by the Department of Education. By the time we were adults, we had been conditioned to accept that those in power over us were in some way better than us.

"The Power of the People is stronger than the People in Power" John Lennon

Power is a dirty word and it is linked to religion

Some of us - I'm referring here mostly to humanists and I've noticed that our numbers have grown quite rapidly over the past three years or so - now realise that 'power' is a dirty word here in Africa and that 'power', 'politics' and 'religion' almost always go together. The people in power here are often corrupt and they use religion to oppress people and to instil fear into them. They use their power to take away our freedom. They now control us completely. Our media outlets distort the truth if we speak out about human rights violations by those in power, the police arrest us without charge, prisons hold us indefinitely without trial, and court systems allow our innocents to remain incarcerated indefinitely, whilst criminals walk free. Our governments continue to cover up severe human rights abuses in order to continue trading our people's vast mineral wealth with the world. They use their collective power to limit or take away our free will, and they keep us from stepping out of line. We dare not speak out against our powerful presidents and we dare not speak out against our powerful, invisible God. We are aware of what the consequences of both will be if we do.

It may be the case that, because I questioned the power of God as a child, I grew up being suspicious of all types of power and those who hold it. I'm sure this is true for most if not all of my humanist friends. We are the ones writing, speaking out, raising awareness, and helping people whose rights are being abused or taken away. As a result, we are now referred to by the masses as 'activists' whereas religious people doing the same work here are referred to as 'the faithful' because they are 'doing the Lord's work'. From what I can see, they aren't targeted, threatened, arrested or killed nearly as much as we 'activists' are.

Africans are uniting as they see power for what it is

In the past three years especially, a growing number of African people throughout our continent are seeing these man-made religions for what they are and always have been. We are mostly ex-Christians and ex-Muslims - former members of the two main religions here. We've realised that the tool of religion once used on us by our oppressors is now being used by us, on each other. As religion grows, and as its offshoots become more extreme, I can truthfully say that religion is doing far more damage in our own hands then when it was in the hands of our oppressors.

As we connect now as a close group across at least twelve countries, we connect not only as people but as humanists and activists to work on common aims together. And just by chance, over the past two years, the song Imagine by John Lennon of the Beatles, who was a peace activist before his tragic assassination, has somehow become the unofficial theme song for us all, as African humanists. Many people here do not know of the Beatles because their music was banned in several of our countries for many years. The reason given for this ban is that they were considered to be the 'Anti Christ' after a 1966 interview in which Lennon stated that The Beatles and rock music were 'now more popular than Jesus'.

Power of the people

An old quotation of Lennon's has recently surfaced here and it resonates with us all. It's something he said, in an interview shortly before his death, about his single Power To The People. ('All Power To The People' was a Black Panthers slogan, when they were protesting against the wealthy ruling class that dominated society). Lennon wrote the song in 1971 as a call to action. It was used in America to protest against what the US was doing in Vietnam at the time. In the interview, Lennon said 'the power of the people is stronger than the people in power'. The words of a British man, resonating through the decades.

People power, which means groups of humans working together for the good of all, is the same as our African philosophy of 'Ubuntu'. This means that 'a human is a human through other human beings' and that we're only okay if everyone else is, too. This is one of the core messages of humanism and, for me, it represents true power, worthy power, significant power. It's not the words of one person or a select group that hold power over any of us in this world. It never has been - we just see it like that. True power has always been the collective power of decent human beings like you and me, working together in unity, no matter which continent, country, tribe, gender, language or race we connect to. Because, at the end of the day, we're all the same and we want the same things. We hold the same values and morals as each other and none of us want control or power over each other, because we are all humans. Decent humans, who collectively hold the most power. And it's pure, good power that, once we all truly unite, has the potential to change the entire world for the better, more than anything in world history ever has before.

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02 abr 2023

I lived and worked in Zambia, Rhodesia, South Africa and Swaziland in the early 1970s, at a time when apartheid still prevailed in South Africa and, to a lesser extent, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). I guess that makes me an “old Africa hand”?

I subsequently embarked on a BA Honours degree in Government & Politics, followed up by studying for an MA in Government & Politics.

I found Max Weber’s writings on the concept of legitimate rule very interesting:- Three grounds for legitimate rule

Weber defines politics as a form of "independent leadership activity". In this essay, the "state" serves as the placeholder for the analysis of political organizations. The grounds for the legitimate rule of these political organizations, according to Weber,…

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