Leo Igwe interview transcript

Jake: Today I have a very special guest, someone who is going to join me to talk about the problem of child witches in Africa as well as the conflation of religion and superstition in that region. I wanted to ask someone who has had their feet on the ground here, because, you know, I am an isolated blogger and I want to make sure that I am not just saying false information and with this in mind, I invited Leo Igwe to come on the show. He is a former representative of the International Humanist and Ethical Union and he also created the Nigerian Humanist Movement.
Thank you for joining me, Leo.

Leo: Thank you so much

Jake: The first thing I wanted to discuss is that you are currently in Germany studying witchcraft accusation. Is that correct? Is this the title of the degree that you are studying?

Leo: Yes, actually, it is a doctoral degree. It is the topic of my research is witchcraft accusation in Africa. I am going to do my field work in Ghana.

Jake: How long have you actually been tackling the issue of child witchcraft and witchcraft accusation in Africa?

Leo: I have been doing that actively, let’s say, a decade – a decade and a half, the issue of witchcraft is a problem that has been with me all my life. I grew up in a witch believing community, and I grew up in a community which accusations were rampant, and these caused a lot of problems between families, within families, and as I was growing up I felt that because of what I saw and experienced as a young person I felt I devoted much of my time to understandng this phenomena and helping my society address it.

Jake: How do generally people respond, like say the average population, to witchcraft? Like is it just either you believe in it firmly or you kind of still support it or is it divided in terms of belief?

Leo: Well, you know it is always difficult to measure this belief. There is not something you can put on somebody’s head, or whatever, to gauge to what extent a person believes. You only can measure that, maybe there is a manifestation. But what is a reaction of the majority of the population here, here, and here? So immediately when you mention it, people do not want to get involved. A few people will tell you, I am not sure whether it exists or not, but I don’t want to be associated with it, but majority, most people in my country, in my continent, that believe in it, there is what they call the reality, that witchcraft exists, witchcraft is real. This is something you hear many people say. That reality is something that people have embraced, and they find difficult to really question, they find it difficult to really listen to any other viewpoint that is critical of the phenomenon.

Jake: How do you, yourself, break free? Were you always a disbeliever? Because I understand that there are a portion of people who are just not easily suckered into this. Were you one of those? Or did you witness something that sort of drove you to want to know more? Or did you lose your belief if you lived in a place that primarily there is fear? Why are you not fearful?

Leo: Yeah, well, I would say that as a child I was fearful because I was taught to be fearful. I was taught to be fearful. You know, like a child, you will believe your parents, you will follow the structures of your parents. And as you are growing up, you will just be breaking away from those beliefs if you want. Like I said, it is a matter of choice. As I was growing up, I was questioning some of the things my parents told me. What happened is, like I said, I grew up in it – believing witchcraft, it is poisoning relationships, people are beating up their parents, people are abandoning their children, people are torturing, murdering their children – murdering anybody suspected, anybody accused of witchcraft. So more than that, I think when I was ten years, I think, two of my cousins came to our house, to our home in the village, and they beat my father into a coma. I could not understand what happened, so I was asking my father, my father was telling me, actually he got revived, my mother went to court and all that. But as I was asking my father, tell me what happened, what did you do to merit this kind of beating and all that? Oh you are still too young to know, still too young to know. Now, as I was growing up at that point, I sat my father down and told him can you tell me exactly what happened? Oh, there was suspicions that my cousins wanted to use my mother for rituals. You know, they went to a voodoo priest, they wanted to involve my mother, eventually the plan did not work, it backfired and ?? the rumor got to him and he went and confronted them and wanted to know why they wanted to use my mother for rituals, and they were angry. They now came to our home and they told my father, they insisted my father should tell them who informed him that they wanted to use my mother for rituals. My father bluntly refused and they beat him into a coma. So, look, my father was fortunate, he lived afterwards, many people do not survive.
And I ask myself, for what? If I had told my father look, you would have ignored them. Nobody can use magic or witchcraft to kill your wife or to kill your children, it is superstition. But I am just letting you know how much a problem this belief is and how entrenched it is and so that is why I said look, as I was growing up and I discovered witchcraft belief is superstitious, and that the problems we are having in Africa, Europe was having centuries ago, and has said goodbye to it. So, because of the problems… it caused in my own family, it caused in a lot of families, people are beaten up, people have their parents beaten up, I say look, I have to understand this thing.
And as I was reading and researching I found that what was happening in my own community, in my own country, took place in Europe centuries ago. I said what! Look at it! Lo, and behold, nobody is willing to listen, nobody is ready to listen to the critical voice.
I said OK, I am going to do my best, even if I am the lonely voice in the wilderness, I will continue to speak, hopefully the change will come. But I must tell you, change is coming, but it is not coming as fast as I would want it, because I would like, I would like this to be associated with my country, with my continent, in the next decade, in the next few decades.

Jake: That’s going to be tough Leo, you must have read this, I don’t know if you did, Save the Children International, released a report on the Democratic Republic of the Congo. I did a show about this last time and they had a number of recommendations about what to do, and one of those recommendations was that they needed to work with religious leaders now, and educate them. Now I’ve been reading your articles, and what your opinion of religion is, and I want to ask you this question – do you think that is a good idea or does it legitimize an institution that is just going to do this regardless of what we tell them?

Leo: Look, the thing there is this. We cannot do this alone. We cannot always make people understand that for you to stop a witch hunt you have to be an atheist. We just have to understand that you have a message, many people will embrace easily. But let’s think about it this way, when witch hunting started in Europe, maybe ?? and got the violent complaints which brought it to an end, rebellious people, even some priests, they spoke out against it. So, as far as I am concerned, I am not ready to tell somebody you have to be an atheist or you have to be a freethinker, only that’s your business. But whatever you do, in the name of your belief, you are going to be held responsible. Period. So, the issue is this, I am ready to walk with anybody and I think that people should be, you know, who ever I am to walk with, religious people or religious organizations, and keep making them understand that this is part of the problem, our society is suffering as result of superstition. Yes, and for us, engaging and walking with them.

Jake: It does seem as little bit strange, for instance, when you were mentioning witch hunts and how that came to an end. There is an interesting, like, the Renaissance itself – part of the reason for the Renaissance is because of the humanist movement, that began as a religious movement, but the important thing to remember about that movement is that the humanists at the time, like let’s say Leonardo Da Vinci, one of the early humanists (also a vegetarian, interestingly enough) their type of religious belief, for instance, is very different, from the religious beliefs of the people they had fought. I mean, it might as well have been night and day if you really compare the two, and here is the thing that I worry about. For instance, let’s work with churches, let’s work with this problem, but if the belief really does stem from the intersection of ancient superstitious beliefs in witchcraft that weren’t always harmful and now with introduced Christianity and their violent rhetoric when it comes to that very practice, how is that supposed to be solved? Doesn’t that make the situation worse?

Leo: No, no, no, OK, yeah, like I said, I agree with you. Look, we have to understand, that this is a complex and complicated phenomenon, that’s number one.
Number two, we also have to understand that moving from faith to reason, people questioning their faith is always a slow, difficult, and challenging enterprise for many people. But what we are saying is that we cannot wait, people are dying as I’m talking to you here now, people are languishing here in camps in Ghana, in Burkina Faso, in Congo, children are dying in the streets, are we going to wait until people in Congo become atheists or freethinkers before we move into Congo to help these children? My answer is no! Are we going to wait for the people in Burkina Faso to abandon all their religions or for them to stop protesting women? And are not driving them away to die and languish in wretched camps? My answer is no! What I am saying is this, let us again, draw lessons again from the fact that the church, religious organizations in medieval era, they were a part of this. But, people also spoke out, many priests and skeptics, many bishops and skeptics.

Jake: So where are they? Where are they right now? In this conversation, where are they? Why are they so silent?

Leo: I agree, it is problematic. I agree that the church is part of the problem, but what I’m saying is this. We cannot just walk alone, we should try and find common ground, yes, we should try. I know it is difficult. Why I am saying this, is this, because there are few skeptics who are identified and open in Africa, there are few people who are ready to apply their skepticism, you know – openly and expressly – but there are also people who are skeptics, but who also hold religious beliefs. Now, what we have to do is that because this is a situation where superstition, irrational belief, is causing serious harm we all have to go all out and engage people on this platform and make sure that we keep re-addressing the fact that here is part of that problem skeptics have been talking about, here is part of the problem humanists have been talking about, let’s act from there.
We will not win this war in one day, we will not win this war in one year, we will not win this war in one century. Europe did not do that, so I am also thinking that we are not going to accomplish that automatically in Africa. It is going to take us some time, but let us keep moving, let us remember because let us not retreat because at the end of it all history is on our side. Let’s make the necessary sacrifice, at this point in time life is at stake. The life of the people are at stake, we should not stay on the table arguing whether we should engage religious people or not. Where we can engage them and save lives, please let’s engage them and save lives.

Jake: Speaking of engaging religious people, and the silence that is coming from a lot of religious institutions, which we know that their supposed humanitarian stance, for instance, should be against this, there has been silence. Here is my theory on where the silence may come from. Perhaps you can shed some light on this. I actually believe that in Africa right now it is a battleground for religious ideology, Islam and Christianity, specifically. I think the reason these religious leaders are not speaking is because they want to be popular, and to speak out against this would be unpopular and they would lose followers in what they believe is sort of the last bastion of religious growth.

Leo: Yes

Jake: So, what we are asking, is we are asking religious people to work against their interests in terms of spreading themselves, in order to save people’s lives and this is not working. Should we change the message? I don’t really understand how we can start appealing to these higher religious figures that are just so silent.

Leo: It’s like when we are talking about the issue of the use of condom, the position of the church and all that. Even when it comes to the issues of homosexuals, the rights of homosexuals and the religious opposition. We know that ten years ago, twenty years ago, these were issues that many people thought no religious group will ever respect the rights of homosexuals. But what is the vision today? Many of them are switching, many of them are changing, many of them are dragging their feet away. What I am saying is this, they cannot lead the campaign, but they will follow, yes. Because our values, the values of critical thinking have always have always revived skeptically oriented people to lead. So what I’m saying is this, we are trying to discuss this as though we have to wait for them. No! We have to lead, they will follow, yes!
I don’t know how long it will take them to follow. I don’t know the pace is left for them. But unless we think we are not convinced of our mission, unless we are not convinced of our purpose – if we are convinced, let us lead. Just like what happened when it comes to the rights of gay people. Few people came out, they spoke out. They thought that the churches would not get around to supporting them. Many churches are supporting that now. So that is something that will also happen in this case. So let us not just stay on the table debating will they follow us, will they listen to us, will they join their voices with us. No! Let us go all out. At the United Nations, at the Commonweath, international institutions, international programs. Name and shame them. Tell them to their face, you are part of this problem. I want to tell you that many people will start backing away.
It will not lead to the closure of all judges, of all unjust organizations, it will not. But I want to tell you that at least, like I said, the lives of these children, the lives of these women will be saved. We will be chipping away at the block of superstition. Like I said, it will take time. Because we have on our hands a humanitarian crisis. We have in our hands a very terrible and atrocious campaign going on, we should not spare any time debating and discussing. We should lead. They will follow at their pace.

Jake: Now what do you think about that if you look at the Renaissance and some of the violence around that time, it is a direct consequence of Enlightened movement? Because what happens is that people disagree, were pushed to extremes, and in those times, those extremes led to violence. So in a sense, the price we pay for Enlightenment is often this kind of violence. Is that not a paradox? Are we not facing more, temporarily at least, probably more of this type of atrocity as we get more involved?

Leo: Look, what is the alternative? What is the alternative? The alternative is to sit by and watch these people kill, maim, and destroy fellow human beings in the name of their misconceptions and superstitions. It has a price! And I want us to know that we aren’t going to achieve this on a platter of gold or whatever going to achieve this just like a miracle. No. We are going to pay some price. The price they paid during the Enlightenment is one we are enjoying today. And I want to tell you that everybody, including the religious institutions, are still looking back to that era of Enlightenment, even without asking themselves what role did my religious group or my religious organization or my church play, no? Yeah! I want to tell you like now, Friday we just got back to the situation in Africa, it was dangerous on the ticket. Like you must have read about the attack by Helen Ukpabio on our church members in Nigeria who were to organize a seminar.

Jake: There is a video about it. I think I posted in 2009, although I’ll be re-posting it for the interview.

Leo: Good!

Jake: I believe that Africa right now is where we should be talking, having the conversation about the Poison of Religion. I mean, I see it all the time. You had an article about Islam in Mali where kids are being forced to go begging on the streets and these madras are just raking in this money. They are exploiting children in a very real way. And child witchcraft in Africa, preachers are getting rich, exploiting these children. This is literally the exploitation of children under the guise of religion and no one is having this conversation in a mainstream way.

Leo: Yes, I want you to understand that there many religious people are outraged by this. But you see, many of them can’t speak up because of the taboo of challenging and criticizing religious leaders. That’s why I said that skeptical or irreligious individuals who are ready to go open and public, with a skeptical voice, with a skeptical perspective, they should move in, because there are religious people, if I should qualify this, some enlightened religious people, who will support them I tell you. Look, I don’t subscribe to that idea of religion, I was going thru our communities, bringing public enlightenment in Nigeria and I met people – some of them Mormon, some of the Jehovah Witness, some of them some religion or another – who came up to me and said yes, I am a Christian, I believe in God and all that but this is outrageous. Well, we will always say yes. The idea of God and the idea of witches, they are the same, they are virtually the same thing. Yes, and again what I’m saying is this. What anybody does, if people commit atrocity in the name of their belief, whether they believe in God, or believe in the occult, or believe in witch or wizard, or believe in the New Age, or believe in UFOs, or whatever you believe in, if you commit atrocities, you should be held accountable! And such beliefs should be challenged, should be critically evaluated. Thought, freedom of expression, critical thinking, free press, those are things that will help us reason the population out. Because we are talking about people, many of them are not educated, some of them have have no idea of life but just indoctrination. So they are trapped! We should reach out to these people. This is something you should tell friends, we have that capacity to exercise what I call rational compassion. Compassion that only rationally oriented people can exercise. Look, it is only we the skeptics, we critically oriented people who can help. We did it, and we called it Enlightenment, and we can do it again. I’m deeply convinced we should not spare any moments doing whatever we can to ignite a light again so that generations to come will also look back and and say yes, that was an era that started changing, that was an era that started protecting our children, that was an era that started protecting our mothers, and they will be grateful. Our names may not be mentioned, it will not be necessary but what is important is that we must help define an era. We must help ignite a light in Africa’s darkness.

Jake: I think with any movement, maybe it is arbitrary, it is important to have a catchy name. I think it’s time for the African Enlightenment. I don’t know if that’s the word, because I just came up with it, and it’s probably terrible, but you are like those early adopters of Enlightenment where you are just trying to spread it. I mean, you yourself founded the Nigerian Humanist Movement, undoubtedly with that purpose in mind. It is your aim to spread critical thinking and reason, it seems to me, in the continent, and you seem to be taking a pretty broad approach because from all the articles that I’ve been reading, you’ve traveled quite a bit.

Leo: Yes, I’ve been to so many countries. I’ve been to Senegal, Gambia, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Burkina Faso, Malawi, South Africa, Congo, not Congo Democratic Republic, the Congo, Kenya, Uganda, and all that, I think I’ve been to about 13/14 African countries.

Jake: And of those places where would you say our attention should be focused first? Or is it just sort of a generally broad it’s bad everywhere?

Leo: Well, you see, in these countries sometimes I spend a few days, a few weeks. So it is difficult for me to tell you actually what the situation means. But I must tell you one thing, I couldn’t see much of the difference between the countries because of the button. The reasoning button, the button of thinking.
Yes, there are some places here we have some very extreme situations. Like for instance, in Central Africa Republic, even I’m talking to you now, people are still in jail as a result of witchcraft because witchcraft is recognized by the law. In Malawi, only recently, women, at least fifty women were in jail, they were accused of witchcraft by children, and they were sentenced and imprisoned. Thru the campaign we launched there, we have a small Humanist group there, we were able to secure the release of over fifty women wrongfully convicted and imprisoned because of witchcraft. In Malawi, they had to believe that women can use witchcraft planes to transport children, get them initiated, and all that and all that. Some children will come to God, confess, or made to say certain things, inditing these women, and they were sent to jail, even in Nigeria. So what I’m saying here is this, this is a general problem, for me it is a social disease. It is a tragic situation and we need to start engaging in it. We should not wait for children to be driven into the streets, you know, as has been the case in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. We will not wait for women to be killed as was the case recently in Malawi, we will not wait for children to be tortured, burned, acid poured on them as was the case in Nigeria. We should not also wait and delay in speaking out against witch hunters and witch doctors like Helen Ukpabio of Nigeria and all the pastors. We should all go all out to expose witch hunters. Yes, today we have the Internet. We never had it in the past, we can send out information. We can attract the attention of the world to this problem. Today we are talking about a situation whereby recently a child was tortured to death. An African child was tortured to death, in the UK.

Jake: There are a number of them in fact. I think Scotland Yard has investigated almost one hundred cases and that is the stuff that has been reported.

Leo: Good! And I want to say that is just the tip of the iceberg. Because we extrapolated abuses that are done behind the walls, and that is why I said the world should not keep quiet over this. Because anywhere we have gotten a hundred cases, for me it multiplies by another hundred and another hundred and another hundred, because we are talking about how people express themselves or try to use it as a weapon of abuse in so many ways we cannot even track down, they use these instruments of our contemporary legal system. So, that is why I said there is need for us to go all out, to draw the attention of the world, to keep educating, to keep it in the minds of people. I know it is difficult, but it is possible.

Jake: Most of the listeners are in their car, they’re at work, they’re working out, and you know they hear these words and and they’re like, yeah, I really want to do something.
What can they do now? What is the best thing for Joe Six-pack, living in the US, who’s like this is a serious problem, how can they get involved?

Leo: Now, first of all we have to identify organizations that are doing some great jobs. The Humanist organizations are doing a great job. Some people, who for some reason or another don’t want to support the Humanist organizations, yes, they may want to support the organizations like Stepping Stones, which is a secular group. You know, Stepping Stones is best in the UK. They have partners in Nigeria, people who rescue children.

Jake: It’s very direct, kind of like you give them money, we’ll go directly to rescue these kids, no doubt about it.

Leo: Definitely. That was number one. For number two, put this in a blog. Like you said, if you put, witchcraft accusation in Africa, witch hunting in Africa, you get a lot of information. But many people, many websites are always interested in what is happening in their own county, in their own country, in what is affecting their own immediate community. But today we are living in a global world! So it is important that people know what is going on in witchcraft accusation in Africa, in central Africa. People can send letters. You can issue press release. Many people are working with international organizations – who avoid it, who avoid this problem, because it is a cultural issue. They want to respect Africans, and they don’t want to get involved and they don’t want Africans to look up to them or start saying oh, this is colonialism or impose their own thinking.
But sometimes they allow this atrocious practices, they allow this violent campaign, they allow this superstitious practices to continue, and they work with international organizations that can help us achieve something positive. So people are not just staying in their houses. Many of them are involved. Let them raise such issues! Let them make donations if they can. If they think they can volunteer their time and energy. They can also contact those who can help us in this country. We just need what they can do, and we can direct them to wherever they can help us address the problem.

Jake: How much longer do you have left in your doctoral thesis by the way? I gotta tell you, Leo, I love your passion. I think that one of the ways is to have you going over to secular conferences and and talking about this stuff because I really think you would ignite the fire under some people’s asses that definitely needs to be ignited. So how much longer are you stuck in academia?

Leo: In July I was at the James Randi conference in Vegas

Jake: Oh, You were at TAM

Leo: Yes, I was at TAM

Jake: Well, that’s great

Leo: I spoke at TAM and I also spoke at of skeptics here in Berlin and a conference of atheists in Cologne, and I just came back from the UK. I spoke at a conference at the University of Lancaster. Next week I’ll be in Denmark to discuss with an NGO who is working to set up a shelter in Nigeria and all that. So I am not trapped as such. But by next year, I’ll be going to Ghana and I’ll maintain a low profile as I try to gather information and collect data and all that. Then after all that I’ll be back to write up my summaries. So, my academic program is just a way to liberate my campaign, because sometimes you find yourself doing this work, you know and occasionally I am asleep and it gets so overwhelming and that is why I went to this university and asked the professor here if I could come over and he said fine. And I’ve been doing a lot of reading about witch hunting in Europe, buying a lot of books, deepening my knowledge and understanding, and I’m getting bolder and I’m more inspired now to do the work than even I was. Because now I know what happened here, and we are just in time. There is no argument on this case. The children have to be saved, they have to be rescued. Anyone who wants to argue should tell me why we should spend the slightest minute waiting on this case. We just have to move it. And if what I tell you in these few days is to mobilize and tell you what a problem we have and to get people to support it one way or another then I tell you I have spent these three years very well. So I just have about three years to go, but in the three years I will be traveling back and forth, granting interviews and speaking at conferences and doing whatever I can to make sure that difference we can make in the lives of the women and children in Africa, many of them are just people. We skeptics, we freethinkers, do not shy away from making that difference. That is my mission, that is my goal.

Jake: I hope you achieve that goal Leo, and I hope that you are going to come back on the show periodically and talk about this issue. You know, this is something that I’ve been fighting other people in the secular world to recognize. Even though people might recognize it, I just don’t think it has the kind of gravity that it should, and you talk about we just need to get moving on this shit. Like no more sitting in our chairs talking about it, it’s time for action. I can understand your frustration. You’re reading European history and you’re like this is just happening, this is the same crap, but at least in a sense, you have a bit of a manual for how to sort of like fix this problem. So we can get it done quicker.

Leo: Yes! We can! So we should not wait, we should not say oh, how are we going to get the churches along. Start moving! And tell them, come along, come along. Either you come along or history will leave you behind. And I want to tell you that they will come along. there are some church leaders today who are speaking against it, of course, you know there is a contradiction there, you get it. Whenever I’m engaging such people, I’m engaging something positive, in a social world. I tell them, we have other battles to fight, we can sort that out, but when it comes to political issue, such as respecting the rights of homosexuals, I work with church groups. But I know also we might disagree on some other issues like demon, demonic possession, and all that, but when it comes to this one now I tell them if you support me, come along. Then I know that with time, society will gradually be moving away. I don’t know how I’m going to do it, how I am going to force it on them, but when it comes to these clear cases of abuses, irrationalism, superstition, religious extremism, and fundamentalism we are going to lead and we will say will always tell them will you join us, can you come up, can you engage us, we are moving and we are going to save lives. We are going to start with humanity, we cannot fail them. If we fail and betray them, then I think that is the worst thing that could happen to us, not just as people, who have struggled over the years to get ourselves out of the dogma and superstition but as those who know the harm that an individual and society can suffer as a result of dogma and superstition.

Jake: Well Leo. thank you for joining me. And I have to say I am endlessly impressed by your work. You are one of the people that I think will help to create this African Enlightenment which I think is just necessary and you know what, it would benefit the rest of humanity as well. I just feel like, as if we, so much in this country, or at least in the West, everybody just ignores Africa, and I think we do that at our own detriment. These are our people! This is our ancestral home, we need to treat it with a little more respect, and we need to make sure that the human beings who are living there live in safety and security.

Leo: The one thing I need to add is this, many of the superstitions are making their way again back to the Western countries. So that is why hiding in the comforts of our homes and countries and colleges is really not the best way. And now, Helen Ukpabio wanted to organize a crusade or whatever she called it, a witchcraft deliverance and all that, in the US, in Texas.

Jake: Didn’t somebody put a stop to that? I remember there was a petition or something.

Leo: Yes. I worked with some friends in the US and the petitions were sent and campaigned and she could not make it. Yes, and what we are trying to do now, is to get people to understand, those who live in the West to understand that today, this is not just happening here. This is not just Africa’s problem, this is the problem you can’t ignore. This is happening in the UK. And I want to tell you that in Canada, the US, we cannot be totally sure that some abuses are not happening in the name of superstition, imported superstition and traditions from Africa. So that is why we all must be concerned, not just for the sake of Africa but for the sake of Enlightenment throughout the world.

Jake: Thank you for joining me Leo, and we look forward to more work from you and to having you again on the show, which I hope you’ll do.

Leo: My pleasure.

Jake: Alright, with that my name is Jacob Fortin, have a Good Atheist Day everybody.

[Note: You can listen to the full show here]

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