In February of this year, I was set to visit Malawi as a part of my dissertation work at the University of Michigan. While I was there, I had hoped to once again make contact with my acquaintances at the Association for Secular Humanism in Malawi. I had been corresponding with members of the group, and had lent support to the release of three women incarcerated in Maula Prison in Lilongwe on witchcraft related crimes.
My first introduction to the Malawi chapter of ASH had been through a meeting in Blantyre. My friend, Phil Thesing, had told me about members of the group. I was immediately intrigued, particularly after I found out that they had been somewhat involved in the well known “gay marriage” case of that year. A secular group here in Malawi sounded interesting, particularly in a place where churches of various denominations occupy every corner, faith and spiritual healers peddle their services across the countryside, and belief in the spiritual and active faith are seen as essential to life as water. I imagined the incredible challenges a group like this must face in a strongly conservative context like Malawi and they immediately earned my respect.
It is difficult for people here in the United States to imagine that people can be tried for the crime of riding on magical airplanes to South Africa or for the even more serious crime of using a witchcraft hammer to kill one’s enemies and eat their flesh. It’s even more difficult to believe that educated persons in an official capacity would take such fantastical cases seriously enough to imprison people for years in deplorable conditions. In fact, when I told people here in Ann Arbor of the three women George helped release, they mostly thought I was joking, or, at the very least, become victim to a common Nigerian 419 scam. However, it is no joke for those who fall victim. The dangerous confluence of supernatural belief and the power of the state have grave implications for Malawi’s future development and stability.
The members of ASH all turned out to be some of the most interesting and dedicated people I have ever met. Conversations with George, Sam, Harold, Mgeme and others revealed not only a vast spectrum of ideas as to the role of religion in the state and the future of Malawi’s development, but also a collection of life histories and paths to becoming dedicated humanists and human rights advocates. They taught me much about humanism and about the fascinating and complex country of Malawi. Equally fascinating was the amount of publicity and the high profile the group has in Malawi. Even people I spoke with on the street knew of the organization and readily lent their opinions on belief and on the activities of ASH. Atheist and humanist groups in the United States could only wish for such wide publicity and awareness of secular issues.
I am working on a short documentary on ASH, and on the issue of religious issues in Malawi, particularly the problem of imprisoning those who have been irrationally accused of supernatural activity. I hope that it will help in generating awareness for this incredible violation of human rights, for humanist groups in developing countries and for the dangers of mixing religion with politics. I will keep all posted on the status of my short video piece (my first one ever) and any resulting feedback.
Please do not hesitate to contact me at any time. I love hearing from like-minded people.
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