By Michael Mungai
Africa has just lost one of its greatest allies in the fight for human rights. The death of Christopher Hitchens, one of the most prolific adversaries of pernicious superstitions, is a big blow, especially to a continent where children and elderly women are subjected to physical harm on suspicion of witchcraft.
While the legendary author will be missed in the West for his outspoken criticism on political issues, some of us in Africa will miss him for his stand against religious impunity, which is responsible for disease, political instability, and deaths in the world’s most impoverished continent.
“The Hitch,” one of the most brilliant minds that I have ever encountered, will be remembered for his audacious renunciation of Pope Benedict XVI’s (and his predecessor’s) rejection of condoms’ efficacy against HIV/AIDS in Africa. I have personally witnessed women dying of AIDS back home in Nairobi, Kenya, based on the fraudulent opinion that condoms aggravate the spread of the dreaded disease. Hitchens exposed how religious dogma by the Church has been held paramount to African lives. He stood for justice no matter how powerful and influential the transgressors were.
The infecundity of the Pope’s missionary position (another of Hitch’s coinage) on sexuality has its ramifications in the African grassroots. I learned through Hitch about the extent of this injustice when he told the story of Cardinal Emmanuel Wamala, the Archbishop of Kampala, Uganda, in his book, God is not Great. It tells how a Catholic woman, married to a man who had contracted the HIV virus, argued that the reason she won’t use condoms with her husband is because she won’t go to heaven. The Archbishop, a moral authority in such religious matters, reiterated that she made the right choice, even if it would cost her life. Hitch, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and other concerned humanists have been the vanguards of demanding accountability from the Church and I am thankful for their efforts.
Of course, we all know the role of religion in persecution of homosexuals in Uganda. Now the maleficent trend is catching up in other African countries like Nigeria, where similar legislation, bearing similar draconian sentences, is being passed, thanks to religious persuasions. Hitchens has left the responsibility of being voices of reason in such absurdity, as well as seeking justice for the victims, to all of us who were inspired by his work. We will have to confront irrationality on all levels of its existence especially when it involves the loss of human life.
When African animism meets Christian evangelism, it forms a diabolical strand; a marriage made in hell. It pains my heart to know that children, the most helpless members of our society, have been, injured, poisoned or lynched by religious fanatics in some parts of Africa for the suspicion of witchcraft. In Nigeria, evangelical pastors have been on the forefront of accusing children, including infants, to be agents of occultism. Evangelism has been growing in Africa at alarming rates and adapting to preexisting nefarious practices, including witchcraft, around the continent. As a result, thousands of children have lost their lives because they were “servants of Satan”. With the departure of Hitchens, African “Hitches” will have to rise en masse to control the spread of this vermin and to protect the lives of innocent children.
Hitch also reminded us of the role played by the Church in the Rwanda’s 1994 genocide, one of the darkest moments in the history of Africa. Ethnic hatred, spewed directly from the pulpit, found its way to machete-wielding hands, slashing the hopes of ethnic plurality and redemption from colonial ventriloquism in one of Africa’s most religious country. After the loss of almost 1 million lives, some of the priests who participated in the genocide found safe refuge in the Vatican, even after luring Rwandans to their deaths and even participating in hacking them to death.
Religious superstitions and anti-intellectualism still remain as formidable challenges in Africa. Emancipating ourselves from these vices is a monumental task, tantamount to, as we the Gikuyu people of Kenya would say, cutting a fig tree with a razor blade. With affiliates like Hitchens gone, the rational community in Africa will need more resilience and tenacity to confront regressive forces that sentence our women and children to death for imaginary crimes and undermine the dignity of African lives.
We could use help from concerned friends all over the world and together we will ensure that the legacy of the Hitch transcends international boundaries. Congrats to Hitchens for a life successfully lived!