An Atheist Ugandan Orphanage Beats Back Superstition and Zealotry With Science
How a group of nonbelievers set about creating a new kind of school in Uganda.
The children at BiZoHa, an orphanage and school in southwest Uganda, wake up at 7 a.m. Within an hour they’re ready and dressed in their school uniforms, blue shirts with bright yellow collars and either charcoal grey pants or dresses. There are classes after that and, at 10:30, a pause for porridge, bread, and fried bananas. The day continues from there — classes, meals, play, and sleep — perfectly routine and peaceable. But in the Kasese District, a multi-ethnic region on the border of the Democratic Republic of Congo, this schedule, with all its reassuring regularity, is radical. There are no prayer breaks. There are no church services. BiZoHa, described by its backers as “the world’s first atheist orphanage,” is a humanist raft adrift a choppy sea of faith.
Whether or not BiZoHa really is the first atheist orphanage or not — any facility in North Korea could stake a claim — doesn’t much matter. To debate that point is to lose the specific context. Thanks to a missionary history and the influence of American conservative activists, Uganda is an enthusiastically, zealously religious country. It is not constitutionally Christian, but it basically functions that way, which makes the Reddit-funded orphanage something akin to a humanist fortress. And there is a distinct militarism to some of the language embraced by its teachers. Number six on the list of the school’s ten values is “NO SUPERSTITION.” Students who see those words know that they are a reminder to “Rely on Reason, Logic, and Science to understand the universe and to solve life’s problems.”
It’s a hallowed lesson to BiZoHa’s founding director, Bwambale Robert Musubaho. A Ugandan orphaned at five, Musubaho was raised by his grandmother and eventually graduated from college with a diploma in Biological Sciences. Frustrated by what he saw as hypocrisy among believers, Musubaho stepped back from religion in the late 1980s. But he still took inspiration from the religious people he saw around him, specifically the missionaries. He became an atheist, a homegrown Richard Dawkins preaching good works and good, solid reasoning. After many years, he found the word for what he was on the internet and declared himself a humanist.
“I decided to be a humanist because I had failed to get convincing answers to some of the questions I had been asking about myself,” Musubaho tells Inverse. “My role as a human being in this world, my destiny, the origin of myself as well as all living organisms; my questions have to do with the spiritual world, religions, God, and gods.”
In 2009 he formed the Kasese United Humanist Association, which in turn led to formation of the Kasese Humanist Primary School. The school is really two schools located on different campuses — one, the Rukoki Campus, in Kyondo, and the other, BiZoHa, in Muhokya. Unlike Rukoki, BiZoHa works in conjunction with an orphanage.
“I’m so concerned with how there is massive indoctrination and dogmatism and a brainwashing of the minds of children in orphanages,” says Musubaho. “My goal here is offer an alternative, so that when these children grow up they are in the position to think freely, to be critical of everything. One of the reasons I was motivated to open this orphanage was to send a message to the people of Muhokya and the world that we people of non-belief also care about the well being of others, especially children.”
An estimated 85 percent of Uganda is Christian. Muslims make up 12 percent, with the remaining three percent identified as a mix of indigenous beliefs, Hinduism, Judaism, and Bahaiism. While atheists and humanists in Uganda exist, there’s no official count for the number of people who don’t believe.
“The idea that a Ugandan is atheist, to some people, may seem like a contradiction,” says Jason Bruner to Inverse. Bruner is an assistant professor of Global Christianity at Arizona State University, who is writing a book on the mid-20th century Christian revival movement in Uganda. “There are certainly atheists, as there are in every country. But some people see it the same way as you can’t be a gay Ugandan — it just doesn’t make sense. It’s still a fairly novel thing to announce publicly.”
Christianity came to Uganda in the late 19th century. Anglican missionaries arrived in 1877 and the first Catholic missionaries showed up in 1879. By the late 1800s, says Bruner, religion and politics were completely interwoven, which eventually led to the atomization of ideological groups and a decade long war. When the British colonized Uganda in 1894, they intentionally solidified the power of Protestant tribal chiefs, setting precedent for later foreign experiment in religious empowerment.
“What this created was the beginnings of a new kind of modern nation state, in which religion and religious identity, politics, education, and medicine are all deeply intertwined with one another — in large part because of the presence of Catholic and Protestant missionaries,” says Bruner. “If you’re thinking about religiosity in Uganda today, it often feels like a very Christian country. People are very public about their religious identity.”
When President George W. Bush was in office, political operatives sought to reinforce a Protestant connection between Ugandan officials and the American religious conservatives. The Fellowship, a religious organization that functions similarly to a lobbying firm, helped Pennsylvania Congressman Joe Pitts redirect millions in U.S. aid to Uganda to abstinence-only education programs. Religious officials came out of the woodwork. There were condom burnings and religious rhetoric became much more common in parliament. Anti-gay sentiment became common in public speeches, a trend that came to a head with the passage of the 2014 Anti-Homosexuality Act, which made sodomy (and it’s slightly unclear what else) punishable by life in prison. Though that law was never very actively enforced, its militancy is reflective of the strength and tenor of the Ugandan movement towards an almost belligerent form of Protestantism.
Humanism hasn’t been thriving in this burnt-over atmosphere. Still, it’s a belief system with plenty of supporters around the world and it was, in a sense, the shibboleth that brought Hank Pellissier, the founder of the nonprofit Brighter Brains Institute, to Musubaho’s door. Pellissier, who endeavors to promote cognitive and mental health, wanted to involve BBI in a project in Africa. When he heard about Musubaho, he was fascinated. The two men talked and BBI began fundraising a clinic, scholarships, and the supplies for after school activities. Eventually, he flew to Uganda, and met with Musubaho. He said that he wanted to do more than help Musubaho’s schools. He wanted to help him start an atheist orphanage.
“I said there’s never been an atheist orphanage and all the orphanages here are either Christian or so self-righteous about the orphans,” Pellissier recalls. Pellissier’s friend, Transhumanist Party 2016 Presidential Candidate Zoltan Istvan, agreed to help launch the project and remains on the board. In fact, the orphanage’s peculiar name is a product of mashing Biba Kavas, Zoltan Itsvan, and Hank Pellissier together.
Within 29 hours of shaking hands with Istvan, the atheist orphanage had raised $5,835, enough to start building a home for 15 to 20 orphans. This was in February 2015, and since then donations have been steadily flowing in: $1,000 for a new classroom, $500 for solar panels, $1,200 for a new kitchen. Private donations allowed them to open the Andrea Vogt Health Clinic, named for a German banker, a year later. The clinic distributes AFRIpads and free condoms.
“It’s all just a lot of crowdfunding,” says Pellissier. “People come to me and say, ‘You got to write grants!’ But I like the democratic model of this. We just try to get money from everybody, and I send everyone a thank you note.”
He also credits the online networking savvy of Musubaho and Christine de Brabander, BiZoHa Project Manager and Secretary of the Board at BBI, for how successful BiZoHa has been so far in accumulating funds. Pellissier estimates that they have probably raised about $45,000 so far, mostly as a result of Brabander’s posts on the subreddit /r/atheism.
Karen Zelevinsky, a donor to BiZoHa and a recent addition to the Board of Directors at BBI, came across information on BiZoHa when looking at the Facebook page for the “Atheists, Agnostics, Skeptics, Freethinkers, Secular Humanists, and Non-Religious” who were involved in supporting the micro-lending site, Kiva. She was impressed by the transparency and communication BiZoHa displayed and, along with her family, donated funds to support the building of classrooms and general projects that were necessary to make the school more self-sufficient — like buying the tractor necessary for farming.
“Science and reason are essential to improving life, especially in areas of the world like Uganda where, unfortunately, superstition is still rampant,” Zelevinsky says to Inverse. “A school like BiZoHa will educate the kids, and ultimately the whole community, on humanist principles of respect, tolerance, logic, and democracy. The motto of the school is ‘With Science, We Can Progress’ and I think that does a wonderful job of capturing the essence of why the school exists.”
BiZoHa’s science curriculum is not specifically unusual — they teach in accordance with the Ugandan Ministry of Education curriculum which is taught at most schools in the region — but the materials are presented differently. Musubaho stresses that the curriculum that they teach is founded on evidence-based learning, rather than speculation formed by religious principles. Also, the teachers don’t quit — a problem throughout the country — and girls can attend school while having their periods. Also, and not unimportantly, no one is at the mercy of government funding. The Yoweri Museveni administration has invested in education intermittently over the last several decades, creating a boom and bust academic cycle. While the Ugandan 2015/2016 budget allocates 11.1 percent of the total budget to education, it also emphasizes that, “while it is deserving to spend more resources on social services such as education and health, it is also prudent to increase funds to key infrastructure investment, such as roads and electricity.” This game plan for economic growth is a significantly different model than the one proposed by the Ugandan National Council for Science and Technology, which, in its 2012 report argued that the strategic investment for Uganda is an investment in science education.
“Science education is also challenged by infrastructure inadequacies, few and poorly motivated teachers, and an examination focused curriculum that is devoid of innovation,” reads the federal report. “Poor performances in science right from primary level has a negative impact on attitudes towards science… leading to preference by a greater majority of students for courses in Social Sciences and Humanities.”
What BiZoHa will be able to accomplish when it comes to spreading scientific thought is now, at best, speculation. But it seems to be on the path towards accomplishing what’s being argued for here — education that serves as a building block for economic infrastructure through STEM initiatives. Other Ugandan schools, with an inherent bias towards education interpreted through a religious lens, are failing. This would be important anywhere, but it’s more significant in Uganda, where the majority of the population is under the age of 18. Students aren’t just the future of the country. They are its present.
In a way, BiZoHa is more similar to religious schools of the colonial era than it would like to admit. When reflecting on the history of religious education, Bruner notes that it’s one thing for someone to have a Christian education and the label of a Christian, and another to actually feel those religious aspirations in your bones.
“The history and tradition of religion in Uganda seems to have a kind of pragmatic element, and you might find a similar disposition with schools — like this is the school closest to us and we’ll use it because we want the best for our children,” he says. “For missionaries, however, the idea of being religious has always been linked to morality. You needed religion in order to sustain a sort of moral sensibility. Being religious would give a sense of personhood and stand contrast to being superstitious.”
At BiZoHa, the fight is against a more broadly defined, less racist notion of superstition. And Pellissier says this is a practical goal because religion wastes time. As he puts it, “There’s a huge belief in prayer and it doesn’t, of course, work.”
Pellissier’s hard stance against religion is somewhat muted on the ground at BiZoHa — while the school is based on humanist principles and students are guided towards these principles rather than religion, there is no enforcement of belief. During school holidays, children can return to relatives and caretakers, many of whom remain religious. As ever, there is that tricky line between helping and colonizing, between dispelling harmful myths and indoctrinating children.
For Musubaho, who has been accused of being “satanic, evil, and dangerous to society,” it’s all about being practical and honest.
“The religious conservatives continue to wonder how one can live without a belief in a god,” he says. “I am not shy when telling them who I am as a person, and I am always proud to call myself a non-believer. This has given me a platform to tell them that you don’t have to believe in a god or gods to be a good person.”