At the World Skeptics Congress in Berlin, a prominent poster display by Leo Igwe featured graphic accounts of the trials that he and many of his supporters have faced in Africa—their work to oppose the persecution and killing of children and minorities, and the failures on the part of law enforcement and religious leaders to challenge such atrocities. During the closing “Houdini Séance” on the last day of the convention, Leo stood up during the question and answer session to personally thank James Randi for being such an inspiration in the pursuit of justice in the name of skepticism and rationality. For many of us, Leo Igwe is similarly inspirational.
Leo Igwe was the Western and Southern African representative to IHEU, the International Humanist and Ethical Union. He has worked to challenge a variety of human rights violations, including anti-gay hate, sorcery, witchcraft, ritual killing, human sacrifice, “untouchability,” caste discrimination, “child witch” superstition, and anti-blasphemy laws. He is presently enrolled in a three-year research programme on “Witchcraft accusations in Africa” at the University of Bayreuth, in Germany.
Leo Igwe: I always find skepticism fascinating and for me, I think that's where I belong intellectually, that's where I belong socially. I'm just here because I'm happy being here.
Kylie Sturgess: You’re now going to be studying in Germany, I've heard, rather than working in the field as you’ve done in the past?
Igwe: Yes, I'm doing a research program here on witchcraft accusation in Africa, and I took on the program because it also resonates with skepticism and rationality.
Sturgess: I've been admiring your poster display at the convention, which I think has been getting a lot of attention. Can you tell us about that?
Igwe: Well, the posters at the Berlin Congress are just all about the challenges we're facing in Africa. They're enormous. A lot of work has been done in Europe, in Australia, in America, but not much has been done in Africa. So the posters are there to let international participants understand the challenges we are facing in the area of witchcraft accusation.
They’re about the role churches are playing, where there are the witch doctors; pastors are the modernday, if I can use that word, witch doctors in Africa. I look at the part that Islam and Christianity are playing—they reinforce superstitions in the modern day, and are not addressing them. Incidentally, Christianity, maybe because it was brought by Europeans, it’s considered to be civilized. At the end of it all, I see them as another form of superstition, and it is not helping our efforts to promote reason, science, and critical thinking in Africa.
We also have, of course, traditional superstitious beliefs that have nothing to do with Christianity. They have a lot to do in terms of being also on the same irrational platform, like ritual killinghuman sacrifice—which many people don't want to talk about—but that's exactly what we’re facing. People honestly think there are agents somewhere who can be appeased by sacrifices—the killing of something, an animal or even a person. We also have the problem of persecution of albinos, particularly in East Africa. We have persecution of children, sacrifices of children in Uganda, Nigeria, and Swaziland, and all of that. But the fact there is that there are no rational voices; even though there are people who are rationally minded, they are not speaking out. This is because sometimes they are afraid—maybe, they might think there could be some supernatural backfiring or retribution—they just don't want to tamper with those things.
That is why I say a skeptic conference is a safe space: where we can speak out, where friends will understand the kinds of challenges we are facing, and where we can also mobilize and see what we can do to address these problems.