Safety in Squalor: Ghana’s Camps for Alleged Witches

In October, I wrote an introduction to Pathfinders Project and a summary of our time in Cambodia for the Fourth Quarter 2013 issue of American Atheist Magazine: A Journal of Atheist News and Thought.

I followed that up in January with a piece about Uganda in the First Quarter 2014 issue.

The Second Quarter 2014 issue is now on the stands at your local Barnes and Noble, and looks like this:


See the last bullet point? That’s for my article. You can also access it online by becoming a subscriber.


Safety in Squalor: Northern Ghana’s Camps for Alleged Witches

Aminetu Iddrissu (left) with her daughter and grandson

Aminetu Iddrissu (left) with her daughter and grandson

Belief in witchcraft is widespread in Ghana. A 2009 Gallup poll found that 77 percent of Ghanaians believe witches exist. It’s in the Northern Region that the situation is the worst, with allegations of witchcraft resulting in brutal beatings, exile, and sometimes even execution. For the women who are exiled, it means life in one of six camps for alleged witches, commonly called “witch camps.”

For the government of Ghana and concerned advocacy organizations, the camps pose an ethical dilemma. Without them, more Ghanaian women would be killed by their communities instead of merely being banished. Because the government doesn’t have the resources or manpower to police the rural communities, the only justice system is the lynch mob. Priests are believed to have the power to sense magic in others and can incite communities to violence by pointing a finger at members within their midst. A person need not even be a priest to accuse another of witchcraft, because the appearance of another person in a dream is enough to condemn them and then beat them all the way to the border of one of the camps for alleged witches.

Thus, these camps seem to save the lives of alleged witches, but conditions are squalid. The inadequate food, clothing, shelter, and healthcare constitute numerous human rights violations. Many residents come from families that have no means of support for these women other than to send daughters and granddaughters to live with them. These “helpers,” therefore, are also exiled from their communities and damned to live in these inhumane conditions.

Kukuo is unique, in that it is the only camp  that integrates its residents into the local community. The people there believe that the land is protected by small gods who do not allow a person to think bad thoughts towards someone else. Witches, therefore, are stripped of their powers.

In Kukuo, the huts of the accused are easily identified, but not because the inhabitants are purposefully segregated on account of their alleged crimes. In rural Ghana, custom dictates that men live in rectangular houses and women, if they have their own quarters, live in circular huts. A woman spends most of her life in a rectangular house—first her father’s, then her husband’s, and if her husband dies, she lives with a close male relative if she doesn’t remarry. The circular huts are for women in polygamous marriages. These round huts are attached to the rectangular hut to form a compound.

The hut of an alleged witch

The hut of an alleged witch

The circular, unattached huts in Kukuo are the exception. The women at Kukuo usually have no male relatives at the camp and are too old to marry, so they are left to tend to their own properties and keep their own homes. Ironically, the consequence of these customs is that the accused witches have become some of the only women in the country who own their own homes.


Visiting Kukuo

The first order of business when we arrived was to speak with the chief. The outside of his “palace” was indistinguishable from the other men’s huts. The inside was bare except for an elevated throne area with a large leather pillow and animal furs.

When we entered, four male elders were assembled in front of the chief, who welcomed us with a gift of cola nuts. Guests receive cola nuts when they first meet their hosts and they are supposed to reciprocate with their own offering of cola nuts, but the ceremony has evolved to allow visitors to offer cedis, the Ghanaian currency, instead. It may even be preferred, so despite having a bag of cola nuts in our truck, we gave the chief 20 cedis.

Kukuo's elders and chief

Kukuo’s elders and chief

As we received the nuts from the chief and the elders, we responded to their greetings with the word naa, the only reply to a greeting in the Dagbani language. The intonation of naa is interesting. It’s the same tone a person uses to respond to praise—obvious pleasure but a mix of obligatory embarrassment and denial. Several seconds of this monosyllable passed back and forth between the chief, the elders, and our guide as the cola nuts were removed, one by one, from a brass pot.

This interaction, the exchange of cola, heightens one of the more uncomfortable aspects of visiting Kukuo. The plight of the alleged witches fosters, of all things, tourism. The presence of outsiders and the cola or cedis they bring bestow honor upon the chief and the elders. Without the camps, there would be no motivation to travel to this area. However, the chief and one of the elders, a fetish priest, believe that helping these women comes at a cost to them and provides no benefits. As evidence of this, the chief asked us to notice the state of his palace compared to those of other chiefs.

To be fair, he really did seem to be moved by the abuses these women face, and he realizes that without his hospitality, they would be dead. But this does not change the fact that the Kukuo community exists entirely because of the violent expulsion of women from their communities. With the exception of the royal family, Kukuo has no residents other than the alleged witches and their family members.



Because the shrine at Kukuo is only open on Mondays and Fridays, the women stay under the protection of the chief for two or three days after they arrive. In that time, they must find two chickens for the shrine ritual, which costs 40 cedis for a woman already accused, but fewer than 20 for a preemptive purification.

The ritual begins at 4:00 a.m. The priest tells the woman, who has been fasting, what incantations to make to the oracles. He then slaughters the first chicken, which will determine if the woman has been falsely accused. Conveniently, neither the priest nor the woman can reveal the results, or they will be struck dead by the oracles.

She is then given a cup of water, which contains a source of purifying power—a magic stone introduced by the great-grandfather of the current priest. Before she drinks the water, the woman must confess. If she denies her powers, she will contract diarrhea and die in three months. She is then asked if
she wishes to remain in Kukuo. Whether or not she does, the second chicken is slaughtered to secure a blessing from the oracles for the woman’s wish.

When a priest dies, the successor is chosen by two inanimate objects: his talisman and his staff. They magically relocate from the home of the deceased priest to the home of the new priest, who always ends up being the nearest patrilineal descendant. The morning after the talisman and the staff “select” the new priest, the community celebrates. No one questions the fact that the power of the priesthood manages to stay in one family even though they believe the talisman and the staff can select anyone in the community.

Kukuo's fetish priest, or "tindana"

Kukuo’s fetish priest, or “tindana”

Similarly, no one questions the fact that the vast majority of people accused of witchcraft are women who do not conform to gender stereotypes, are not considered a threat in any way other than their alleged witchcraft, or who aren’t seen as useful. In Kukuo, more than 70% of the 136 alleged witches were accused as elderly widows. Others were accused after it became clear they could not bear children. Many were accused after becoming successful in business and helping their neighbors with loans.

Of all the people we met in Ghana, there was only one person who did not believe in the existence of witchcraft, and he was not a Ghanaian. The lone doubter was an agnostic named Samir from the University of Oxford. He was a volunteer with the Alliance for African Women Initiative (AFAWI) at the same time we were. We all worked under Philip Agyei, a co-founder and the coordinator of volunteers for the organization, which promotes equitable access for women to education, health care, and business opportunities. If anyone were in a position to recognize the use of witchcraft accusations to strip women of their rights, it would be Philip.

In almost every way, Philip is a radically progressive Ghanaian. He has spent his entire adult life working to empower women. Despite being deeply religious, he takes a sensible approach to sex education because he has a real understanding of the factors affecting rates of HIV transmission. And in contrast to the residents of the Northern Region, where accusations of witchcraft double during malaria season, Philip goes to the hospital for blood tests when he recognizes the signs of malaria. Indeed, when the symptoms of malaria worsened in my fellow Pathfinder volunteer Ben Blanchard, it was Philip who was most insistent that Ben (who’s doing much better now) see a doctor. And yet, Philip believes in witchcraft. He explained to us that in Ghana, witches appear as flames or balls of light, which he has himself seen above the rooftops of houses.



The extent that Ghanaians are beginning to question the witchcraft accusations is due in large part to the efforts of Leo Igwe, a Nigerian humanist who has brought to light the human rights abuses against women accused of witchcraft throughout West Africa. Leo was our first point of contact with the camps, and it was through him that we connected with Action Aid, an international organization committed to finding sustainable solutions to poverty and injustice in over 40 countries. Action Aid put us in touch with Songtaba, a program that organizes a coalition of representatives of all six camps in the Northern Region, thus giving the residents a purpose beyond mere survival: a growing voice.

Songtaba has been able to register all of these women with the national health care system and has secured what food they can from the national food program. Songtaba empowers the alleged witches to educate the public about the abuses against them through radio campaigns and street marches.

In addition to the coalition of camp representatives, there are executive councils within each camp. The members are elected democratically and their function is to communicate with the chief and elders regarding the needs of the camp residents. When food and supplies are donated to Kukuo, the executive council decides how to distribute them. The executives pay regular home visits to all 136 alleged witches and arrange for assistance for those unable to fetch their own water and firewood.

Although the male members of the royal family are the only ones allowed to have a role in camp governance, they do listen to what the executives say. It probably helps that a nephew of the chief is an Action Aid employee, but there does seem to be genuine compassion for these women. So in addition to being the only women in the country to own and run their own homes, the alleged witches also participate in one of the only effective forms of democracy in rural Ghana.

In 2011, when the government of Ghana proposed shutting down every camp by 2012, both the advocacy organizations and the executive councils objected vociferously. Without these places of refuge, where witches are believed to lose their powers, the women would be beaten and killed. These inhumane ghettos are the only existing safe havens.

The executives in Kukuo told us that our visit was like being asleep and then having a spirit tap you so that you know you have to get up. We were able to show them that their advocacy work was noticed not only in Ghana but in other parts of the world as well. They vowed to redouble their efforts, and now we must focus ours. It is not enough to condemn the superstition behind the accusations of witchcraft in Northern Ghana. The same beliefs exist elsewhere in Ghana, but thanks to increased development and education in those areas, those beliefs are not needed as an explanation for tragedy. Thus, instead of merely condemning the superstition itself, we must also condemn
the conditions that leave room for such superstition to serve as an explanation for tragedy in the first place.

Originally published in the Second Quarter 2014 issue of American Atheist: A Journal of Atheist News and Thought

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Volunteering to Learn

Ben and Conor Picking Raspberries

Helping pick raspberries

Is ‘voluntourism’ the new colonialism?” is an article that made its way around the internet recently. Although absurdly titled and poorly written, the article does make one important point about international volunteering: participants are people of privilege. Despite entering into situations they cannot possibly understand fully, volunteers often perceive themselves as the primary problem solvers. These volunteers fail to comprehend that sustainable change does not mean taking the lead, but empowering locals to do so. It means asking residents what problems they have identified and helping them acquire the resources to implement solutions.


Building a latrine in Haiti

A few months ago, we worked with Children of the Border to build 20 latrines in La Fond-Jeannette, Haiti. The Haitians don’t lack latrines because they don’t know how to build them. They lack latrines because the international aid money for post-earthquake rebuilding has disappeared into politicians’ pockets, leaving communities outside Port au Prince without paved roads. It takes several hours and hundreds of dollars to transport construction materials a few kilometers in the mountains just over the border from The Dominican Republic. We helped the residents of La Fond-Jeannette get the materials and then they taught us how to build the latrines.

Before arriving in Minca, Colombia, we were told by Misión Gaia that we would be promoting responsible resource use and sustainable development of the tourism industry. What would volunteers who had never worked in agriculture have to offer locals who had stewarded fertile farmland through generations of conflict? We didn’t know until we arrived in Minca and had a chance to hear about the problem from the farmers themselves.

Sunset through Mist and Leaves

Sunset in the Colombian Sierra Nevadas

After surviving decades of occupation by the military and the paramilitary, disappearances, murders, displacement, and never-ending bribes, the residents of Minca are now contending with the peacetime invasion of extranjeros, or outsiders, buying up their land and driving them out of business. Take, for example, Casa Loma, the most popular hostel in Minca. The hostel is situated on land that is sacred to the indigenous Colombians. Is, not was. The land was taken right from underneath the indigenous Colombians and turned into a campground for tourists. Tents encircle a ring of carved stone altars and figures that are no longer used for religious ceremonies, even though the people who carved them are still alive. The most successful restaurants and businesses in Minca are run by Westerners who can speak the language of the tourists, who understand how to attract vacationers using social media and have the resources to advertise. That is the new colonialism. Within ten years, there may not be any Colombians left in Minca.


Young coffee plants

Although we are not agricultural experts, there are ways we can help the Minca farmers retain their land and their livelihoods. Now that we have a better understanding of the situation we are helping them design websites and develop social media strategies. We are translating materials and formatting them in ways that will appeal to the increasing numbers of tourists that visit Minca. One family we’ve worked with has operated a successful finca, or farm, called “No Hay Como Dios” (There is no one like God/God has no equal) for decades. The owners are a warm, friendly family with rich land for hiking and working, incredible views, and amazing food and lodgings. And now, thanks to our godless efforts, Finca No Hay Como Dios has a multi-media rich, internet savvy campaign to attract lodgers.


Constructing a three-stage composter

Privilege is often an obstacle to understanding and communication, but here in Minca it allows us to give locals the tools they need to protect some of the most biodiverse and fertile land on the planet. In addition to helping with web design, social media strategy, and English, we are building composters and preparing seedbeds. Not because the locals don’t know how to do it themselves, but because they have neither the time nor the money to do so. They are surviving day to day, and any leg up is a foothold. Will you lend a hand?

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Nivel Socioeconómico Bajo

IMG_2885Puná Nueva, the fishing village where we worked with Water Ecuador in February, is divided geographically by a river. On the hill above the river to the east is Puná Alto, where the standard of living is slightly higher, most of the commercial activity occurs, and 60% of the population resides. Below the river to the west is Puná Bajo, where boats leave passengers and cargo.

Although the average monthly income in Puná Nueva is only $400, there is enough of a perceived difference above and below the river that classism exists on the island. Humans are adept at drawing dividing lines even without the help of natural boundaries.

But humans also find ways to come together. Regardless of where they live, Puná Bajo or Puná Alto, every evening the residents string up nets between lampposts and play Ecuavolley. $3 per player in Puná Alto. $1 in Puná Bajo. Before the game, the players give their money to the juez, or judge, who keeps the score, watches the lines, and calls illegal hits. First to 10 wins each game. Best two out of three for the match. The take is split between the three players on the winning team.

In Puná Bajo, the judge uses a pegboard and two nails to tally the points. In Puná Alto the judge keeps score to 8 by marking the sides of a square in the dirt and then diagonal lines from the corners to the center. Four lines for the sides, four lines to the center. 9 is called borrado, “erased,” since the square is rubbed out. No mark is needed for 10 – teams switch sides or pay up.

Warming up in Puná Alto

Warming up in Puná Alto

The overlap between beach volleyball and Ecuavolley is smaller than you might expect. It’s large enough that, after seeing me bump the ball around during setup, one of the neighbors allowed me to play on his team, but small enough that I was not allowed to play again. The next time I showed up, I was told I should try to join the game in Puná Bajo.

The streets are narrower in Puná Bajo, so the game is necessarily smaller. When I found the net, there was already a match in progress. Curious to see the gringo play, they immediately put me on a team for the following game. I won that first night, and temporarily felt redeemed for my embarrassment in Puná Alto, but I lost pretty much every game after that.

Approaching the net in Puná Bajo

Approaching the net in Puná Bajo

The residents in Puná Bajo continued letting me play. They were confused as to how I could be so tall and yet so bad, but they didn’t get frustrated. “Soy un playero,” I would say, shrugging. “Es un playero,” they would say, shaking their heads. It was an understanding, of sorts – I was bad at Ecuavolley because I was accustomed to playing on the beach. I wasn’t used to all of the hits (which would be illegal in volleyball) that make the Ecuavolley game function, and they weren’t accustomed to playing with someone who could spike on the extra high Ecuavolley net. No matter how many times they vigorously made the “just throw the ball down” gesture and despite my countless requests for sets higher and closer to the net, we couldn’t seem to connect our two styles of play. But we had fun trying.

On evenings when I didn’t cross the bridge to play in Puná Bajo I would still watch the game in Puná Alto. When I saw how the players yelled at each other, teammates and opponents alike, I almost didn’t feel left out.


Calle Dr. Hugo Almeida in Puná Bajo

The residents of Puná Alto wanted us to believe there was a difference between the residents above the river and the residents below. When we talked to Puná Alto residents about the street harassment faced by Wendy and Michelle, they said that such behavior must only be occurring in Barrio Lindo. It wasn’t. Missing the point, they reassured us that it was safe to walk around Puná Nueva at night so long as we stayed in Puná Alto. Yet the only time I felt even the slightest hint of danger on the island was when I noticed the small, poorly-inked swastika on the shoulder of the Puná Alto storekeeper who let us watch the Super Bowl in his store.

IMG_2902It’s true that the storefronts and houses were nicer in Puná Alto. But the food was the same on both sides of the river. There were just as many stray cats and dogs. As many illnesses from unsafe water. And people of the same warmth and generosity.

Which brings us back to Ecuavolley, an illustration of the only difference of any importance to me between Puná Alto and Puná Bajo. I prefer sports without wagers, but I would take the $1 game and its laid back, welcoming and inclusive participants any day. Anyway, what’s a friendly bet compared to the value of connecting with Puná residents through one of Ecuador’s national sports? I probably “lost” about $20 on Ecuavolley over the course of my time on Isla Puná, but I gained far more in return.

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Against the Wall, behind the Camera

Leee+Black+Childers+Mother+Rock+Lillian+Roxon+z606b4citdKlWhile checking in for a connection from Toronto to Heathrow in 2008, I met an elderly man waiting for the same flight.

He offered his card by way of introduction. Leee Black Childers. I wondered if the third e was a typo.

It wasn’t.

Leee grew up in Kentucky, where he acquired that third e when, as a second-grader, he spelled his name incorrectly on the board. First, his teacher ridiculed him for it; then, when he insisted on the spelling, she tried to get him suspended. His mother backed him up when the office called and he has kept the spelling ever since.

I called Leee soon after I acquired a London phone and he invited me to see an off-West End play called Rock. That’s all he told me, and I accepted the invitation. I assumed he was abbreviating Rock of Ages. I was wrong.

It was Rock, as in Rock Hudson, and it was the premiere, to be followed by a Q&A with the acclaimed queer director.

On the one hand, the “oh, shit” moment when I walked in the door and realized I was one of the few people not in a cocktail dress, three-piece suit, and/or full drag is one of the reasons that night was so memorable. On the other hand, walking in unprepared and underdressed, I felt as though I was invading and disrespecting an event in which everyone else present was highly invested. 


This is NOT how Leee looked at the premiere. But you can see why he wears eye shadow. THOSE EYES.

My discomfort lasted only a minute. Leee was there to welcome me and he was as underdressed as I was, though he did fit in better with his brightly-colored eye shadow. He graciously fulfilled his duty as a host by introducing me around the room, and everyone else saved me from that awkwardness by ignoring me like the interloper that I was. I placed myself near the wine and cheese, an observation post that suited my personality, travel budget, and the situation perfectly.

Eventually, we all filed in for the show. The play was solidly-written and well-acted, facts which had nothing to do with the immense gratitude I felt to Leee for inviting me. His invitation gave me a completely unexpected and unmerited glimpse of London’s queer subculture, a community otherwise inaccessible to me. It was my first such boundary-crossing experience, and it was all the more powerful for the fact that I was raised in a stridently homophobic community. I considered myself an ally, but never realized how that word, coming from the language of conflict, limited my own perception of queer individuals and contributed to their oppression. While I had witnessed the perseverance of queer individuals in the face of persecution, I had no concept of positive queer identity. I didn’t realize any of this at the time – I only knew that I was happy to be where I was, honored by the unwarranted invitation, and self-conscious that my mere presence might cause others to feel inhibited.

After that night, I got caught up with other travels and my classes, and only saw Leee one more time.  At a pub on the outskirts of London, he shared a piece of advice given to him when he took his camera to New York in 1966: “Find your spot, grab a chair, and let them come to you.” At first, I found the quote devoid of meaning, even harmful for its passivity. Now I recognize it as the perfect advice for Leee in his craft, advice I unknowingly demonstrated on that evening in London, and advice that five years later would inform the philosophy behind Pathfinders Project. When invited as a guest into a community not your own, the key is to observe the scene without altering it by your presence. Steady hands are not the only reason photographers hold their breath.


Leee and Iggy

Leee and Iggy

This advice was given to Leee by Andy Warhol, who hired Leee to stage manage his erotic play ‘Pork’ in London. There Leee met David Bowie, which led to his co-management of the Ziggy Stardust tour. Two years as the Stateside handler of Iggy Pop and the Stooges’ followed. Later, Leee managed Johnny Thunder and The Heartbreakers and Levi and the Rockats. In all of these capacities, Leee also served as either the official or unofficial photographer, which is why his photos are housed at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and recordings of his memoirs are at the British Museum. From March 22nd – April 19th, Amoeba is sponsoring an exhibit of Leee’s photos at Lethal Amounts in Downtown Los Angeles. Leee will be there for the opening if you want to stop by and hear some of his amazing stories for yourself. Give him my regards if you do!

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Latrines vs. Churches

1532165_10151871786832322_835183026_nThe Pathfinders spent January working to build twenty latrines in the remote Haitian community of La Fond-Jeannette. Twenty new latrines mean lower levels of harmful bacteria in the water supply and fewer health problems related to waterborne diseases such as cholera and dysentery.

In the Santo Domingo airport, as we prepared to leave the country for Ecuador, we encountered not one, not two, but THREE separate church volunteering groups wearing matching, brightly colored, sparkly-clean t-shirts with slogans like, “Touching the lives of others because He touched us.” These groups had been in the Dominican Republic building churches. We had just traveled six hours to get across the border and another 14 hours to Santo Domingo after building twenty latrines in a place where churches are nothing more than banana leaf canopies on poles.

I invite you to imagine the foil we provided to the Christian volunteering groups. They in their clean, matching outfits; we in the grays and browns of whatever clothes were closest to passing the odor test, after traveling the same roads whose near impassability makes development in rural Haiti so damn difficult. It was a contrast not only of sights, but also of smells.

1607033_10151871788287322_1839859042_nMore than 60 Christian volunteers to help build three churches in the Dominican Republic, where there are already churches — clean as baptized babies. Four humanist volunteers to help build 20 latrines in Haiti, where the lack of running water, health care, and roads leads to high rates of preventable illness — dirty, unrepentant sinners.

Of course, there is another major difference between the large church groups and our small ragtag band of humanist volunteers — money. Church groups can afford to build more churches and hand out Bibles in a country where there is already a church on every block and a Bible on every nightstand. We stripped the cost of 20 latrines down to $300 apiece in Haiti, a price that includes the transportation, materials, tools, and expertise of a local mason. But to date, we have raised only $1,900 of the $6,000 we spent to stop the spread of cholera and other waterborne diseases.

1538687_10151871789517322_54370702_nIf you believe (as we do) that a volunteer should arrive at the airport sweaty, smelly, dirty, and tired from the exhilarating and exhausting experience of working alongside and learning from people in need, APPEARANCES BE DAMNED, then please support us! Make a contribution to our Latrines for Haiti fundraiser. Every $300 represents one of the latrines we left for a family in Haiti, but each dollar counts.

Originally published in the FBB newsletter on 2/6/14.

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A Tale of Two Beers

1613822_10151893047182322_1019543671_nOne of the days we were staying in Pedernales (the Dominican Republic side of our latrine-building operation) I decided to go on a quest for Prestige, Haiti’s signature beer.

Why was I looking for Haiti’s beer in The DR? Well, we couldn’t get it where we were staying in Haiti, and we couldn’t get over the mountains and through the woods to one of the Haitian cities where it was sold. So one of the times we were restocking in the DR, I took a motoconcho (motorcycle taxi) to the “Puerta” International Market, crossed the bridge over the dry riverbed into Haiti, and bought an ice cold Prestige. In order to buy Haitian beer, it was easier for me to pass through another country that doesn’t even sell the product rather than cover the ground on the Haitian side of the border.

Now, let’s imagine that situation in reverse. Suppose one of my friends from the United States had raved about Presidente (The Dominican Republic’s standard-bearer) instead of Prestige. Or, suppose that instead of beer we are talking about our  flight to Ecuador tomorrow. It’s easy to get into Haiti from The Dominican Republic. Much harder in reverse.

This morning, our last in Haiti, we woke up at 4 a.m. to make the one and a half hour hike down the mountain with our packs. Friday is one of the international market days, so we planned to board one of the border-bound gua guas packed with fruit and people.

Cambodia has the tuk tuk. Ghana has the tro tro. The Dominican Republic and Haiti have the gua gua. For every country, a different repeated monosyllable for a universal concept – vehicles packed with at least twice the number of occupants for which they were intended. (Uganda’s exception to the rule still feels familiar – the motorcycle taxis are called boda bodas, and the vans are called matatus.)

By 5:30, we arrived at the usual gua gua departure point to find it deserted. The truck had gone to Santo Domingo for the weekend. Okay, not a big deal. There are other trucks, but they meet the road farther down the mountain. So we hiked another hour with our gear. We found a dozen Haitians at the crossing, and we waited there for an hour. A motorcycle with four adults and as many bags of oranges passed. Cows mooed. A truck smaller than some of the cows trundled by with thirty people and dozens of bags on a bed of wooden slats. I don’t know how it made it down the mountain. We waited some more. Finally, we climbed aboard a cargo truck that already had at least forty people and a few hundred bags of oranges.


The ride INTO Haiti. Photo evidence of return journey impossible.

The bed of the truck was packed so high that Wendy and Michelle could sit on the cab. Others were there. Ben and I were among those sitting on the edge where everyone holds onto each other because there’s nothing else to hold onto. Even though we were only a few kilometers from the border, the passage on the mountainous, unpaved road took more than an hour. We arrived in Pedernales by 10 a.m.

Nine empanadas and thirty minutes later, we were aboard another gua-gua headed for Santo Domingo. That gua gua had feeble air conditioning, loud music, and a more appropriate number of passengers. Still, everyone slept/sweated on everybody else. We made it to Santo Domingo by 8 p.m., leaving just enough time for an ice cold Presidente, a few innings of Dominican baseball, and one or two lines on the blog.

Now, it’s not all about the money money money, but imagine moving construction materials into and out of Haiti given the transportation system I just described. In this case, making the world dance is at least a little bit about the price tag: $300 a latrine.  

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Another American Atheist Magazine Article!

In case you missed it, I wrote an introduction to Pathfinders Project and a summary of our time in Cambodia for the Fourth Quarter 2013 issue of American Atheist Magazine: A Journal of Atheist News and Thought.

My new piece about our time in Uganda is now on the shelves in the First Quarter 2014 issue.



All of the Good, None of the God, Part Two: Uganda

In Uganda and other parts of Africa, every white person is a muzungu. The word either comes from the Kiswahili language, where zungu means “spinning in place,” like the dazed and confused Europeans who first set foot on the continent, or from the Bantu language, where wachizungu means “aimless wanderer,” again like the first explorers who inevitably got lost on African land. Nowadays, the word muzungu is used to describe anyone who is not black, but it has alternate meanings too, which are telling. East Africans, for example, use muzungu to refer to any rich person, regardless of skin color. But in Uganda, muzungu might as well mean “money.”

541844_655287384510900_483258688_nUgandan children get excited any time they see a muzungu. Whenever we walked past young ones, they insistently shouted, “Muzungu!” until we turned around so they could wave to us enthusiastically. They were often the same children who fought with each other to hold our hands as we walked from house to house, visiting the families of our students. The same children who, when we were stationary, stroked our arms and inspected every hair and freckle. Some of this is nothing more than curiosity and interest in a rare sight, but it’s also because they believe we have money and they think we will give it to them. Our colleagues offered by way of explanation that the children wanted to touch us because “the muzungu have money.” This perception is not limited to children, although it takes slightly different forms in adolescence and adulthood. Whereas the children approach with their hands out and demand what we are carrying or whatever is in our pockets (“I want that ball” or “Give me my money,” for example), our fellow teachers ask us for tuition money for themselves or their children. Others ask us to purchase computers for them or sponsor their soccer teams.

To be fair, it is true that we are rich in comparison to our Ugandan colleagues and students. Our money is a factor not only in our ability to travel, but also in the willingness of the schools to host us. Indeed, many organizations only accept volunteers because of the funds they bring. And our cash does make a difference. At Kasese Humanist Primary School, our presence meant more chalk, pens, pencils, notebooks, soccer balls, netball balls, and a volleyball net—things that benefited all students. Similarly, when we arrived in Kamuli, we found out that the Mustard Seed Secondary School computer lab lacked a CD/DVD drive with disc-writing capability. The national exam for the practical computers course was only three weeks away, and in order to pass, each student is required to burn a data disc. The computer teacher had been begging
the administration to buy a disc drive for months. We bought one for them our first weekend in town. So it was, at least in part, because of our budget that we were able to produce these tangible outcomes.

Conor First Day Teaching 2But our impact in Kasese and Kamuli cannot be measured in dollars, cents, or Ugandan Shillings. Across Kasese Humanist Primary School and Mustard Seed Secondary School, we collectively spent nearly 1,000 classroom hours teaching English, computers, science, religious education, and math. In her computers classes, Michelle exposed students to desktops, laptops, and the Internet for the first time. Ben used his enthusiasm and vast knowledge of experiments to rescue students from the tedium of rote memorization and opened their eyes to the wonder of scientific discovery. Wendy helped her students, who had had a lifetime of classes fostering religious faith, see the value of a truly comparative religious education that fosters religious literacy and tolerance. For my part, I gave students some of the first systematic reading instruction and reading intervention they had ever received. I also demonstrated several high-impact teaching methods that were easy for my colleagues to implement.

936342_595831760456463_295485301_nBut the most important work we did was outside the classroom. When we arrived in Uganda, we were surprised to find that our interest in understanding others through their beliefs was regarded as strange. First at Kasese Humanist Primary School and then at Mustard Seed Secondary School, we discovered that the students valued an education about the natural world, but did not feel the need to learn about each other. Having seen the Ugandan curriculum up close, we now know why. Although the Constitution says “Uganda shall adopt no State religion,” all government schools are religious. Moreover, the religious education curriculum overtly indoctrinates students, while the curriculum for every other subject reinforces the privileged position of
religion in Ugandan society and politics.

For example, the Religious Education curriculum in primary school requires students to identify their savior and their creator, and the science curriculum asks students to draw, label, or identify animals that “God created.” In secondary school, the Christian religious education curriculum teaches students that moral behavior is inseparable from religiosity, while the English curriculum, for instance, uses propagandistic texts as reading-comprehension passages.

The instructional emphasis on rote memorization over critical thinking only exacerbates the problem. For almost the entirety of their educational careers, Ugandan students are never challenged to examine their assumptions about themselves, the world, and others. They never come to understand the value in exploring differences because difference is scorned rather than celebrated. Tolerance and empathy aren’t merely overlooked, they are actively discouraged. Indeed, the national curriculum hides the existence of most of the world’s faiths explicitly teaches that nonreligious people are bad people. Our primary and secondary school students expressed skepticism when we explained that there are religions which not only worshiped deities other than God/Allah, but even multiple deities.

In more than one way, we were able to serve as a living counterexample to the odious elements of Uganda’s curriculum. The students were able to see that we are Atheists with a knowledge and interest in world religions. They were able to see that we are good people. Most importantly, they were able to see our desire to learn from others precisely because they are different. We engaged directly with the students, their families, and their communities, trying to glean all we could from them in the short time we had. And the truth is, the Ugandans taught us lessons from the moment we stepped off the plane in Entebbe on September 11 to the time we boarded the plane for Ghana two months later.

Some of our first lessons in Uganda were in openness and warmth. Hospitality and generosity are built into the very vernacular in Uganda; the most common greeting in Kasese is, “You are welcome,” and it is meant literally. In Kamuli it’s, “Well done.” And we did feel truly welcomed and appreciated, even by total strangers. For example, the Director of Kasese Humanist Primary School traveled eight hours by bus to pick us up from the airport and then accompanied us on the eight hour bus ride back to the school, where the teaching staff welcomed us not as volunteers, but as peers.

DSCN5268The local families made us comfortable in their homes and their children continue to email us their questions about the subjects we taught. At an exhibition netball match between the female Members of Parliament and a Kasese club team, the politicians pulled us into the action. On our very first night in Kamuli, the Mustard Seed Secondary School staff welcomed us with a faculty dinner. The proprietor of our guest house in Kamuli was Uganda’s former ambassador to France, and he took time out of his busy schedule to show us around and give us the history of the region.

The secondary-school students asked excellent questions about American culture and politics, and the faces of random people on the street lit up when they discovered we were teachers. Time and time again, the residents of Uganda showed us how to be gracious hosts. Knowing how it feels to be welcomed in such a way, I don’t see how we could fail to incorporate more warmth and generosity into our own interactions with others from around the world.

The Ugandans also taught us about diligence and hard work. Women work the fields and the markets with newborn babies swaddled to their backs. Students, we found out our first week in Kasese, keep hours that would make most American students blanch. Many students opt to live on campus so as to have more time for their studies. The teachers, obviously, must follow the same schedule, and some do so while continuing their own education. Because of all the hard work, there is a level of respect between Ugandan teachers and students that I have seldom seen elsewhere. Students can often be heard thanking teachers for their lessons, and teachers feel comfortable leaving classes alone for at least two periods a day, knowing that the students will lead each other in review sessions from their notes.

Our female colleagues demonstrated what it means to remain upbeat in the face of all odds. They make the most of limited career options and are never cowed by gender dynamics that affect their lives daily. Dowries are still the norm in Uganda, and women are expected to repay their husbands for the “bride price” through their obeisant behavior for the duration of the marriage. The results are predictable: because of the perceived debt, Ugandan women remain in abusive relationships. Domestic abuse statistics are daunting.

Even outside the confines of any relationship, Ugandan women are expected to be deferential to men. They serve food to them, pour water for them to wash their hands, and kneel when greeting them. These are simply the ways that women show them the respect they are due because they are men—and for no other reason. For their part, men are not expected to show respect for women, and yet these women deserve incredible respect. As we encounter obstacles in our travels and in our own lives, I hope we are able to keep them in perspective and learn from the intelligence, determination, optimism, and humor demonstrated by our female colleagues in these hostile conditions.

Cormorant and Boat on the NileI have no doubt that we will continue to discover even more lessons from our experiences here. The beautiful and recursive paradox of Pathfinders Project in Uganda was that by teaching, we put ourselves in the best position to be taught. Because we wholeheartedly committed ourselves to learning from others, we were able to teach, by example, the most important thing any student could ever learn.

Originally published in the First Quarter 2014 issue of American Atheist: A Journal of Atheist News and Thought


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Tortured, Exiled, and Forgotten: the Plight of Alleged Witches in Northern Ghana

Shenka Kwame

A wry smile dances at the corners of Shenka Kwame’s mouth. We’ve just asked her how old she is, and she doesn’t know how to answer. After a few moments, she explains that she was twenty years old when she had her first child in 1957.

We do the math ourselves.

This frail woman who just spent the cool morning hours collecting firewood in the bush is 76 years old. She is not strong enough to carry a jerrican from the well, and she has no children or grandchildren at Kukuo to help her. She sells kindling and relies on alms for food and water.

Shenka bore her husband a total of five children, but the two boys died.

If they had lived, things might have been different.

When the husband married a second wife, the new wife beleaguered Shenka, and eventually convinced the husband to drive Shenka away.

Since she was still strong, Shenka sought a new husband and bore him two children, both girls, before he also passed away. Contrary to custom, Shenka continued living with her children in the second husband’s home after his death.

They were surviving.

One evening, Shenka Kwame decided to entertain herself by going to a local dance. At the dance, the festivities were paused for an announcement:

There were witches in the community who were disturbing the peace.

Seven names were read, and Shenka thanked God that hers was not among them. But then her name was also called, and two others. In all, nine women and one man were implicated. The man was alleged to be the ringleader.

A priest performed a ritual to determine which of the ten were truly witches. Each accused person provided a chicken to be slaughtered. A noisy death indicated innocence, a silent death, guilt.

Shenka was the first to be tested, and her chicken’s distress vindicated her. One other woman’s chicken died noisily. But this did not save the two women. Their neighbors threatened to kill them if they stayed. Shenka went to the chief, but he supported the community. He banished her directly from the palace, forbidding her to take any belongings save for the clothing she was wearing.

Shenka’s children were too young to help her make the journey, and she was brutally beaten several times as she passed through the communities between hers and Kukuo.

Somehow, she survived.

That was eleven years ago. Now, Shenka says she wants God to shorten her life so that the suffering stops. She has no thoughts for the future because “she thought the future should end today.” She does not forgive those who accused her.

Like all of the other alleged witches we interviewed, Shenka Kwame continues to believe in witchcraft, yet she seems to understand something of the mechanism performed by witchcraft accusations. She explained to us that communities in Northern Ghana accuse women of witchcraft because of hatred, because they fear what will happen if they allow hard-working women to grow. So they stop their progress.

But God will one day pay back the accusers, Shenka says.

God will pay them back.

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Humanist Fundraising

DSCN5582As you know, the other Pathfinders and I are racing to raise $1,000 each for women’s empowerment and human rights in Ghana.

When I first presented the fundraiser here and elsewhere online, I placed an emphasis on spectacle rather than significance. I framed the fundraiser with a focus on the embarrassing stunts instead of the meaningful exercises. In so doing, I lost sight of my purpose.

But then something amazing happened: you all completely ignored the empty dares like getting a full-body wax or eating something gross and went straight for the activities that would allow me to connect more deeply with you, Ghana, and Ghanaians.

DSCN5562In the first five days of the fundraiser, your donations sent me on adventures around Accra and challenged me to explain on Facebook and Twitter why you all are important to me. Believe me, I’m asking myself why it took donations for me to do either of those things (I suspect I’ll be wrestling with that issue for a while yet), but you’ve more than gotten me started. Essentially, you have taught me what humanist fundraising should be.

So, I’m adjusting course with this fundraiser, and I’m officially announcing that it is full-scale warm and fuzzy adventure time. Check out the new and modified stunts humanist exercises below!

For $10, I will Tweet 140 characters of positivity about you or someone you nominate.

For $20, I will write a Facebook shout out for you or someone you nominate.

For $30, I will stay off Facebook for one day. When I return, I will write a post about all of the things I accomplished by putting that time to better use.

For $50, I will wear a plain white tee with your name written on it for one day and tag you in every picture. E.g., “Mary and I had a blast at Kakum National Park!”

For $100, I will chat with you over Skype, Google Hangout, or phone and share three anecdotes you haven’t already seen in the blogs. So many fantastic stories!

For $150, I will take a random trotroto an unfamiliar stop and document what I find there, then relate the tale to you over Skype, GoogleHangout, or phone.

For $200, I will meet you for dinner and drinks at FBBCon in July (airfare, hotel, and conference registration not included).

Have a better idea for exploring Ghana or connecting donors to my experiences? Please comment below, or let me know on the fundraising page!

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Papayas for Prayer

Walking back to the guest house one Sunday in Busota, we spotted two papayas at the last of the market stalls. We stepped off the road to buy them. The seller was silent as she washed the papayas and wiped them with a dirty rag. She handed them to me.

“How much?” I asked. She looked down at her hands, then back up at me. At first, I thought the hesitation was a haggling tactic. Then I feared the fruit had been intended for her children – she didn’t usually sell fruit at her stand, and it was nearing suppertime.

I waited. The merchant turned to her daughter and said something in the local language. Her daughter translated, “She wants to give them to you.”

I cocked my head. “I don’t understand.”

“She wants to give them to you. No price.”

“No, no. We want to pay for them. Here.” I handed her 3,000 Ugandan Shillings. Two times too much. The woman took the money, but spoke to her daughter again.

The daughter translated, “She wanted to give them to you so that you would pray for her son.”

Abruptly, the mother turned and walked down the alley. We followed. She led us to her home just behind the market, and knelt next to an oversized wooden crib just inside. The crib held her teenage son. Emaciated, underdeveloped, mute, capable only of simple, repetitive movements. Dried baby food and spittle were encrusted at the corners of his mouth.

The mother comforted her son, but he was agitated by our presence. He traced his palsied hand back and forth across the cage of his ribs and looked from one corner of the room to the other.

The mother explained through her daughter that she wanted us to pray for her son because we were white. Her prayers had failed, she said, but ours might succeed.

I’d like to say that we pretended. I’d like to say that I knelt next to the mother and said the Lord’s Prayer. I could have recited the first eighteen lines of The Canterbury Tales for all the mother would have understood my words, and there would have been no harm in it.

But we just stood there.

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