Tauya Chinama

Zimbabwe is a deeply religious country. According to the 2017 Inter Censal Survey by the Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency, 10.2% of the population have no faith. The rest are comprised largely of Christian denominations (84.1%), as well as African traditional religion (4.5%), while a small fraction are Muslim (0.7%) or follow other faiths (0.5%). Compared to other African countries, the proportion of the non-religious in Zimbabwe is significant. There may be many reasons for this, including because the country’s poor economic performance of late has has led a number of religious officials to turn entrepreneurs, treating their congregants as clients and trying to extract money from them.

However, many people in Zimbabwe do not know about humanism as a non-religious life stance. One reason for this is that in the Zimbabwean education curriculum, one rarely finds any allusion to humanism, or anything to do with being non-religious. Instead, the formal school system is dominated by Christianity, because Christian missionaries originally introduced it. When humanism is mentioned, it is usually associated with ubuntu or unhu – an ethical theory on how to govern human conduct in traditional African societies – probably because there is no other English term for this concept.

When Zimbabwe became independent on 18 April 1980, the government committed itself to providing education for all irrespective of race, gender or religion. In the Education Act of 1982, education was declared a basic human right, making primary and secondary public education free and compulsory. But in the 1990s, as a result of economic hardship, the situation changed with the coming of Economic Structural Adjustment Program (ESAP) policies. In addition, at independence and even today, Christianity, particularly the Catholic Church, is the biggest stakeholder in the Zimbabwean education system. Catholic schools are among the best in the country. As a matter of tradition, Catholic schools demand their students practise Catholicism; in many cases, a Catholic baptism is a requirement for a child to be accepted into the school. 

Religious education in Zimbabwe has developed in response to pluralism; it has been inspired by the teaching experience throughout the country. There has been a growing need to expand the horizon as the nation becomes more sensitive to religious diversity among learners. Despite the government’s efforts, little has been done in the classroom; this can be blamed on government’s failure to engage teachers in the implementation of proposed changes. There is a strong bond between teachers and religious education in schools. Teachers are the main determinants of the quality of education received by learners, as they make the choices, both conscious and unconscious, about how to structure academic and social relations in classrooms. Very few teacher can be deemed to be non-religious, and it is very common to recite the Lord’s Prayer at assembly points and classrooms. Unfortunately, the relationship between teachers and religious education was not given much attention in the development of the subject.

In 2015 the Zimbabwean Government adopted a new education curriculum, which tried to limit the dominance of Christianity in the education system. There was serious opposition, predominantly from Christian parents, despite the curriculum being a progressive one. The minister of education at the time, Dr Lazarus Dokora, was accused of attempting to introduce unacceptable alien ideas into primary and secondary education. The curriculum replaced the Lord’s Prayer with the Zimbabwe National Pledge, which was non-religious in nature. It also recommended the objective teaching of religious studies. However, Dokora was accused of being Muslim in a country which is largely Christian and objectively knows little about Islam. Moreover, most Zimbabweans consider Christianity the only true religion, and are biased against Islam, considering it a violent and suicidal religion.

The National Pledge which replaced the Lord’s Prayer in 2015 was extracted from the preamble to the Zimbabwean Constitution. Christian parents feared that the purity of their children’s faith was at stake due to an alleged syncretic act: the mixture of Christianity and traditional religion. The Pledge reads as follows:

‘Almighty God, in whose hands our future lies, I salute the national flag;

United in our diversity by our common desire for freedom, justice and equality;

Respecting the brave mothers and fathers who lost their lives in the chimurenga/umvukela and national liberation struggle;

We are proud inheritors of our national resources;

We are proud creators and participants in our vibrant traditions and cultures;

We commit to honesty and dignity of hard work.’

Even if you look at the Zimbabwean Constitution, as argued in an article I co-authored with a colleague:

‘Even though most constitutions in the 21st century ought to be secular, the Constitution of Zimbabwe Amendment (No. 20) Act of 2013 in the preamble has a clause that states that “Acknowledging the supremacy of Almighty God, in whose hands our future lies, resolve by the tenets of this constitution to commit ourselves to build a united, just and prosperous nation, founded on values of transparency, equality, freedom, fairness, honesty and the dignity of hard work. And imploring the guidance and support of almighty God …” The above-mentioned clause gives an impression that Zimbabwe is a quasi-theocratic state of the Christian persuasion, hence discriminating against nontheistic religions like Buddhism and the nonreligious (nones). Also, at public gatherings in Zimbabwe it is easier to say a Christian prayer disregarding religious plurality; for instance, in the 2018 harmonized elections both throne favourites referred to themselves as chosen ones by a Christian God, President Emerson Dambudzo Mnangagwa who emerged as the winner used to say, “The voice of people is the voice God” while Nelson Chamisa the runner up and main opposition leader used also to say “God is in it”. Furthermore, Christian gospel artists such as Charles Charamba doom indigenous traditional religion in their songs. All this is predicated on the religious intolerance of some sort.’ (Chinama, T. and Muzondo, E., 2022)

As noted above, the constitution of Zimbabwe is a ‘religious victim’ document due to its religious overtones and the fact that it was drafted in an environment which is heavily religious; it now needs to be liberated from religious connotations. While the constitution references god, it stipulates that everyone has a freedom of conscience, thought and religion (constitution of Zimbabwe amendment [no 20] Act of 2013, section 60). The constitution guarantees the rights of citizens to profess a change of religion or belief, or profess no faith at all.

However in Zimbabwe, to profess non-religiosity is often interpreted as a rejection of Christianity, because a large part of the population is Christian. To some fundamentalists, it is even a declaration of Satanism. In the Zimbabwean context, being a Satanist is associated with evil deeds such as blood spilling, blood sucking, road accidents, inexplicable natural calamities and many more. Therefore, many humanists choose not to be open about their views, just in order to be safe and to avoid being persecuted. As mentioned above, the non-religious constitute around 10% of the population. Although they might not identify as humanist specifically, there is no doubt that they are naturalist, hence why they choose not to associate with any religion.

Thus one of the consequences of openly and publicly professing a lack of religious belief is being labelled as a Satanist. A second is that, if one is not financially independent, religious family members and other benefactors may withdraw their financial support. If an openly irreligious person goes into business, he or she is likely to lose clients and customers. Such a person is treated with suspicion and mistrust. Hence businesspeople are not at liberty to open up about their religious (or non-religious) views. To some Zimbabweans, it is unthinkable for a person to live without supernatural beliefs. When I go on radio or television to give a humanist perspective, listeners who call in accuse me of lying and of not truly being a non-believer. Others troll me, saying I am still young and inexperienced.

For the rights of humanists, the non-religious, and those who defend secular spaces, there are few formal organisations. In 2017, humanists in Zimbabwe organised themselves through a WhatsApp group to set up some organisational structures under the name of the Humanist Society of Zimbabwe. They managed to draft a constitution, but the society died slowly due to lack of funds and commitment. As of today, there is a WhatsApp group called ‘Talk to humanists’. There are also some notable humanists who normally defend secular spaces such as Shingai Rukwata Ndoro, who before 2019 had a section in the local newspaper, Sunday Mail, where he promoted secular ideals.

Another humanist organisation, and an affiliate of Humanists International, is ‘Project-ICH’ or PICH. This is a secular freethought content platform fronted by Mxolisi B. Masuku. It exists to provide non-theistic content creators with a space to share progressive ideas, to stimulate growth, and to connect and share useful ideas with other individuals and organisations. The group started in 2018. In 2019, it launched an offline initiative, working in schools and training debaters, public speakers and content creators. Since then, PICH has evolved through collaborations with many organisations and individuals, web developers, debaters, designers and bloggers whose valuable insights as stakeholders and contributors continue to guide their vision today. The organisation’s goal is to provide ideas with a dependable collaborative content environment built on the values of empathy, logic and progress by people committed to these ideals. And they are guided by the non-theistic, humanist values of freedom of expression, mutual respect and the pursuit of personal fulfilment.          

In 2022, in collaboration with Leo Igwe, I started an organisation called the ‘Ex-cellence Project’, based in Zimbabwe. I am the contact person designate while Leo Igwe is the co-director. The main objective of this group is to provide psycho-social support to former religious officials in Africa who are now non-religious. Former members of the clergy suffer from stigmatisation and ostracism; they are discriminated against and treated as cursed outcasts.

The Advocacy for Alleged Witches (AfAW), another organisation that is affiliated to Humanists International, and which operates from the premise that witchcraft is a myth and an imaginary accusation, was also founded by Igwe, who is a champion of humanism in Africa. AfAW’s vision is to end witch hunts and persecutions by 2030. In Zimbabwe, I am AfAW’s acting country representative and co-director. The objects of AfAW are as follows:

(a) Defending and empowering alleged witches

(b) Educating and enlightening witchcraft accusers and believers

(c) Pressuring state authorities to protect citizens who are alleged witches

(d) Fostering critical thinking in schools.

Currently at AfAW, we are conducting a fact-finding mission into the matter of Solomon Tendai Chitaukire, aged 73, who was allegedly murdered by his two sons (Bruce and Changchu Chitaukire) in January 2023 at the family’s home near Harare, after they accused him of witchcraft. Our ultimate goal is to give psycho-social support to the widow of Solomon Chitaukire and his immediate relatives, as well as to educate the sons, who are now in police custody, regardless of the outcome of their trial.

Recently, I have also featured as a humanist guest on both television (DSTV Channel 294, Sunday 18:00 CAT) and the radio (StarFM, 89.7MHz, Monday, 22:00 CAT), participating in the programme Faith on Trial. In addition, as one of the promoters of academic philosophy in Zimbabwe, I regularly invite humanist guests to attend and participate in world philosophy conference programmes. In 2021 and 2022 I invited Monica Zodwa Cheru, a local journalist and humanist, to participate in a panel that I moderated for World Philosophy Day.

Ultimately, there is a need for humanists to promote their worldviews through the reform of Zimbabwe’s education system, and to tackle religious indoctrination in schools and the misrepresentation of topics such as evolutionary theory. Humanists have a hard time convincing people in Zimbabwe that we share the same ancestors as other primates. There is need for humanist-sponsored engagements, debates and public lectures through the use of print media, radio, television, public halls and social media. All these are possible if humanists band together: there is strength in organisation. Above all, humanists ought to be active politically, economically and socially for maximum influence and impact, especially on the young, who are still open to new and progressive ideas.

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