A prominent eminent Tanzanian freethinker (far right in this first photo) and his wife. The wife has just died a few days ago.
By Nsajigwa and Lucas Isakwisa, JichoJipya-Think Anew
Kingunge Ngombale Mwiru is a well known public figure in Tanzania. A retired veteran who served the nation in different positions, in higher up ranks such as RC, MP, and a State Minister. One of the key figures for agitation for Tanganyika independence, who worked closely with Tanzanian founding father Mwalimu Nyerere and others during those struggles and after.
More so, he was one of the “inside circle” of the ruling party, TANU to CCM, only leaving it crossing to the opposition coalition last general election 2015.
A year ago, Jichojipya member Lucas Isakwisa while on a Ph.D. assignment as an assistant researcher, met him and asked him who he was, a communist as people thought of him…? To his surprise, he said he was but an “independent thinker and a freethinker”! However, nobody here then and even now knew about that name-tag! So, in the upper circles, he was thought of as a pure Marxist; while in the general populace, he was regarded as a communist.
After a year of tracing him for an appointment (though retired, he is still a busy person), we got a chance to interview him. He welcomed us at his home and here below is what he narrated to us:
We started by asking Elder Kingunge how he became an “independent thinker and a freethinker”? He, in turn, asked us how each one of us became such…?
Nsajigwa Nsa’sam answered, “As I was growing up, I was asking myself that there is this man with all African names (referring to the elder himself, Kingunge Ngombale Mwiru), who when giving the oath to serve the Nation as MP or Minister, he exceptionally does not hold a Bible or Koran. He just raises his right hand!”
“So, it strikes me that you can actually live that life and even serve at the highest government positions without being a Christian or a Moslem or having no any religion for that matter! It became my civic education on the principle of Secularism!”
Lucas Isakwisa answered, “It was through reading books, in particular by Ugandan writer named Okot p’Bitek – Song of Lawino and Okol and African religions in western scholarship that awakened me to questions about religions. The possibility of living a good, complete life, without being a Christian or a Moslem, as by implication those were the questions raised by Okot PBitek’s books.”
As to what do we mean by a freethinker? Nsajigwa Nsa’sam gave a basic definition: “a freethinker is an individual fascinated by ideas and thinks and asks questions unbounded by religions, cultures, traditions, and without any prejudice, seeking rational answers.”
Then Elder himself opened up, started his story by saying that to him it was an “evolving of ideas.”
That he was a baptized Roman Catholic and followed through all church ritual stages except that of being ordained a Padre, he said, “It was the era of colonialism, British, I wasn’t there during Germany’s rule.”
He went on, “As I was growing up age-wise, I kept asking myself many questions, on religion, Roman Catholicism, from standard 1 all the way to standard 10…I went to Tabora Secondary School – my mind on big questions expanded…Asking fundamental questions on religion, the Trinity, I asked critically and I was getting trouble when asking these questions…”
“…I questioned my own faith too. I stopped going to Church. Likewise, I questioned Colonialism: ‘One side rules you, the other makes you sleep.’” He expressed that adage.
He continued, “I differed and got into trouble with leaders of the Roman Catholic Church. I was accused of being a ‘communist.’ That was in standard 6. It was announced in the church,” noting the consequences, “I was ex-communicated by one Padre named Clement (a European of Swiss Nationality). My father went to Bishop Edger Malanja, who was based at Kigurunyembe TTC Morogoro (200 km inland from Dar es salaam).”
“Bishop Edgar Malanja had no information, didn’t know that Padre Clement has already declared me an excommunicated! It was announced that I was a “communist.” However, by that time, I myself didn’t know what communism was…!?”
“I was anathematized, declared to be a bad man, a communist, this is how it was announced…Lobbying was done to the Head Master so that I am expelled from school, it was that Padre, a European Padre, an RC one doing that..!”
Elder’s Head Master didn’t accept that. Elder Kingunge said, “The bringing of church affairs to school…? More so, it was noted that for a long time our school had not produced a student who passed to go to the upper classes…so if I was to be expelled, then that won’t be as I was otherwise a brilliant student in the class with a big potential to go further…”
Elder Kingunge Ngombare Mwiru (second left), Nsajigwa Nsa’sam (first right) Lucas Isakwisa (first left) and a guest from Kenya Professor Taji (in white t-shirt)
“I passed middle school. From Dar es salaam school, I went to Tabora Secondary School. In Dar es salaam, the majority are Moslems while in Tabora the majority were Christians…Then I joined TANU party activism struggle for Uhuru – independence…”
“I liked to study books and I studied many…some books were banned; however, I also was curious to study even those ones…It is thereby that I came across books by Thomas Paine including The Age of Reason, The Rights of Man, and Common Sense…”
Tom Paine was a “freethinker.” “Tom Paine questioned faith in religions, questioned monarch,” Elder said, “He defended the French Revolution and was in support of the American War of Independence…His writings did put me in another level in terms of knowing the world and the society.”
“It elevated my level of questioning things until on the question of religion I developed a different outlook and stance altogether. I questioned the faith itself, which I had been doing since the school days.”
“I questioned the Christian faith, then religions in general, life after death. Asking myself, ‘Is any of it really true…?’ I asked myself even on that.” Elder Kingunge was in a very sober, reflective mood when narrating that.
“TANU party struggling for independence then sent me to Liberia in 1958 – going to study. By that time, I was already high up in ‘critical thinking.’ Three of us went, there we met Dr. Gay. We were taught a ‘special subject’ that happened to be philosophy (!) itself.”
“We went there later (others had already started). First, we were given a questionnaire – many questions to answer on it. The aim was to know each student’s level academically, and “spiritually”…to find out too if there are any “leftist” influence on us.”
“I am thankful to have studied Philosophy in the form of tutorials,” Elder Kingunge said, “Through philosophy, we had read many books about great thinkers and their ideas: Marx, Lenin, etc. We studied so much. Americans wanting to influence (three of us) to show us that ‘communism’ was no good!”
“Yes, the critical Hegelian and disciples of Marxism influenced me,” he continued, “There is that one who said, “It’s not God creating man in his image, but rather man creating God in his imagination.’ By that, I came to realize that gods were created by human beings.” Nsajigwa added, “Do you refer to Ludwig Feuerbach – Essence of Christianity?”
Kingunge Ngombare Mwiru himself
“Ahaa, exactly,” Elder Kingunge remembered, “That is the person, certainly. That Ludwig Feuerbach, I read him and that book a lot. Ludwig Feuerbach made me an independent thinker,” Elder Kingunge continued.
“I respect the faith of religions, but, for me, I have not identified myself with any. As for traditional beliefs, Matumbi, my ethnic people of Kilwa southern Tanzania, believes, worship, and prays for the ‘God of the underneath’ and ‘God of the upper sky.’”
“To me this intellectual evolving continues, it is not dogmatic, nor is it another religion! My friends are Marxist. I am ‘Marxian.’ Historical materialism, that concept I accept! However, Marxists deny completely the existence of God, as if there is (they have) evidence for that. Their ideology becomes yet another religion!”
“There was a time when a Russian Ambassador came to visit us at Kivukoni College – Dar es salaam, instead of answering a question scientifically as a skeptic, he replied as if they have the evidence.”
He said, “We Russians have been to the moon (via Yuri Gagarin) and there is no god there.” “That answer made me angry,” said Elder Kingunge, “Because I was known to be a nonbeliever. Was that really a satisfying answer?”
“I don’t believe, but I also don’t have assurance,” elder states his position, “Living without religion, that is my life.” He affirmed when he saw the concept in Paul Kurtz’s book Eupraxsophy – adding, “I don’t have a problem with that. My wife is a complete RC by her faith, no problem!’
Where he was born (at Kipatimu in Kilwa), the majority are Moslem. He grew up (raised) and studied in Dar es salaam coast…majority Wazaramo ethnic, who are predominantly Moslem too. But were there any signs of religion discrimination..? “No,” he said.
Then Tabora Secondary School in North Central Tanzania, the majority are Christians. On answering the question for being alone, and where he gets support and consolation during a time of crisis, as others get that from their churches and mosques, he had an answer.
He said, “I have friends for fellowship, for mourning and burial. I join and am joined by my relatives and friends. In my extended family, the majority of us are Moslem, but there is no discrimination.”
Kingunge Ngombare Mwiru, a Tanzanian veteran freethinker, Happily living without a religion
“I am the head (elder) of my extended family…I don’t need religion-based consolations…Do you think many people depend on their churches or mosques for that?” He asked in turn, “I don’t want to convert anybody, mine (living without religion), is a philosophical position!”
About him as a freethinker and his familiarity to Mwalimu Nyerere, who was a great thinker too, (and also a devout RC believer), Kingunge answered that Mwalimu (Nyerere) was “hodari kweli” (Swahili for a versatile person).
That he had his own faith, but didn’t run state affairs based on his religious belief! “We were at par with Mwalimu Nyerere philosophically, though he was a devout RC (while I was not),” he added. “They are not being fair to him, those who say he favoured Christians somehow. As head of state, he nationalized schools belonging to RC church. Bear in mind, that RC church is very powerful and influential, paving the way for anyone as it was possible, to get education for otherwise chances would only have been for RC Christians,” he observed.
Were there others like Elder Kingunge but who never come out of the closet? We asked him, “Did you knew some? “No,” said Elder Kingunge, “I don’t think so.”
“What about AM Babu? By his writings, it seems to suggest he was a freethinker-minded,” Lucas Isakwisa pointed out.
Elder answered, “AM Babu was a good thinker, a true Marxist, an academician intellectual, independent thinker, and was a Moslem as well. It reminds one of what Kwame Nkrumah once said of himself, “I am a Marxist – socialist and a non-denominational Christian and I see no contradiction in that.”
About his opinion on Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, Elder Kingunge accepts that one, adding. “If you refuse, refute, or deny it, then the alternative is creationism!” He observed further that the Genesis story of creation is based on Jewish people’s mythology and may be appropriate for them for their cultural based faith.
On reading books, Elder pointed out that it is a habit. He still was asking about where to get books of African history by Basil Davidson that Lucas Isakwisa had mentioned during the discussion. Elder observed that our society doesn’t enthuse people to read books on their own, curiously, by self-study approach, an autodidactic way.
Our education is “bookish education” (reading for passing examinations only). Also, he pointed out, “It is a hurdle, big challenge.” At one point of discussion when elder Kingunge heard Galileo mentioned, he interjected, “The church Inquisition-ed Galileo!” It showed how elder has a sharp memory, still, of ostracism by the RC church to scientist Galileo.
On “hero worship” to Nyerere, the founding father, Elder said, “Mwalimu Nyerere was exceptional. There are people who adore him, revere him, but he was a human. For Tanzanians, many respect and value him.”
“Mwallimu (Nyerere) adhered strongly to principles of Secularism,” elder pointed out, adding, “Hero worship can happen because there is a hero,” Elder finished. We stayed with Elder for hours, so much to talk about on and on and on while he wasn’t showing any weariness, without a cup of tea or a glass of water break in between.
Jichojipya was thankful for the occasion with him.
Elder Kingunge Ngombare Mwiru (right) and Mr. Lucas Isakwisa, the secretary of Jichojipya -Think Anew (left)
Elder is a Freethinker of a very high level; a skeptic, agnostic, open-ended non-believer no doubt, very inspirational for the young generation. He was thought a communist before by the church and was regarded so by the society of Tanzania, but wasn’t.
Only that he was (and still is) a lonesome freethinker. Nobody knew what that is, just living and doing without a religion, in Swahili: Maadili bila dini! We went to see him with two books, Consciencism – Philosophy and ideology for decolonization by Kwame Nkrumah, and Eupraxsophy – Living without religion by Paul Kurtz.
When Elder saw that concept “Living without religion,” he concurred with it straight away as to be exactly his way of life throughout, to his eighty plus years of age, now!
In turn, Elder said he was very happy to meet us; his like-minded of younger generation adding it to be good that the like-minded should be meeting one another. He appreciated the fact that Jichojipya team seems to have read a lot of books, just like himself. That we were more researcher-oriented not journalist-reporters as such. The questioning and the discussion was at a very high-level philosophical-wise!
It is worthy documenting such freethinkers of yesteryears for the later days’ generations. One can get inspired for this life-stance, especially so in Africa where the non-believer zeitgeist is slowly emerging by which everything, including religion this time, is being “Socratic questioned,” critically, by the young generation, 50+ years since uhuru.
Thanks, Wasalaam from Dar es salaam.
Edited by Scott Douglas Jacobsen
Kingunge (centre), Lucas Isakwisa (left) and a guest from Kenya