Interview with Payira Bonnie – President, Humanist Empowerment of Livelihoods in Uganda (HELU)

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Payira Bonnie is the President of the Humanist Empowerment of Livelihoods in Uganda (HELU). Here we talk about his life, views, and work.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What was early life like for you, eg., geography, culture, language, religion or lack thereof, education and family structure and dynamics?

Payira Bonnie: First of all, I want to thank you for this interview. I was born in an extended family of over 15 uncles and aunties. I have one twin sister two stepbrothers and two step-Sisters.

I lost my mother when I was three and my father when I reached eight. I kept switching from one home to another between my paternal to maternal relatives.

Both families were Catholic Christians. It was a rule set I think by the catholic parishes that every child must be baptized before they celebrate their first birthdays.

I grew up and studied in the Northern District of Gulu. At the time, I was growing up life was on the edge with not even a single hope of making it to adulthood due to high level of insurgency caused by the “Lord’s Resistance Amy” (LRA).

This was a rebel group that operated in northern Uganda with a base in South Sudan. The rebels abducted mainly children to build on their army and killed elders.

It was tough growing up where everybody was displaced in internally displaced camps or where children would seek shelter every night in churches and hospitals.

I think I am lucky not to have any of my family members killed or abducted and to also have a second home in the central region of Uganda. Entebbe. Psychologically the entire region was affected.

The northern part of Uganda boasts of the highest number of Christians compared to other parts of the country with few visible Mosques.

I was raised in a Catholic family but I hear from my grandmother that at the age of 5 years old; I was rebellious when it came to going to church on Sundays because I never wanted to go.

I wouldn’t take my offertory money given to me by my uncles to the altar. Remember, it is culturally acceptable to give a child some few (three) strokes of canes as punishment. I think I received a lot of that. For not going to church.

I come from one of Uganda’s tribes known as Acoli who are a Luo speaking people found in the North of the country and some, of course, in Kenya and Tanzania.

I have a Bachelors Degree in Mass Communications from Kampala International University. I fully pronounced myself atheist in my senior one in 2000.

This was at a time when the war in Northern Uganda was tense and Ebola outbreak had rocked the district. Everybody else was praying. I was asking myself very many questions about the gods and their existence.

Jacobsen: What level of formal education have been part of life for you? How have you informally self-educated?

Payira: I think it all started in 2009 in my Primary 7. I started feeling more mature. The pressure of adolescence took over me in a good way until when I joined my secondary school level.

This is the time I was a little bit away from home with both new and old friends. My love for science subjects and the hope to one day be one of the few geneticists in the continent gave birth to freethinking and speaking freely.

Reading culture in Uganda is the weakest, and yet, it looked like the only books I borrowed from the school library were only literature books. Novels and mostly plays eg., The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare, An Enemy of the People Henrik Ibsen, and so on.

Things fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. And many others. I never used to copy general notes from the teacher, but would make my own notes when the teaching is teaching. I loved reading things outside classroom. I do a lot of self-education these days.

Jacobsen: As a President of Humanist Empowerment of Livelihoods in Uganda (HELU), what are the tasks and responsibilities coming with the presidency?

Payira: First of all, I don’t want to hide from our dark history, which almost leads to the collapse of the organization after its former president, Ms. Agnes Ojera, left for the US to start a new life. I don’t blame her.

It was our time to keep things moving. As the Board Chair, I was also managing a new FM Radio Station far away from where the HELU offices and operations were.

With our successfully funded project of giving vocational training to single mothers in tailoring, baking, and goatrearing, we decided to venture into another project, the preschool.

Without close monitoring of the project and its finances, money was misused by the then project manager leading the Organization into decaying mode. Members scattered.

Donors left. I left my job at the Radio in August 2018 to come and see that the organization doesn’t go just like that. One big task I know and all Board members are aware of is building trust with individual donors and organizations.

We lost that. I know it will be a big hurdle to pull things back together, to build a system/institution where individuals are not superior to the organization. It is the hardest to find an atheist or humanist who is fully devoted to the core values of secularism.

The majority of the members were Christians who go to church every Sunday and can’t really openly say, “God is an illusion.” I want to see the free thinkers club grow for better understanding of Humanism. Promote secularism mostly to the youth in schools and public gatherings.

With my background in media, I also hope during my time HELU will own the first secular Radio Station in the Whole of Africa with ownership and programming all targeting secularism.

Today it is only the preschool HELU is running as a project and I want to see it grow to Primary and Secondary Levels with structured secular lessons. Hopefully, the funding comes in.

Our society is fully embedded in the bible and Quran gospels as being the truth where some people label Atheism as a cult and baby eaters.

Uganda has over 300 FM Radio stations and about 50 of them are religious base whose main targets are the young people and abusing non-religious people. I will also use radio to challenge this.

Where I stay I see so many Child Mothers every day and all they know it to keep producing for their older polygamous husbands. Sensitization and giving these child mothers Vocational raining.

This is one of HELU’s 2019/20 goals. Keep those children who are still in school in school and work with authorities to put whoever defiles a child to face the law.

Jacobsen: Why was Humanist Empowerment of Livelihoods in Uganda (HELU) founded in the first place?

Payira: HELU was founded in 2011 by Ms. Ojera Agnes at the time when the scares of the Lord’s Resistance Amy’s 20 years war was in each and every family in Northern Uganda. HELU was established to promote Humanism, and to help single mothers, those with HIV, victims of witchcraft.

The war confined people in one place. This was easy for the infected to infect others. From then HELU has distributed over 40 goats to abandoned single mothers.

More than 110 women have benefited from our vocational training in baking, tailoring, hairdressing, and business management. The preschool is up and running and being supported 100% by parents.

Jacobsen: In Uganda, what are the unique humanist concerns simply notfaced by other parts of Africa or of the world? What have been effectivealleviations or solutions to these concerns or problems?

Bonnie: Uganda is surrounded by countries that have been in the domestic and political scramble for power for some years by a few individuals and this has made Uganda always a destination for refugees and Humanism in Uganda has been so instrumental in arranging for shelters and transportation of a few humanists and their families from the affected countries.

In 2016 when war broke in neighboring Burundi Humanists where targeted most by government soldiers, Humanists in Uganda managed to move one humanist family safely out of Burundi into Uganda.

I do not think in the world there are humanist organizations doing this in their countries. Individuals contributed financial support to make this happen.

Jacobsen: What does humanism within the Uganda context look like to you? How is this form of Humanism similar to and different than humanism in other context?

Payira: In Uganda, Humanism is still more of a lifestyle. It is actually fancy to be a humanist or associate with humanists for the young people. We strongly believe in the respect of human rights, freedom of speech, and respect for women and children, which I think is the same with other humanists.

The only difference I see is the financial powers to take us up in the big stage to promote humanism and push for the separation of state and religion like it happens in other countries. Humanists in Uganda are also not open for fear of family disownment and also losing Christian friends.

Jacobsen: Who are some important writers, thinkers, and speakers on humanism and secularism in Uganda and within Africa as a whole?

Director of Kasese Humanist Schools in SouthWestern Uganda Mr. Alusala Moses in Kenya, Andrew Mwenda the director of the IndependenceNews Paper in Uganda. Roslyn Mould from Ghana. President, Humanist Association of Ghana.

Jacobsen: Who tends to be opposed to humanist empowerment in Uganda? What are effective means by which to combat them and, also to protect the humanist efforts of HELU and others?

Payira: Humanist empowerment in Uganda is mostly opposed by religious leaders and their followers, traditional leaders and witchdoctors. Basically, these are a group of people who don’t believe in divergent views.

If you also notice our national motto is “For God and my country,” which politicians tend to use to oppose our activities. We do not intend to be bullied by the majority.

There is a proverb in my native language. Luo, which says “Otigo ma nok bene tyeko kwon.” Loosely Translated as “however small Okra soup is served for you in a plate, you can still use it to finish a whole lot of bread.”

All we need is continued engagement with the community that we live in, political and religious leaders. Humanists in Uganda and Africa as a whole need financial support for their different projects.

I said it earlier in the interview that we need a medium to air out our views to the masses. This way we can counter the different opposing sides. HELU was visible when we still had supported programs running.

This kept us visible and active in the community. We need more financial support from our friends out there. We can’t have a generation of children giving birth to children. A generation of illiterate mothers and fathers when we have the means to support.

Jacobsen: How can people become involved through the donation of time, the addition of membership, links to professional and personal networks, giving monetarily, exposure in interviews or writing articles, and so on?

Payira: I think what we need most especially here in Uganda is speaking truthfully about what we do and stand for to the outside world. We also need to embrace the idea of setting strong institutions that won’t depend entirely on one person.

This will allow the continuity of these non-profits we establish and also for accountability purpose. Humanists need to go out there and challenge the status quo.

The silence is way too loud especially on abuse of human rights, child labor, and other forms of inhumane acts by religious leaders and witchdoctors in Africa.

We need to be more visible to attract bloggers, newspapers, funding, and interviews like this. And I want to thank you so much Mr. Jacobsen for this opportunity.

Jacobsen: Any final feelings or thoughts based on the conversation today?

Payira: All I want to say is extend my gratitude to you Jacobsen and African Freethinker team for this wonderful opportunity. This is going to allow many humanist voices from Africa to be heard.

I would also like to tell the world not to give up on humanity despite all the injustices being practiced by religious and political groups in the world. May we continue thinking freely and promoting free thoughts.

The only way for humanist in other parts of the world to understand what we do here at HELU and in Uganda is to come to Uganda and meet with us, meet the people our projects are meant for.

This is a personal invitation to you who will be reading this interview.

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Payira.

Payira: I am honored Jacobsen, thank you.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.

Do not forget to look into our associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular Alliance, and Centre for Inquiry Canada.

Other Resources: Recovering From Religion.

Photo by Emma Louisa on Unsplash

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