Larry Mukwemba Tepa is the President of the Humanists and Atheists of Zambia. African states continue to work within some of the hardest conditions for the freethought community throughout the world. The problems are plural with long histories. Some due to internal issues. Other due to historical and external imposition involving colonialism. The post-shockwaves of these effects continue into the present in different forms. The freethinkers of Africa represent a stalwart force to observe, encourage, and support in making their own path and choosing their own way based on the needs of the citizens of each African state. The freethought community, including in Zambia, can be part of this new narrative moving forward.
Here we talk about Larry, his organization, and Zambian culture.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: In your journey, how did you grow up? What was the religious view of the community and of the family?
Larry Mukwemba Tepa: I grew up in a religious family, a religious community. I went to a religious school. Zambia is very religious. So, most of the community is equally religious.
Jacobsen: How is the educational system?
Tepa: The system combined, it has got a lot of secular courses. It has got a lot of religious-ness to it. For example, you can talk about courses, R.E. (Religious Education), and things like that.
Jacobsen: How does identification with one of the main religions in Zambia, basically, influence social perspective, interpersonal value to other people and help one professionally?
Tepa: Zambia is very traditional. Its perspective on religion is very fundamentalist. So, Christianity is rooted with the traditions that we have, in the culture. They both come in one package. How it works for those people who are religious, it works out for them. But then, if you are an outsider, it will be difficult for you. Some companies will not hire you. If you are Muslim, they might. They tend to keep other religions and other religious beliefs to the curb.
They are not that accepting to divergent opinions.
Jacobsen: What are some scandals in Zambia with regards to religion?
Tepa: Just a few weeks to a few days ago, the Ministry of Affairs and Guidance banned a South African celebrity, because he is gay. So, that was a huge scandal. People were wondering what is going on there. Some people agreed with it.
What type of scandal are you referring to?
Jacobsen: A religious leader or someone who identifies as religious in Zambia who gets away with a crime or having a lowered sentence because they identify with or preach that religion. On the other hand, those who do not have a religion being demonized and persecuted in public.
Tepa: In Zambia, we have a public holiday reserved for a specific purpose. It is the national day of repentance, prayer, and reconciliation. That day is used as a political tool to cover up the corrupt practices that are becoming rife. Whenever we have an issue with the way leaders are running the country or there is a serious situation that we need to deal with, our leaders use religion to keep people quiet.
They say, “Let’s pray about it.”
We have a drought and the country is starving, they will still say “Let’s pray about it.”
And in the end, we really don’t solve anything.
Jacobsen: In conversations with individuals who run secular organizations, such as yourself, and this will be touched on in a few questions, the different treatment of men and women in community is part of the wider culture and, therefore, part of the secular and the religious cultures. How do religions in Zambia treat men and women differently? How does this even influence secular culture in Zambia?
Tepa: It is well-known: Christianity is sexist. It does influence the Zambian culture in a lot of ways. The common belief that the household should have a man as a leader is also part and parcel of culture now. We have people in homes that are subjugated to a hierarchy, where the men are treated like kings and the rest like subjects. For example, if you are a woman, you have to kneel when serving food to men. That is the culture and that is what women are expected to do.
The treatment of women and men in Zambia is based on archaic cultural views, men are considered first class citizens and women are not. We don’t see them having the equal rights that the modern world advocates for.
Jacobsen: Does this also play out in the privileges men and women have in the community, not simply the rights?
Tepa: Men are incredibly privileged in such a culture. Many things that men can do; women’s can’t. It is a traditional perspective to think that a man can cheat, can go around cheating, but it is wrong if a woman does that. There is a huge, huge, huge gap when it comes to equality between men and women. Recently, there was a case where a Member of Parliament, assualted his wife and she took him to court.
The case was dropped because he is a man in a government position. It is only after a public outcry from many activists and people who want to see equal rights for women, that the case went back to court – such things happen and will happen in a country that doesn’t acknowledge equal rights for women.
Jacobsen: If we are looking at Zambian secular culture, what organizations exist?
Tepa: there is only one organization for secular individuals in Zambia, Humanists and Atheists of Zambia. For the last couple of years we really wanted an organization that can represent the community and last year the organization was officially founded.
Jacobsen: How big is the community?
Tepa: As of now, we have, at least, approaching approximate 400 secular people. At least, the numbers that I see, even close to 500. That would be an accurate description. But then, of course, there are people out there. Sooner or later, we will see these numbers increase.
Jacobsen: What is the age bracket that is most common in it?
Tepa: The majority is under the age of 35. Most are youth. Very few are adults over 35. Because most of the older generation or most of the people are over 35. Their time in this country has been in a very religious one. They have not had the opportunity of expressing their opinions on social media.
Jacobsen: Many African nation-states work within a post-colonial context. People will reference Nelson Mandela, Kwame Nkrumah, and others in a humanistic circle may reference Dr. Leo Igwe working out of Nigeria, as you mentioned. Does Zambia deal with some of the same issues in some of this post-colonial context?
Tepa: Post-colonial context, you mean after the colonial era. People that stood up for rights.
Jacobsen: Yes, the downstream effects of this with the generations living in the current context.
Tepa: The first Zambian president, Kenneth David Buchizya Kaunda, had what we called “Zambian Humanism,” but that is different from secular Humanism. I do not think that he created an environment where divergent opinions or people with different beliefs can co-exist in the country. So, we don’t really have a figure to look back on and say, “This man is the man that really allowed secular beliefs to flourish.” We do not have that.
Zambia is a country that has been declared as a Christian nation and the laws and policies favor the Christian belief more than any other religious or secular beliefs. The country is headed in that direction, growing steadily with a deeply religious majority populace.
Jacobsen: What task and responsibilities come with the leadership position for you?
Tepa: I recently witnessed how the public reacted to the memo I wrote to our secular community informing them of an event in October. It got shared on various platforms and on various groups and pages. I saw a lot of awful comments because my country has a majority of deeply religious people. So, you get called names and you face discrimination. That’s the most difficult part.
The part that I enjoy and most people on the Board enjoy is that we are all trying to impact the community in a positive way.
We are trying to fight for the rights of individuals to freely believe in what they think is true, and in what we know is scientifically proven to be true.
Jacobsen: What have been some positive developments in Zambia for the secular?
Tepa: As I mentioned before, the government isn’t headed in that direction. We are headed more into amending laws to favour the Christian belief. Unless.
The Ministry of Religious Affairs and Guidance is a section of the government specifically focused on upholding Christian morals and values and some people expect the Ministry to shut down our organization in its infancy because we are secular humanists.
Jacobsen: Is the Constitution secular?
Tepa: The Zambian constitution recognizes this country as a Christian nation, but also allows the freedom of belief.
Jacobsen: How much funding does religion or Christianity get in the country?
Tepa: It gets a lot of funding, too much funding if you asked me. The government can hire stadiums for people to worship god.
It is considered part and parcel of Zambian culture for the government to fund national gatherings that are religious.
So, Christianity receiving funding is the norm. People do not question it. Because it is what the majority believes in.
Jacobsen: How else is religion used as a political tool in Zambia?
Tepa: The second republican president declared Zambia a christian nation in order to win an election. President FTJ Chiluba did that to gain popularity and get votes.
Christianity is widely used by politicians.
Jacobsen: Are there any particularly amusing YouTube clips of purported miracles?
Tepa: In Zambia, we had this character by the name of seer one, he promised people he could make something called miracle money. It was pure comedy and he robbed a great many people before he was deported.
We are exposed to other neighbouring countries’ prophets’ and pastors’ YouTube ‘miracles’ because they frequent Zambia allot. I have seen one where a prophet from Malawi named Bushiri tries to fly or something. There are shadows around him, making us aware that he is being carried.
Tepa: [Laughing] so, there is that.
Jacobsen: Some of this stuff looks so transparent and comical in terms of the level of fraud. What is the way in which people can become involved in secularism through in the organization and in your country?
Tepa: There are a lot of ways. We are quite new to this. People with more experience can come into advise us on how to go about allot of things, especially given the situation we find ourselves in, being in a deeply religious country can be allot of trouble for us.
We do not have adequate funding for a lot of projects that we hope to do. It is amazing how being a part of Humanists International has helped us with a huge part of our goals and aspirations.
There are also simple things like books, which would help. People that are new to humanism would learn allot from reading about it.
Things like that. There are so many ways to get involved. Those are the things that I can think of, off the top of my head.
Jacobsen: Any recommended speakers, writers, or organizations?
Tepa: I’ve been, for a while, looking at Leo Igwe, Armin Navabi. When it comes to organizations, I’ve seen how the Humanists UK do their work. Same with the Humanist Association of Australia. HALEA in Uganda, it has been amazing. Viola Namyalo, she is a really, really good activist. Also, Takudzwa Mazwienduna.
Jacobsen: Yes, his partner is Gayleen Cornelius.
Tepa: Takudzwa, he is a great speaker.
Jacobsen: Any final feelings or thoughts in conclusion based on the conversation today?
Tepa: Thank you for providing me with this opportunity, it has been great to talk about the Zambia and our secular community. I am definitely looking forward to coming to a place where Humanists and Atheists of Zambia are directly influencing, and challenging the cultural and traditional views that a lot of Zambians hold. We would like to make a difference as a humanist community.
I think that’s it, Scott.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Larry.
Tepa: Alright, have a great day.
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.
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