Immoh Obot is a certified fire officer. He is also a computer programmer and a freelance creative writer. Here we talk about his story, his life.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What is family and cultural background? Some of the relevant details to provide a rounded perspective on you.
Immoh: I was born in a small village in Southern Nigeria in 1978. My first spoken language was the Ibibio tongue. My parents were Orthodox Christians and so was every one of my five elder siblings. As I became more conscious of my environment, I realized that there were lots of cultural constructs. Some of these constructs were age long traditions the church earnestly was striving to contain.
The idea of traditional belief systems, festivals, and masquerades and some other indigenous cultures were considered devilish and Christians were warned by their clergies and other leaders in their places of worship not to associate with them.
My family was a sweet place to be. I could remember my father and two elder sisters worked in Lagos, the capital of Nigeria at the time. Papa visited us back home as often as he was on vacation. In the house there were several primary, secondary school and religious literatures, one of them was My Book of Bible Stories from which my elder brother read and interpreted to me in my indigenous language especially when I troubled him to do so.
Other things made life in the village and family quite interesting. The traditional evening folklores, riddles and games, especially whenever there was the glittering full moon. Stories were often told in the evenings after the day’s last meal, it was considered a mild taboo to engage in story telling during day time. Of course, only lazy bones who wouldn’t go to the farms or school could afford the leisure of day time stories. These tales were usually intertwined with moral lessons, and I love them a lot. One of the tales was a legend – the couple in the moon. I made up my mind then I was going to learn how to read and understand English very quickly, so I could read up as many Bible stories and other literatures as I wanted. After all, my elder brother wasn’t always at my disposal to read to me as much as I would love to.
Most kids who grew up with me in the village had better eyes than I did. Many of them talked about the picture of a couple in the full bright moon. They claimed the image was that of a man whose head was severed apart by the very axe head he was using to cut a dead tree limb in his farm on a Sunday. The myth had it that the stubborn couple had gone to their farm on a Sabbath, i.e., on a Sunday, which is observed in my community as the day of rest, to fetch fire wood when the misfortune befell the male spouse. The axe head broke off its handle while he was cutting and burst his head in pieces. The accident was permitted by God and he (God) subsequently placed the stubborn couples’ picture in the moon to serve as a deterrent to all who disobeyed his holy laws, especially violating the holy day of rest. Of course, the kids were merely repeating a myth the elders peddled. Whoever composed this tale, we never knew, yet its influence was strong as the farms were deserted by believers and heathens on Sundays. Only churches thrived on our supposed Sabbaths.
In my personal struggle to convince myself of the ill-fated moon couple, I tried so often to see this picture but all my vision could capture was some formless cloudlike patches on the big bright yellow ball that sometimes hung in our night sky. Well, I had to concede to what the grownups and majority of my mates saw. They were too numerous to be wrong about the picture of the stubborn man in the moon. All these happened while I could barely read and write, I was probably 4 or 5 years old then. I remembered I was eager to get enrolled in school but I couldn’t as my right hand placed over my head couldn’t touch my left ear. That meant I wasn’t old enough to start elementary 1 with slate and chalk. I had to wait a little more, albeit very impatiently.
Jacobsen: What were some pivotal moments in early life critical to the development of critical capacities and the ability to think rationally and scientifically about the claims of adults who may not know or who may not have the best interests of the youth in mind, at the time?
Immoh: My early life was basically a flow along the tide. I believed what my people believed. However, there were a few things that I sometimes skeptically mused about: the teaching that an almighty God was going to someday punish Satan and some evil people, including the good ones who fell short of some few Bible injunctions, in hell. The teaching that Jesus would return ‘soon’ and, of course, the man with a broken head whose picture was pasted in the moon for all to see. I did feel there were more to be learnt about these popular beliefs and notions. Sometimes, I was too scared to keep my doubtful thoughts. At other times, it was simply the life and pleasure of childhood that matters. Life went on just normal until I began learning to read and write.
By the time I was enrolled in school, I would hear more stories from my parents and teachers even during day time. Stories were permitted in school once it was its time. While I relished these narratives of the Bible stories and other stories I heard at home, in school and church, I was quite uncomfortable with the tale of the couple in the moon.
Still on things that pushed my deep thinking, I recall feeling so uneasy about the Noah’s Ark story where even babies outside the ark were not spared from death by an overwhelming flood from God. It really scared me then that as a child I could suffer such a disaster from an all knowing being. I sometimes really felt bad about it. I was also unsettled by the fact that so many good people in the Bible stories read to me were often found wanting in one way or the other by the same God they loved and served so dearly. As a way of consoling myself, I sometimes agree that it wasn’t God’s fault after all. If they were upright at all times, he (God) wouldn’t inflict pains on them; and, if I lived a perfectly upright life, I sure won’t suffer the fate of those Bible figures.
Whereas my whole community were predominantly Christians and watched by God, people still hurt others a lot. Some adults could still take what never belonged to them. Even some good God lovers in my community still suffered loss of loved ones, illness and other ill fortunes that really shouldn’t befall children of God. It seemed then to me that it really mattered little or nothing what people believed. But again, I had to wait till I grew older and could know better.
Still, I had several other concerns. Worried, I was, about the fact that some of my age mates could still get quite naughty and troublesome right after walking out of church, Sunday School, Catechism or a moral classes, it seemed I was about the only one who gave these stories and prayers some serious attention. Why didn’t my friends care much once the moral conditioning sessions were over? Perhaps I was too scared? Again, I resolved back then not to mind my age group but to follow the rules in the Bible and school so strictly more than all the good people I’ve heard about in the Bible, but then my human nature often got in my way, I also did get naughty and sometimes kept long malice in spite of my firm resolve not to. All the same, I was going to be a very righteous man when I grow up; I would read up every bit of the word of God and pray so hard till nothing bad or evil could be found in me and then I wouldn’t suffer any ill fate. I would assure myself.
Looking back today, I really do think those ‘uncomfortable tales’ from the Bible and the legend of the ill-fated couple in the moon somehow reinforced my resolve to read the Bible and the desire to know more about our world. The troubles within my community in spite of the daily devotions also primed my mind to desire more knowledge on why things were that way. The corresponding action in my growing years and adult life led me to some long personal studies on the Bible and Science and that I can say led me to the discoveries that turned me around from a faith-based life to a fact based life. Those childhood resolutions to read about our world and humanity would eventually demystify so many myths and convinced me to give more attention to reason rather than sheer belief and superstition.
It is important to point out that the school in my village was more or less an extension of the church. Upon my enrollment into elementary 1, I found out morning assembly was a mandatory morning prayers session. Afternoon assemblies were irregular. In any case, each class said closing prayers or sang a doxology before dismissal. Some of our head teachers and class teachers often spoke condescendingly of our cultures and traditional belief system. They warned us to attend churches and to stay away or even report boys who don the masquerades. Ironically, they seem to dread stuff like witchcraft, evil spirits, and other traditional phenomena. But then my elder brother was a science student and when I questioned him about our natural world, he gave me some insights and science perspectives. This also made me resolve to study sciences; that way I would be able to understand the Bible all the more and have a well-rounded knowledge of God and the Universe I thought he created.
Jacobsen: Who were important authors or public figures as your views on the world matured?
Immoh: From the age of 6 or so, I spent more of my life in Lagos state, a very large and busy urban center compared to my first community. Here my life continued with my innate quest to understand the world. I read literatures. While I paid rapt attention to science documentaries on TV, I also really admired some popular televangelist I often watched on television or listened to on radio.
books: religious books to start with, the Bible was and perhaps remains one of
my most read books. Once I knew how to read, I took it as a point of duty to
read it cover-to-cover. By the time I’d read it through and through for more
than ten times, beside random readings and studies, I began seeing the flaws in
its authorship, logic and claims. But I needed to be sure of my discoveries, so
set out to learn a bit more on how the Bible was written.
I read many other theological works from my pastors’ library and took several correspondence Bible courses.
I read God’s General. I read Charles G.Finney’s, E.M. Bounds’, Rick Joyner’setc
English literatures: Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Cyprian Ekwensi, Nguggi Wa Thiong’o, Rosemary H. Uwemedimo, Kola Onadipe,Nkem Nwankwo, T.M. Aluko, John Pepper Clark, Ayi kwei Arma etc
Politics: Awolowo’s, Azikiwe’s, Ray Ekpu’s,Nkurima’s,
Science literatures: A.F.Abbott, P.N.Okeke, Nelkon and Parker, O.Y Ababio, etc.
Others: Stephen Hawking, Robert Ingersoll, Sam Harris, Brian Tracy, John Grisham, Jeffrey Archer, etc to mention but few.
Like I mentioned earlier, the public figures I looked up to were more of the popular pastors in Nigeria. They came across to me as very perfect and honest people who were speaking nothing but the truth. But as my investigation deepens and my studies broadened, I found so many glaring flaws and even deliberate deceptions in some of the things some of these men of faith said and tenaciously held on to and their hitherto strong influences on my person began diminishing rapidly
Secular authors and advocate like Achebe, Soyinka, Fela Kuti etc began making more meanings in their book, public positions and advocacies than the clergies and their sermons. I also found a number of very interesting free thinkers on line who were quite spot on in their stance for humanism and free thinking.
Jacobsen: What have been important organizations for the development of networks of Humanist activism in Africa now?
Immoh: Honestly I’ll say the world wide web, and social media. Top organizations like Humanist Association of Nigeria, West African Humanist Network, etc., are also great factors in the development of network for humanist activism in Africa and their effort is seriously aided by the internet.
Jacobsen: Who have been leading the charge – women and then men?
Immoh: I’m relatively new in the fold of Humanist associations, so I wouldn’t know so many names here, but I think the likes of Professor Wole Soyinka and Dr. Leo Igwe have definitely made some indelible marks.
Jacobsen: What will be significant actions to solve the problems of fundamentalist religion and superstition in Africa?
Immoh: Deeper and holistic education. More critical thinking exercises in our primary, secondary and higher institution curriculums.
More humanist based organizations. More science institutes and science research. All these leading to more activism for reason based living over superstitious ones will sure go a long way.
Jacobsen: What organizations are you involved in now? What is your role – or are your roles – there now?
Immoh: There are a number of them. At the moment, I’m more involved with Humanist Association of Nigeria (HAN) and presently one of the interim officers in the Lagos Chapter.
I run other small groups on social media, e.g. Beyond Religion, which is more of a meeting point for people to think, question, and investigate some of our beliefs, myths, and superstitions.
I earnestly desire to find or set up groups that can proffer science based solutions to our socio economic challenges in small and large scales. Projects in rural areas that can bring people to understand the ‘miracle’ and power of science and critical reasoning over mere ancient beliefs, doctrines, and dogmas.
Jacobsen: How can the international Humanist community help the local African Humanist communities and organizations take charge of their lives?
Immoh: The international humanist community needs to aid Africans to look inwards and know their history very well. So many Africans barely know that there were (and still are, though few) several humanist cultures on the continent. Many Africans see Humanist call for an egalitarian society as strange and foreign; whereas, these values have been there and only need to be expanded, so the people may be at peace with it. For instance, I personally don’t fancy a tattoo. I have none and have absolutely no problem with those who cherish it. People should be free if they want to tattoo their skin, but there are many African homes who abhor their children or adults wearing tattoos. They often think it’s a borrowed culture and a taboo. They forget or are completely ignorant that these artificial skin markings are as old as Africa itself.
My very brief studies of African histories reveal several things, including a culture of civilization and egalitarianism. Of course, this is not to say that Africa had it all from the onset rather it goes to show that were the African-self-developmental process allowed to grow without brute intrusion and subsequent muscling by the colonialists the continent would have evolved more naturally and definitely developed more rapidly.
The international humanist community needs to encourage humanist hubs on African soil. They should seek to host and hold more international humanist conferences right here in Africa.
The Humanist international community should seek to establish strong rapport with the government of African countries to educate the citizenry on the ethos of humanism. Same should be done through the United Nations.
The international humanist community should aid critical reasoning projects in urban and rural African communities. This approach will further aid acceptability of humanist ideas and would in the long run bring about a large scale of enlightenment of its course as well as improve the lots of our humanity.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Immoh.
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.
Canadian Atheist 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, Centre for Inquiry Canada, Kelowna Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists Association.
Other National/Local Resources: Association humaniste du Québec, Atheist Freethinkers, Central Ontario Humanist Association, Comox Valley Humanists, Grey Bruce Humanists, Halton-Peel Humanist Community, Hamilton Humanists, Humanist Association of London, Humanist Association of Ottawa, Humanist Association of Toronto, Humanists, Atheists and Agnostics of Manitoba, Ontario Humanist Society, Secular Connextions Seculaire, Secular Humanists in Calgary, Society of Free Thinkers (Kitchener-Waterloo/Cambridge/Guelph), Thunder Bay Humanists, Toronto Oasis, Victoria Secular Humanist Association.
Other International/Outside Canada Resources: Allianz vun Humanisten, Atheisten an Agnostiker, American Atheists,American Humanist Association, Associação Brasileira de Ateus e AgnósticoséééBrazilian Association of Atheists and Agnostics, Atheist Alliance International, Atheist Alliance of America, Atheist Centre, Atheist Foundation of Australia, The Brights Movement, Center for Inquiry (including Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science), Atheist Ireland, Camp Quest, Inc., Council for Secular Humanism, De Vrije Gedachte, European Humanist Federation, Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations, Foundation Beyond Belief, Freedom From Religion Foundation, Humanist Association of Ireland, Humanist International, Humanist Association of Germany, Humanist Association of Ireland, Humanist Society of Scotland, Humanists UK, Humanisterna/Humanists Sweden, Internet Infidels, International League of Non-Religious and Atheists, James Randi Educational Foundation, League of Militant Atheists, Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, National Secular Society, Rationalist International, Recovering From Religion, Religion News Service, Secular Coalition for America, Secular Student Alliance, The Clergy Project, The Rational Response Squad, The Satanic Temple, The Sunday Assembly, United Coalition of Reason, Union of Rationalist Atheists and Agnostics.
Image Credit: Immoh Obot.