In the spotlight: Betty Nassaka
My journey to the first women humanist organisation in Uganda
Betty Nassaka is one of the founders of the women humanist organisation in Uganda. This personal story tells how she developed her critical and independed mind in a country where women are not treated equally due to many religious and traditional practices.
I grew up in a family that worships both God and gods. My stepfather, who was a traditional healer, would go to church with my mother on Sundays (my father was killed during liberation war). My parents were so rude to me that whenever I would ask any of them a question, I was answered with a question.
After noticing that most of my stepfather’s clients were victims of AIDS, I asked him one day why most of his clients could eventually die? He just asked me whether he was God. Another time, I questioned my mother on why they were going to church and yet she had other gods too, she instead asked me if there is anyone who had ever forced me to go to church or to a shrine.
I stopped asking them any questions. Instead, I started on my path of thinking for myself and looking for logical answers to the questions I would create.
I prayed to God several times when I was a kid. I prayed to God to rescue me from working in the garden, which was my major problem by then. God never helped me. I hated and cursed God for this. Instead of going to church on Sundays like the rest, I was ordered to dig a piece of ground that I never completed on Saturday and to collect firewood for the shrine. On Mondays, I was then punished for not attending Sunday school. I got tired of praying to God and finally thought of an idea that could save me from digging. I began surprising my mother by waking up very early, cleaning the house, preparing tea and washing the utensils. My mum was very happy and stopped me from working in the garden so that I could concentrate on domestic work. That experience made me realize that reasoning for myself without basing this on God could help me to overcome a problem.
That didn't yet stop me completely from praying to God. I prayed to God to stop Satan from attempting me to climb the old man’s mango tree. Result: I never stopped. I never stopped, until I thought of fetching water in exchange for the mangoes. That taught me that God would not help me to behave well. From then onwards, I believed that I could conduct myself well without the guidance of God.
My mind kept asking inquisitive and critical questions. How strong were the gods? When I was fifteen years old, I wanted to check whether the gods in the grass-thatched shrines could prevent it from catching fire. When I tested, the shrines burnt as if there was paraffin. I tried to control the fire but all was in vain. Funny enough, the gods purported to tell my stepfather that the shrine was burnt by our neighbour. Since then, I started also doubting the fear for the gods. I learnt that miracles, superstitution and all forms of supernatural world were myth.
When I studied about evolution in my secondary school, I got a good chance to further enhance my spirit of skepticism about my environment. I learnt that a human being is an evolutionary product of nature. I developed rationalism during my practical work in classes of chemistry, biology and physics. The experiments posed a lot of puzzling questions: I asked my religious education teacher why he could not explain what he was teaching scientifically.
Having gradually developed a critical and independed mind, I came 1997 in contact with the Ugandan Humanist Association. I was at the college and my science tutor Deo Ssekitooleko together with other UHASSO members, conducted a seminar on human rights. During this seminar, they discouraged corporal punishments and gave us some books with humanist information.
When I was out of college, I kept in touch with Deo and he always sent me copies of the USFree Inquiry magazine. Through these books, I discovered that religion was a product of human fantasy, fanatism and unreason intended to exploit and enslave the weak and ignorant. Like Timothy Madigan wrote in the Free Inquiry 1995: ”The purpose of religion is to provide answers to unquestionable questions, to in a sense to stop us from thinking unproductively”.
In 2002, I joined the Uganda Humanist Association- Youth (UHASSO Youth), which helped me to become more active with humanism. Being active in UHASSO, I started looking at sexism, racism and other forms of oppression. I began to look at reality in its entirety. Through free and critical inquiry, I am now aware that we should always pursue knowledge and explain our ignorance of the universe though we may never answer all the questions about life.
I took my own destiny in my hands. Together with a few other women we decided to form the first Ugandan women humanist association. And this year we managed to launch the organisation.
The Ugandan Humanist Effort to Save Women (UHASWO) was inaugurated by Levi Fragell and Babu Gogeneni on 17 th June this year. It is founded purposely to attract more young Ugandan women into humanism.
We were with only a few ladies in UHASSO, yet the cultures and religions in Uganda are exploiting, oppressing and cheating women mostly. I realized that it was important to start UHESWO through which issues that affect the women’s humanity will be addressed. UHESWO puts human being at the center with no regards to social status, life choice, creed or ethnicity. Advocacy for women’s rights and women’s welfare is the core of UHESWO.