Killing Witchcraft with Kindness

By Conor Robinson
Humanist Service Corps Program Coordinator

From July 2013 – June 2014, I oversaw Pathfinders Project, a yearlong international service trip sponsored by Foundation Beyond Belief as the first step toward the establishment of the Humanist Service Corps. The other Pathfinders and I vetted ten potential partner organizations and launch sites as we contributed 6,000 hours of service in support of clean water, education, environmental conservation, and human rights organizations in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean. Each location and partner organization shaped what is now the Humanist Service Corps volunteering philosophy, but one project stood out among the rest.

In the Northern Region of Ghana, we partnered with Songtaba, a grassroots women’s rights organization fighting for the basic rights of women and children, including those who have been accused of witchcraft. Even though Ghanaoverall has achieved success in reducing poverty and increasing literacy, the drought-prone North offers far fewer economic opportunities and suffers from poverty and illiteracy rates double the national average. In such an environment, accusations of witchcraft are an effective method for ostracizing non-conforming women. Widows, childless or unmarried women, and women who do not fulfill expected gender roles are often branded as witches and forcibly exiled to “witch camps,” where resources are even scarcer and where further mistreatment occurs.

Women and children at the Kukuo camp for alleged witches prepare for market day.

Women and children at the Kukuo camp for alleged witches prepare for market day.

Our goal is to help improve the standard of living for the women and children who are exiled, and to work toward the point when exiles cease entirely. Now that I direct the Humanist Service Corps, I am responsible for building a program that puts volunteers in place to support Songtaba initiatives. With Songtaba’s help, the women in each of the camps have already elected representatives to advocate for the women with the local chiefs, elders, and regional authorities. Among other successes, Songtaba and the advocates have succeeded in enrolling all of the women in the national health insurance program and have secured food aid for the camps. In partnership with Songtaba, the Humanist Service Corps program will build upon these foundational examples of empowerment.

When I tell people about this program, their first response is usually something like, “How do you plan to show Ghanaians that witchcraft isn’t real?” The answer, of course, is that we have no such plans at all.

As outsiders, we neither can nor should defeat a culturally embedded belief by attacking it head on. What we can and should do is increase access to healthcare, education, and jobs for Ghanaians. Increasing health, wealth, and understanding is not just the most effective approach, it’s also the more culturally responsible one, which is something I care deeply about.

Building the Humanist Service Corps means more than just creating an avenue for the nonreligious to engage in service together, it means designing a program that embodies the values of humanism. Sure, we could simply have picked a charity willing to put up with unskilled volunteers. We could have charged nonreligious folks a few thousand dollars a pop for vacation service trips that scratched their do-gooder itch but didn’t actually do much good. More to the point, we could have insisted that Songtaba help us organize anti-witchcraft campaigns because, to many in the U.S., superstition looks like a cause and not another symptom.

But there’s more to being a responsible volunteer than rejecting missionary work, and religion isn’t the only vehicle for proselytism. There are already plenty of religious and secular volunteering programs that exist to please paying volunteers. Most of them focus on creating the context for volunteering instead of selecting and training volunteers for the context.

The HSC volunteers, clockwise from top left: Rebecca Czekalski, Matan Gold, Christian Hayden, Naduah Wheeler

The HSC volunteers, clockwise from top left: Rebecca Czekalski, Matan Gold, Christian Hayden, Naduah Wheeler

That’s not what we do. We don’t take volunteers who see themselves as saviors. Instead, we select volunteers with backgrounds in anthropology, sociology, and intercultural exchange. Volunteers who can suspend judgment in order to understand the causes and functions of behaviors. Volunteers who are prepared to follow Songtaba’s lead, since locals can best identify problems and evaluate potential solutions. Volunteers who are excited by a program that asks them to learn instead of to teach.

With that being said, there is an educational component to the work of the Humanist Service Corps, it’s just that it is the exact opposite of most volunteering programs. We won’t be focusing on educating Ghanaians on the silliness of witchcraft; we will be working to raise awareness of the issue outside Ghana. As we learn about Ghanaian culture and the circumstances surrounding witch-hunting, we will use this blog to educate the broader public. That’s where you come in and, lucky you, that’s where things get interesting.

This won’t just be another vacation volunteering blog (yawn). Humanist Service Corps volunteers won’t be posting about how they change Ghana, they’ll be sharing about how Ghana changes them, about what they learn from local leaders and from striving to live within and understand another culture. Most important, this blog will serve as a space for the Humanist Service Corps to share the stories of the Ghanaian women and children affected by and taking a stand against gender-based violence in Ghana. The women have asked us to share their stories as widely as we can. They know, as we do, that storytelling is a critical component of effective advocacy.

In our next post, the volunteers will share a bit about themselves. This won’t be the last time you’ll hear from me, but the focus will be on our four fantastic volunteers, the inaugural Humanist Service Corps team. Stay tuned, and thanks for reading! We can’t raise awareness about witch-hunting without your help.

Conor Robinson (Yale University)

12370_10100334705130034_2062114361_nConor is the Humanist Service Corps Program Coordinator. He graduated from Yale University, where he founded the Yale Humanist Society (now Yale AHA), majored in English, and minored in intramural sports. After serving as the founding Resource Specialist at a bilingual elementary school in Los Angeles, Conor organized Pathfinders Project, a yearlong global humanist service trip. Conor received Foundation Beyond Belief’s 2014 Humanist Visionary award in recognition of this work, and he joined the Foundation in August 2014 to launch the Humanist Service Corps.

One response to “Killing Witchcraft with Kindness

  1. Pingback: Sources relevant to the mission. | The Understanding Atheist·

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