Review: Humanist Schools in Uganda


At our meeting in March, we were very pleased to welcome Steve Hurd to talk to us about Humanist Schools in Uganda.

He started with a brief overview of education in Uganda, including the place of religion in the country generally and education system specifically.  We were then introduced to the schools – Isaac Newton School, Mustard Seed School and Mbute Campus of Isaac Newton School.

The aims of the schools are:

  1. Practical help for impoverished rural communities and orphans
  2. To provide inclusive schooling that does not discriminate on the grounds of religion
  3. No indoctrination, respect for science and for the life choices of others
  4. To produce self-confident, free-thinking young people with a sense of community.

Steve showed us how the schools were built up from community initiatives and how the schools had developed their resources. The scholarship programme was introduced, along with some stories and examples of individual students progress.

Steve was very open and honest about the challenges and difficulties faced in managed these schools. One of the big questions is how to develop a humanist ethos in schools where nearly everyone in the country is religious. The challenge is “to shape an inclusive Humanist vision in multi-faith student communities.” The main answer they have arrived at is to welcome all, regardless of religious affiliation, and provide a positive message of core Humanist values that will open minds and hearts to accepting other ways of life and respect for reason. This is different from what a Humanist School would probably look like in the UK but seems to be the best way forward in the context of the particular culture and history of Uganda.

Following on from this, there was an introduction of and discussion about Steve’s idea of positive humanism. This is a “…philosophy of drawing together human beings of all beliefs”. Taking the Amsterdam Declaration of Humanist Principles, Steve asked us whether we could consider all people agreeing to them and whether Humanism could be considered something that ties all people together, with the question of religion being of less importance.

  1. Humanism is ethical
  2. Humanism is rational
  3. Humanism supports democracy and human rights
  4. Humanism insists that personal liberty must be combined with social responsibility
  5. Humanism is a response to the widespread demand for an alternative to dogmatic religion
  6. Humanism values artistic creativity and imagination and recognises the transforming power of art
  7. Humanism is a life stance aiming at the maximum possible fulfilment

With the exception of (5), most people of all religions or none would basically agree with those principles and Steve wants to push this idea of Humanism being more inclusive and welcoming. This led to some interesting debate in the meeting. While we agreed on the need for dialogue and to recognise common values, most of us felt that political and social issues often did lead to a conflict of interests between the religious and atheists and that needed acknowledging. We did recognise that  particular cultural and social contexts plus the varied historical backgrounds of different countries did mean that slightly different approaches are needed. The attitude we have of being forthright Secularists and Humanists in this country probably wouldn’t get us very far in Uganda, with the result of a more pragmatic approach in the schools there.

We were very grateful to Steve for joining us, giving us an excellent and interesting talk and providing much food for thought.

Please go to the Uganda Humanist Schools Trust if you are interested in reading more or donating.