Humanists and skeptics throughout the world are mourning the deaths of two leading freethought activists, Sibanye (aka Herbert Crimes) of the Center for Inquiry/Harlem Discussion Group, and Hope N. Tawiah, who led the Rational Centre headquartered in Accra, Ghana.
Sibanye—whose name means “we as one” in Swahili—died after a long illness on Tuesday, September 29, 2009. He attended a leadership conference at the Center for Inquiry/Transnational in 2007, and he was popular among humanist activists throughout the United States.
In 2004, author and former director of the then-Center for Inquiry/Metro New York Susan Jacoby and I spoke to an SRO crowd at Harlem’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Afterward, Sibanye eagerly agreed to lead a discussion group in Harlem. He attracted people from various backgrounds and sometimes led tours of noted attractions in Harlem.
On March 9, 2008, Sibanye and I participated in a panel discussion on “African American Atheists and the Quest for Freedom, Justice, and Equality” at the student center of the University of Illinois in Chicago. Sibanye displayed a deep knowledge of the Black religious community in Chicago and discussed some of the negative aspects of Black religion.
Sibanye especially enjoyed the sense of community he found with other secular humanists. Years ago, while visiting a bookshop in Oklahoma, he came across my first book, African-American Humanism: An Anthology. Until then, he thought that he was the only Black atheist in the world. After starting the Harlem group, he became truly committed to furthering humanist ideals. He envisioned New York City as the leading bastion of secular humanist thought in the United States. Sibanye deeply admired Paul Kurtz and shared his dream of bringing humanism to the masses.
Hope N. Tawiah helped start the Rational Centre in the 1980s. In 1988, he visited Buffalo as a guest of Paul Kurtz for a conference of the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU). The motto of the Rational Centre is “Down with Superstition.” The organization might be the first group of organized humanists in Africa, and it is almost certainly the oldest.
In 1991, Tawiah hosted me as a guest of the Rational Centre. It was the first time secular humanism received a hearing in the major Ghanaian media. I received front-page news coverage and spoke as a guest on a religious program called Contemplation on the Ghanaian Broadcasting Corporation channel. After my appearance, and due to Tawiah’s connections, representatives of the Rational Centre were invited to speak on the program.
Tawiah was deeply concerned about the strong impact that religion had on Ghanaians. At one time, the Church of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons) was gaining a foothold in the country. Commercial vehicles throughout the country displayed messages promoting prayer and religion. Muslims, Rastafarians, and other religions were gaining popularity, and evangelists from the United States had great influence. According to Tawiah, the religionists were “destroying the brain cells” of Ghanaians.
Tawiah met with other African humanist activists such as Emmanuel Kofi Mensah of the now-defunct group Action for Humanism and Leo Igwe of the Center for Inquiry in Nigeria. When Tawiah hosted me in Ghana, Allen spoke at the W.E.B. Du Bois Memorial Centre for Pan African Culture. Before my speech, the late Nii Otto Kwame III, a village chief and co-founder of the Rational Centre, led a wreath-laying ceremony at Du Bois’ burial site. After my speech, AAH, the Rational Centre, and the Du Bois Centre signed an agreement to promote secular ideals throughout Ghana.
In 1997, Tawiah visited the Center for Inquiry/Transnational. He discussed plans to adopt a school in Accra and work closely with children. Like the late Nigerian humanist educator Tai Solarin, Deogratiasi Ssekitooleko of the Center for Inquiry in Uganda, and many other humanist activists, Tawiah believed that the way to build a humanist future is by reaching children when they are young.
Before he died, Tawiah attended a program on May 28, 2009, launching the Center for Inquiry anti-superstition campaign in Ghana. The theme of the seminar was “Witchcraft and Its Impact on Development.” The campaign has now spread into Nigeria, Malawi, South Africa, and Kenya.
Sibanye and Tawiah will be sorely missed, but their contributions to the furthering of humanist ideals will not be forgotten.