Sorry to post this rather late (been having some issues that have kept be extremely busy for the last week or so) – but anyway, Freethinkers’ Night on the evening of Thursday, March 25th was, as usual, fun, exciting, and very enlightening. The topic was ‘Witchcraft  – Does It Actually Work, Or Is It Just Superstition?’

The evening began with a video presentation – a series of videos (all downloaded from YouTube) showing popular magicians like David Copperfield, David Blaine and Criss Angel performing what appeared to be miraculous feats, such as unaided flight, levitation, walking on water, making people disappear, making time move backwards, etc. A lot of amazement was expressed by religious believers in attendance when they learned that the individuals whose miraculous feats they were watching were mere entertainers. This video presentation was useful in making people aware about what can be accomplished by trickery.

David Blaine levitates!

Criss Angels walks on water!

David Copperfield flying!

The audience also got to see an interesting video demonstrating how the ‘Talking Head Illusion’ works. This is significant because one of the ‘evidence’ often cited by believers in witchcraft in Uganda is a famous video that was shown on WBS TV a few years ago, in which what seemed like a body-less head on a plate was shown speaking to an interviewer on camera. In this now famous clip, the camera focuses beneath the table and clearly shows there is nothing under it, giving people the impression that indeed what they were witnessing was real. The ‘head’ told the interviewer that we has several hundred years old, that was was brought to Kampala in a bag, and that he survives on 2 crocodile eggs a year. Most Ugandans, even university-educated friends of mine, who viewed that video consider it to be irrefutable evidence that witchcraft is real. The problem is, the phenomenon of a ‘talking head’ happens to be an age-old party trick…and they didn’t know this.

Oh, no! The head has no body!

After being shown the above video, believers in attendance who had been convinced of witchcraft after seeing that WBS TV programme couldn’t believe how easily they had been duped! There was an explosion of laughter after the trick was revealed. This video spawned an interesting discussion on human gullibility. In my book, this registered as an enormous success, because they came to realise the need to be more critical in evaluating evidence before they jump to conclusions.

We also saw part of a documentary series produced by the BBC which shows educators travelling deep into rural India and educating villagers about how not to fall for the purported supernatural abilities of so-called ‘godmen’. The video shows villagers first being mesmerised by the ‘powers’ of a ‘godman’ before they admit to being fakes. They then demonstrated to the villagers just how all the seemingly miraculous acts were performed. This mini-documentary, in its two parts, can be watched here.

Image013Our guest speaker that evening was Henry Ford Mirima, author of Unveiling Witchcraft. He is a veteran journalist who has spent a great deal of time investigating traditional beliefs, and purported magical claims of ‘witchdoctors’ and found them to be fraudulent. His book contains information pertaining to many of the practices, customs, charms commonly associated with ‘witchcraft’.

He discussed his experiences with trying to get his book included as part of the school curriculum so that children could be educated about witchcraft, and why they shouldn’t believe it works. He told us that he has faced a lot of resistance from legislators and educators in trying to pursue this goal because almost all of them believe in the efficacy of witchcraft. In the end, it did not happen, though he says he has not given up. He, however, felt happy that we (Freethought Kampala) were taking a stand and publicly discussing these issues. He urged us to use whatever opportunity we could find to talk to people about thinking critically about the issue of witchcraft. Every medium – whether word-of-mouth, newspapers, magazines, radios and TV should be used to reach out to the people in order to educate them, he concluded. There were suggestions that we should try to organise a televised debate on the efficacy of ‘witchcraft’ (I’m currently working on it).

 SANY1961

Henry Ford Mirima at Freethinkers’ Night

We had more people this time round than the last, and many very interesting ideas were discussed. People definitely walked out of the meeting more skeptical than they were when they walked in, with regards to purported magic powers of ‘witchdoctors’. Witchcraft is probably an issue we will be visiting regularly at Freethinkers’ Nights.

Things are definitely picking up! We are making a difference. Thanks go out to all the members of Freethought Kampala, and those whose small contributions keep making events like this possible.

The next Freethinkers’ Night will take place on Thursday April 29th 2010. The topic will be announced soon.

See you then!