Something happened while I was studying in the seminary and training to be a priest. I came in contact with a different idea of life. An idea of life that contradicted the main teachings of religion — humanism.
Some of you may be wondering, what on earth is humanism? Humanism is a way of thinking and living that emphasizes the agency of human beings. Humanism stresses the fact that we, human beings, are capable of changing the world. That we have the power to make a difference in our lives, both individually and collectively, without recourse to some outside force.
It may interest you to know that the best humanist lessons I learned were not from reading philosophy books or from poring over humanist manifestos and declarations. No, not at all. The best humanist lesson I learned was from the life of my own parents.
My parents come from a poor family background in Mbaise, in southeastern Nigeria. They had limited opportunities. But my parents did not allow the circumstances of their bad upbringing to determine the ambition and dreams for themselves and for their children. My father worked part-time, trained as a teacher, and rose to become a headmaster at a local primary school. My mother dropped out of school quite early, because her mother, my grandmother, could not afford her education. As a parent, my mother worked very hard, combining farming, petty trading and taking care of my siblings and me.
By the time I was born — that was shortly after the Nigerian civil war — life was very difficult, a struggle day by day. My family was living in a hut. With the eye of a child, I can still see water dripping from the thatched roof of our house when it rained. My father reared goats to supplement the family income. And part of my duty after school hours or during vacation was to feed these goats. There was no electricity, no pipe with water. We trekked to fetch water from the nearby streams. That was an easy work in the wet season, but kilometers when it was hot and dry. Through hard work and perseverance, my parents were able to erect a block apartment and send my siblings and me to school. They made it possible for us to enjoy a standard of living which they never did and to attain educational levels which they only imagined when they were growing up. My parents' life, their story, is my best lesson in humanism.
So as a humanist, I believe that human beings are challengers, not prisoners of faith. Our destinies are in our hands, not predetermined. And it's left for us to shape our lives and destinies to reflect our best hopes and aspirations. I believe that human beings have the power to turn situations of poverty into those of wealth and prosperity. We have the capacity to alleviate suffering, extend life, prevent diseases, cure debilitating ailments, reduce infant mortality and preserve our planet. But we cannot accomplish all these goals by wishful thinking with our eyes closed or by armchair speculation or by expecting salvation from empty sky. In contrast, millions of Africans imagine that their religious faith will help their dream come true, and they spend so much time praying for miracles and for divine intervention in their lives.
In 2009, a Gallup survey in 114 countries revealed that religiosity was highest in the world's poorest nations. In fact, six of the 10 countries where 95 percent of the population said that religion was an important part of their daily lives, were African. In some cases, religion drives many Africans to extraordinary length: to attack other human beings, to commit ritual killing, targeting those living with albinism, those with a humpback, and as I recently learned, those with a bald head. In Africa, superstition is widespread, with so many people believing in witchcraft, something that has no basis in reason or in science. Yet alleged witches, usually women, children and elderly persons are still routinely attacked, banished and killed. And I've made it part of my life's mission to end witchcraft accusation and witch persecution in Africa.
So as a humanist, I believe in a proactive approach to life. The changes that we want cannot be achieved only by dreaming but require doing as well. The challenges that we face cannot go away if we recoil and retreat into our shells, wishing and imagining that those problems will somehow magically disappear. The good life that we desire will not fall like manna from heaven. My parents did not erect a block apartment by wishing and dreaming. They worked hard, they failed, they tried again. They toiled with rolled-up sleeves, with their hands deep in debt, they plowed ahead, growing their dreams into reality.
So as a humanist, I believe we must be adventurous and even daring. The path of success is paved with risk and uncertainties. We have to muster the will and courage to do what people have never done. To think what people have never thought. Envisage what people have never imagined. Go to places human beings have not been to. And succeed where people have tried but failed. We must be ready to explore new frontiers of knowledge and understanding and attempt doing not just what is possible but also what is seemingly impossible.
But I realize that at the end of the day, our efforts do not always yield our desires. We fail, we suffer disappointments and setbacks. Some problems, such as wars and conflict, poverty and diseases and other natural and human-made disasters seem as if they may never go away. Solutions to old problems have led to new dangers, new cures to diseases have resulted in new health risks. But the fact that these problems persist and that solutions sometimes create their own problems is not a reason for us to give up or to resign. It's not a reason for us to think that our efforts are of no consequence. In fact, there is fulfillment in striving, and trying to provide answers and solutions to the problem humanity faces even when the likely outcome is failure.
So as a humanist, I believe we must not despair for humanity. Even in the face of overwhelming difficulties and in the bleakest of circumstances. Human beings are creative beings. We have the power to generate new ideas, new solutions and new cures. So why despair when the unexpected knocks on the horizon? It is in our nature to create anew, to be inventive and innovative, so why languish in idle expectation of a savior from above? So it is time for us Africans to take our destiny in our hands and realize we have agency in the scheme of life. We need to put an end to this game of blame that has prevented us from taking full responsibility for our own lives. For too long, we have been prisoners of our past. We have allowed despair and pessimism to drain us, drain our energies, limit our imaginations and dim our vision for a better and brighter future.
We have let this continent flounder. Why passing the buck like a Frisbee? We've blamed slavery, colonialism and the new colonialism for the woes we experience, including our own self-inflicted wounds. We have conducted ourselves in ways that seem as if Africa is damned and doomed. And that all these experiences in history have irreversibly, irreparably foreclosed the chances and possibility for Africa to emerge, thrive and flourish. We must realize that there is no part of the world that has not been colonized or enslaved in the past. And if other parts of the world have moved on, why can't we, now?
So as a humanist, I believe that the past is gone; we cannot change it, we cannot alter it. But the future beckons us on with limitless possibilities to recreate, reshape and remake our destinies. So let's all of us seize this opportunity. And as my parents did, begin the urgent task of rebuilding Africa, brick by brick. Let's give free reign to our ideas and imaginations, as demonstrated at this TEDGlobal 2017. Let's open our hearts and minds. And exert our energy, intelligence and ingenuity and begin the urgent task of rebuilding Africa and of transforming this continent into a citadel of unrivaled prosperity and civilization. This is what I believe as a humanist, as an African humanist.