Kenya’s Atheists Campaign For A Public Holiday – A Sign Of Kenya’s Secularization?

Kenya’s Atheists Campaign For A Public Holiday – A Sign Of Kenya’s Secularization?

Kenya’s atheist community has campaigned for a public holiday recognising non-believers. Is this a sign of increasing secularization within Kenya?

Atheists in Kenya have proposed to their government to declare a national holiday for non-believers in the country. This request has made local and international headlines. It has sparked debates and discussions on the possibility and desirability of an atheist holiday. The proposal has once again drawn attention to the growing visibility of atheists and the emerging movement of non-believers in the region. The request has renewed focus on the rapidly changing religious and belief landscape in Kenya and in other African countries.

Harrison Mumia, Atheist, Kenya
Atheists in Kenya President Harrison Mumia. [Photo: Courtesy]

On August 20, the most prominent atheist organization in Kenya, Atheists In Kenya (AIK) posted the following tweet: “We have asked the government to declare 17th of February a public holiday for atheists – to be called “Atheist Day”. The government has an obligation to grant us our request in line with Article 27 of the Constitution”. Article 27 of the Kenyan constitution guarantees equality and freedom from discrimination for the citizens. It says that both men and women have the right to equal treatment before the law.

AIK issued a statement following an announcement by the government that August 21 was a public holiday. The Kenyan government authorized a national holiday to mark the Muslim feast of Idd-ul-Adha. AIK urged the government to make February 17, the date that the state registered this atheist society, a national public holiday. It argued that the minority status of atheists in Kenya should not be an excuse for not granting the request. The statement says: “There is no shortage of religious holidays celebrated every year in Kenya. Christmas, Eid-ul-Fitri, Easter, and Ramadan are just but a few…Even though atheists constitute an estimated 5% of Kenya’s population, this should not be a reason why we cannot have any public holidays”. Atheists in Kenya proposed to use the day to organize a godless parade and increase the awareness of atheism in the country.

The proposal for a national holiday for non-believers has produced mixed reactions from across Kenya and beyond. On the AIK Twitter page, a user Tweeted; “In the Kenyan Constitution, we recognize the Supremacy of the Almighty God. We are a Nation Under God. Atheists are Pagans. You deserve nothing. I repeat Atheists deserve  Nothing”. Other Tweeters ridiculed the request dismissing it as another device that atheists were using to seek attention. A user named Juliet posted this commented online: “1st April is an Atheist day. Let them use it to fool themselves”. In the same vein, another Kenyan wrote: “We remember fools dearly every 1st of April. So my friend Harrison Mumia (the president of Atheists in Kenya) and your band of fools, please calm down. Atheists are bored because they have no one to thank for their lives. So they are looking for attention by attempting to be loud and visible. On the 1st of April, we shall give you Uhuru Park for free”.

Another person commented: “How can you request a holiday for believing in nothing to celebrate nothing for nothing. You must have nothing between your ears to be so loud about something you believe doesn’t exist“. But it is not every one that has opposed the proposal. For instance, in response to the last but one comment, somebody wrote: “Funny. How can a Park named Uhuru be used as the place to shame someone for exercising his/her freedom?” Atheists from other countries in the region have been reacting to this demand for a public holiday for nonbelievers. In Nigeria, the atheist community is divided over the issue. Some supported the idea given the fact that the government authorizes many religious public holidays every year. They claimed that an atheist holiday would be a demonstration of fairness, inclusiveness and non-discrimination by the government.
Others were of the view that Nigeria already had too many holidays in its calendar and that another public holiday for non-believers was not necessary. They argued that a poor and struggling economy such as Nigeria could not afford additional national holidays. In Zambia, some atheists noted that a public holiday for non-believers was a good idea. As one atheist in Zambia pointed out on their Facebook page: “It’s just fair to have a holiday for atheists for as long as Zambia has some for Christians. The only challenge is that an average Zambian doesn’t even want to acknowledge that there’s someone out there who doesn’t believe in their god”. Another Zambian atheist noted: “They won’t even acknowledge our existence. We can have an atheist holiday but it would take a while”.

Across Africa, people who do not believe in God are in the minority; and have systematically been marginalized. Non-religious Africans are largely invisible and without a voice. This is because much stigma is attached to atheism in the region. Atheists are loathed. They are derided as Satanists and as devil worshippers. As some of the above-cited comments have illustrated, atheists are seen as fools. In Muslim dominated societies, those who leave the Islamic faith and identify publicly as atheists and freethinkers could be attacked and killed. Apostasy and blasphemy are offences under sharia law and they are punishable by death or long prison sentences.

However, the situation is beginning to change. An increasing number of atheists in Africa are going public with their lack of religious belief. They are beginning to organize both online and offline. Atheist organizations and activists are emerging across Africa, including in Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria, Ghana, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. They are seeking registration with their respective governments and affiliation with international organisations for free thought and belief. Some atheist organisations have made representations on issues of public importance such as homosexuality, the death penalty and abortion. They are campaigning against superstitions and religious extremism.

The demand for a national holiday for atheists in Kenya is a campaign for equality and non-discrimination. It is a quest for justice and fairness. Atheists want their governments to take measures to end the persecution and oppression of non-believers. It is now time for these governments in Kenya and in other African countries to demonstrate that atheists are entitled to their equal rights as human beings and as citizens before the law.

Leo is a blogger, human-rights advocate and a Humanist from Nigeria.

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