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Among the Disbelievers: An African Skeptic Does Vegas

A fellow at the James Randi Educational Foundation, Leo Igwe is running a high-voltage campaign against witchcraft beliefs in Africa. Can he convince us to join his crusade against evils half a world away?
(Photo: Magoz)

(Photo: Magoz)

On a stage at a Las Vegas casino, James Randi, the 85-year-old magician-turned-mythbuster, limps into view, his face framed by a long white Santa Claus beard, a black cape draped over his hunched frame. It’s early July and the esteemed skeptic is here to talk to a crowd of a thousand people at the 15th annual “Amaz!ng Meeting” of his eponymous educational foundation. Suddenly, the octogenarian launches into a cartwheel, rips off his beard, and begins a little song-and-dance number. We’ve been hoaxed. It’s not Randi, after all, but George Hrab, a chrome-domed performer in a pinstripe suit. “Who can take a person spouting off the poo and prove they’re filled with number two?” he croons. “The Randi Man can! Yes, the Randi Man can! ’Cause he’s got a rational plan to fight the fakers good!”

The audience erupts in laughter as Hrab takes jabs at chiropractors, water dowsers, and Bigfoot hunters. Hrab is the meeting’s M.C. and the corny host of The Geologic Podcast, which features comic sketches, interviews, and a dose of skepticism. His Vaudeville-style roast sets the tone for the next four days of what is perhaps the world’s preeminent gathering of self-proclaimed skeptics, people dedicated to debunking and demystifying anything that smacks of the supernatural. At this gathering of the nerdiest of the nerdy, it’s hard not to run into the likes of Michael Shermer, the charismatic publisher of Skeptic magazine, or such scientific celebrities as Michael E. Mann, the embattled climatologist famous for his hockey-stick graph of Earth’s rising temperature. “You read their books, and then there they are in person!” one astonished attendee tells his partner.

There have been hundreds of documented cases of children being beaten, burned, beheaded, doused in acid or boiling water, poisoned, or buried alive.

Out in the audience this morning is a man few people have heard of, Leo Igwe. A black man in a sea of white faces, he sticks out like an evolutionist in Sunday school. The previous fall, Igwe, a Nigerian, had been named a fellow at the James Randi Educational Foundation for his high-voltage campaign against witchcraft beliefs in Africa. He has flown here straight from a witch-rehabilitation camp in Ghana to give a talk about his work. The 43-year-old is of medium height and a little soft at the belly; today he is wearing rectangular glasses perched on his broad nose. As he explores various booths out in the hall, he takes in everything from whimsical anti-religion “Praise Bacon” T-shirts to a pair of double-helix earrings. Down by the registration booth, a man pulls up a sleeve to reveal a portrait of the foundation’s white-bearded namesake tattooed on his shoulder.

If any attendees know anything about Igwe, it is for his “Manifesto for a Skeptical Africa,” published on the foundation’s website in October of 2012. In it, he criticizes African societies for their inability to think critically about the traditional beliefs he calls “Stone-Age spiritual abracadabra.” He is in Las Vegas to talk about the resurgence of literal witch-hunts in Sub-Saharan Africa, and the rise of accusations lobbed at children, particularly in countries ravaged by conflict and where levels of education are low. While sorcery has always been a part of traditional belief systems in Africa, the stigmatization of children as witches seems to be a recent invention. In two Niger Delta states alone, Akwa Ibom and Cross River, there have been hundreds of documented cases of children being beaten, burned, beheaded, doused in acid or boiling water, poisoned, or buried alive. Like his self-righteous colleagues in the Western world, Igwe can be mocking and sarcastic, but he also knows he is on a deadly serious crusade.

During his talk, Igwe displays a picture of a Ghanaian man inside a thatch-roofed hut performing a traditional soothsaying ritual with seashells. As he pauses on the image Igwe declares, “Friends, these are the fakers. He uses cowries and throws them on the ground and is staring at them as if there is something he is seeing.” Igwe’s voice rises in pitch, volume, and tempo, and he continues in an exasperated tone: “He is seeing nothing! It’s fake!” There are a few chuckles in the audience, but mostly silence, as if no one is quite sure how to balance their skeptical instincts against their cross-cultural sensitivities. The soothsayer may well be a charlatan, but only Igwe had the right to ridicule him.

Igwe has always been something of an outsider, even in his own country. He founded the Nigerian Humanist Movement in 1996, participating in protests in opposition to the discriminatory Osu caste system, campaigning for gay rights, fighting against female genital mutilation, and networking with humanist groups abroad. Because of his skeptical views and his human rights work, he and his family members have been attacked, beaten, and threatened with death. He has been arrested on trumped-up charges, and has been sued repeatedly in civil courts. The situation has become so dangerous that Igwe is taking a break from his activism, and is pursuing a Ph.D. at the University of Bayreuth in Germany. “In the United States, you can criticize undue credulity and get someone to give you dirty looks,” says D. J. Grothe, president of the James Randi Educational Foundation. “In other parts of the world, it can cost you much more.”

On the day after his speech, at a strip mall near the casino, Igwe follows a psychic through a purple curtain to a room where a crystal ball, a deck of tarot cards, and a decorative box of Kleenex rest upon a golden tablecloth. The psychic, Christine, tells him his problems are etched on the palm of his hands. “Deep down inside, you are still struggling,” she says, running a long fingernail down his fate line. “You have many past lives here, so that tells me you have always had a spiritual connection.”

As Christine peppers Igwe with questions, the mischievous skeptic makes up a story about his wish to settle in America. She assures him that he will one day get what he wants, and live to the age of 94, but there is one critical thing he must do. “You need to recleanse your aura,” she says, and describes a complex sequence that involves burning sage and spinning around in circles. Afterward, Igwe steps out from the storefront into the blazing Nevada sun. He seems withdrawn and contemplative, but as soon as he climbs into the car, he lets out a howl. It’s the sound of relief. For once, Leo Igwe’s skepticism is truly a laughing matter.

This post originally appeared in the March/April 2014 issue of Pacific Standard as “Among the Disbelievers.” For more, subscribe to our print magazine.