IHEU member organization Humanist and Ethical Union of Kenya organized its third annual conference this year, from May 23rd to 25th at Serena Hotel, Nairobi. It was a resounding success! From an initial ‘toe in the water’ plan for 25 undergraduates to meet up and discuss papers, the conference grew to a grand total of 50 undergraduates from three countries and 20 universities, four postgraduate respondents, and one internationally-renowned speaker, Hon. Raila Odinga, Chairman for the Liberal Democratic Party of Kenya.
We were extremely lucky to open the event with a great keynote from Professor Walter Wanyande of Nairobi University. His paper ‘New directions in Leadership’, about the emerging trends and future of politics in general, and ontology in particular, set an accessible but challenging tone for the conference. We benefited from Professor Kiamba’s presence and comments through the weekend.
The main focus and purpose of HEUK 2006 was the presentation and discussion of undergraduate papers. After our call for papers a couple of months earlier, HEUK received almost twice as many papers as we had slots available. With the very generous time and effort of our postgraduate and staff reviewers, we managed to whittle this down to just 14 papers of about 2,500 words each. Each author was given a 45 minute slot, a chair for their discussion, and a respondent who had read their paper through in advance, and had ideas on possible directions the open-floor discussion might take. This system proved very flexible, and resulted in the kind of debate that stretched presenters and probed their work in depth, but always made sure that non-specialists could gain, and contribute, a significant amount.
Before the conference, our 153 or so members voted for the subject areas they would like to hear papers in. They chose politics, epistemology and philosophy of science, moral and secular humanism, and logic and philosophy of language; and our presenters wrote on a diverse and stimulating range of topics from artificial intelligence to value realism, and identity to time and causation. We tried to ease attendees into what would otherwise be a daunting volume of material! Three sessions on Friday, after the keynote double-length session, each interspersed with liberal doses of tea and biscuits, got everyone into the swing of things before our four double-length two-paper sessions on Saturday. We know this worked, since not only were attendees still fresh and alert in the last session on Saturday evening, but they were also heard to still be arguing a few hours later, and even made it down in time to start the first session early on Sunday morning! This was one of the great advantages of having accommodation for attendees on-site.
To spice up the discussions, and make sure more experienced opinions were available in an advisory role, we invited several postgraduate and staff respondents to take part over the course of the weekend. Alongside Professor Wanyande, Kiamba (Commission for Higher Learning), Grace Ogot (Renowned story writer), Thomas Maitha (JKUAT PhD student and Chair of the National Postgraduate Analytic Philosophy Association) and Elizabeth Adhiambo (Nairobi PhD student) all made fantastic contributions. Each of our postgraduate respondents commented that the standard of papers was very high, and the discussions easily matched those at postgraduate conferences for depth and range. Our thanks go to them for their time and enthusiasm.
Of course, with such a busy academic schedule, socialising was always going to be important as well! As well as stopping for coffee breaks throughout the day, we tried to make sure there were social events for people to enjoy on the two nights. With the late college bar on Friday night, impromptu trips around Nairobi and its multi–purpose hall each lunchtime, and a meal out and wine reception on Saturday night, I think we achieved this admirably. So the hard-thinking was matched by some relaxed evenings together. The ultimate sign that we succeeded is that many of the attendees are still in touch!
Finally, the AGM needed to elect HEUK’s Chair for the 2006-7 session. Ann Wamboi was unanimously re-elected in this role. The union continues to grow, will hold more events next year, and looks forward to putting on HEUK 2006.
Our events are made difficult by the continuing apathy of the major funding bodies to Kenyan humanism in general. We were turned down by every major humanism funding body in the Sub–Sahara region. This conference only happened because of extensive private donation and the support of the Nairobi University. Thank you for aiding us in our third conference. The attendees joined the chair in issuing a special vote of thanks to the university – we really appreciated the NU stepping in when nobody else would, and hope the result justified the help!