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“The foot has no nose”

by Vivian Humphrey

“When you attacked the people… who had done you no harm, I was amazed andafflicted beyond all manner of expression.” King Moshweshwe I, Lesotho 1858.

Individual and collective responsibility to care for the vulnerable, protect the defenceless and respect the fallen soldier, are not new to African culture. Basic humanitarian values existed well before the ruler of the Basuto people wrote the above to a Boer general, expressing indignation at what he perceived as a violation of customary rules and regulations.

A few years after that incident, European governments came together to put down basic humanitarian rules such as these in the form of a treaty. This was the First Geneva Convention. Today, in parts of South Africa where conflict and communal tensions still simmer, the ICRC is seeking ways of translating the high-flown legal expression of those rules back into language and concepts with which Africans can more easily identify.

“Alien terminology imported from Europe runs the risk of the message being perceived as a form of cultural colonialism,” says Rafael Olaya, ICRC dissemination delegate. Culturally adapting messages to convey the principles of the Red Cross, gain acceptance and access to communities, and reinforce people’s respect for basic humanitarian rules was first introduced in the former homeland of Transkei in 1994. Through the novel presentation of humanitarian rules embodied in folk tales and the use of the Xhosa proverb “The foot has no nose” (see box), an entertaining and retainable form of imparting humanitarian messages was developed — with positive results.



“Unyawo-alunampumlo” is a proverb, universally known among Xhosa-speakers, that expresses a fundamental moral principle of their society. It literally translates into “the foot has no nose”. The “foot” signifies a traveller or anyone who is away from his or her community, while the “nose” refers to a person’s ability to recognise or “sniff out” danger.

Whenever someone finds themselves among strangers in a far off place, he or she can’t depend on anyone to help them in case of need. Consequently, they are defenceless and at the mercy of local inhabitants. “Unyawo-alunampumlo” refers to such persons. The proverb reminds Xhosa-speakers of their moral obligation to offer protection to the defenceless because one day they may find themselves at the mercy of strangers.

The ICRC uses the proverb to explain why children, the elderly, the wounded and the detained must be protected as they, too, are defenceless, and at the mercy of others, and therefore should be looked after.

In other words, “Unyawo-alunampumlo” allows Xhosa-speakers to identify with the victim, ultimately leading them to “do unto others” as they would have others “do unto them”.

Explanation of the proverb taken from Hammond-Tooke, David,
The Roots of Black South Africa, Johannesburg, Jonathan Ball Publishers, 1993.


Breaking barriers

Encouraged by the success of this campaign, the ICRC Pretoria dissemination department has embarked on developing a long-term, culturally adapted dissemination strategy for South Africa, drawing on the concept of African humanism or Ubuntu.

Ubuntu (Zulu) or Botho (Sotho) both refer to the same idea and are terms understandable to other indigenous African linguistic groups. Ubuntu is a purely African philosophy of life not easily translatable into English. “It defines a positive quality of a person and implies a basic respect for human life, dignity, safety and prosperity of all people,” explains Phil Somo, ICRC field officer. “To be described as not having Ubuntu has all sorts of negative connotations and is considered highly undesirable.”

Drawing on this philosophy and identifying proverbs that illustrate humanitarian behaviour, the message of respect, tolerance and caring for the vulnerable can be effectively conveyed. This method moves away from “teaching” people in the orthodox way and using standard Red Cross terminology. Instead, it is an interactive approach where dialogue created with an audience allows them to express themselves; it draws on sayings and reinforces values that already exist in a society.

“It breaks down the barrier between the disseminator and the audience,” says Hloni Zondi, ICRC dissemination officer. “People grasp what’s being said in relation to their experience of life.” This is very valuable in instances where terms such as “neutrality” are perceived as negative rather than positive qualities. “Neutrality is not something that is always accepted or understood, especially in the context of the previous political struggle in South Africa where it was sometimes perceived as sitting on the fence,” Phil Somo says. “We’ve often met people in the field who say, ‘you’re with us or against us’. It takes a lot of explaining to make people realise what neutrality actually means and the importance of it in the Red Cross sense.”

A new approach

Implementing this technique is no easy task. It challenges Red Cross personnel to abandon traditional methods of relaying information and to integrate their message into another culture. It means essentially that a way of life needs to be translated into a teaching methodology.

The efforts by the ICRC and the South African Red Cross have been focused primarily on the KwaZulu/Natal region where a still volatile environment increases the urgency for dissemination. The role of the National Society is vital since its workers have a close knowledge of the communities at the grass roots level. As with the Transkei campaign, the goal is for the ICRC to implement initial planning and training and then turn the project over to field workers who will call on the ICRC when necessary.

The concept is still in the developmental stages and needs fine tuning for its practical application to be fully realised. “It is an important, long-term project, but the value is that it is applicable in both conflict and peacetime situations,” Rafael says. “With the involvement of the local Red Cross it becomes a programme belonging to the people of South Africa, not something imposed on them.”


King Moshweshwe I, an African humanitarian

In 1858, border disputes between the Orange Free State and Lesotho led to war. In their advance on the capital of Lesotho and, failing its capture, in their retreat, soldiers of the Orange Free State attacked local residents and destroyed their homes, crops and livestock. When Jakobus Boshof, President of the Orange Free State, wrote to propose peace, he received the following reply from King Moshweshwe I of Lesotho:

“Your messengers arrived last night, bearing a letter in which you begin to talk of peace. I regret that you should ever have talked of war. When you attacked the people of Beerseba who had done you no harm, I was amazed and afflicted beyond all manner of expression…

“You call yourself a Christian in your letter to me. I have long known that you are a Christian; but the commandants of your army are not yet Christians and, if they persist in claiming that they are, they will force us to believe that there is no God. No, the officers of your army are not Christians, for I shall never believe that Christianity consists in leading women and children to captivity, in firing point-blank on the old and the sick and that is what your children have done...

“Your warriors deserve a severe reprimand. I am bound to believe you when you say that they have agreed to withdraw from my country, because they hoped to see peace restored; but if such were their motives, their retreat should have been a beginning of peace. Why then did they burn the deserted villages which they met on their way and set fire to the very grass of the fields? Could any one be surprised if now, being nothing but a heathen and a barbarian, I followed the example which I have received of a civilised and Christian people? Indeed, if my heart permitted me to do as your children have done, I would be amply justified were I to lead your wives and children into captivity, to slay your aged and your sick and to send all the blind and infirm in your midst into eternity. Neither could you blame me if I were to burn all your towns; but that would be too great a disaster…

“I have already informed my subordinate chiefs of what is taking place between you and me and my wish is that we should pray God, both you and I, to grant that this correspondence may result in the restoration of peace.”


Vivian Humphrey
Vivian Humphrey is an ICRC information officer in Pretoria.

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