Back to Magazine

Respecting cultural diversity
by Fernand Azonnanon

How do you make the Fundamental Principles and the basics of international humanitarian law accessible and intelligible to the most culturally disparate communities? A process of reflection in Benin based on an experience in a rural setting shows the extent to which linguistic peculiarities and local traditions merit a varied and non-dogmatic approach.

Saturday 19 May 2001. The place is Madjatome, situated on Benin's north-west border with Togo. In the village hall, a dissemination session on the promotion of humanitarian values is about to begin. The teaching materials and the necessary logistics have been delivered the previous day from Porto-Novo, capital of Benin, ten hours' drive away.

On this particular morning, the secretary general of the local Red Cross chapter is bursting with optimism. His personal awareness-raising efforts and the repeated announcements made during the night by the town crier would have reached the furthermost huts of this village locked in deepest Benin. The secretary general is all the more confident because, on this occasion, the national and regional authorities of the Red Cross of Benin have all been personally involved in preparing and organization of this training session.

"At last, we are going to be able to put an end to all the violations of our Movement's Fundamental Principles," remarks the secretary general who, when speaking of Fundamental Principles, is actually referring to the deterioration of humanitarian values in the region. For there was a time when human life was revered, when this sacrosanct principle served to stimulate dialogue, promote education and build bridges between peoples, be they natives or immigrants.

History and prejudices

The opening of the Timbuktu-Cairo route in the time of the Emperor Kankan Moussa fostered exchanges be-tween scholars from the Arab Maghreb and sub-Saharan Africa, bringing with it a strong dose of humanism. The Danhomè kingdom also enjoyed close ties with its Oyo counterpart in Nigeria. Thus, the people shared the same human values, which helped greatly to eliminate the seeds of tension and inter-ethnic clashes.

The awareness-raising work of the local chapter in Madjatome requires tact and persistence. Breaches of humanitarian values in the form of murders, foul assassinations, the systematic killing of children believed to be witches, the rape and ill-treatment of women - at times exacerbated by feuds and long-standing prejudices between families, communities or whole ethnic groups - are unfortunately perceived by their perpetrators as "crimes of honour" to avenge an affront which has blemished the reputation of a family.

For example, in the Baatonum region, individuals belonging to certain ethnic groups have long been considered subhuman, even to this day in certain places. Thus, the Abomey kingdom reduced other communities in Benin, formerly known as Dahomey, to slavery. Discrimination of this kind brings us back to the Red Cross principle of impartiality, which aims to prevent segregation practised to the disadvantage of certain people. But have we succeeded in playing on the cultural sensitivities of the holders of these beliefs so as to make them individuals capable of burying the hatchet in favour of non-discrimination? To consider doing such a thing without taking into account the attachment these conservative communities have to the cultural traditions with which they were born and bred would be a mistake.

In the transmission of knowledge, local specificities play a major role. Here in the Ouémé Valley in Benin, the "Langbéto" spirit alias the Guardian of the Night embodies the principle of humanity during the 8th May celebrations.


Official records proffer a worrying statistic: more than 50 people were the victims of this kind of violence in Madjatome between 1990 and 2000. This prompted the Red Cross of Benin to set up a local chapter here, which is hosting, on this Saturday in May 2001, its first dissemination session for village leaders.

Inside, the participants, puzzled by the decor set up for the occasion, are peering curiously at the walls of the room - a room that would normally be only too familiar to them, since it is where they hold their meetings and cultural events. Today, however, the fissured walls have hidden their cracks behind Red Cross posters bearing inscriptions in French, which only the secretary general and a couple of others in his office are barely able to decipher.

On closer inspection, it seems that for these villagers, the idea of under-going training in French, with teaching materials that are incomprehensible to them, is a real cause of tension. This tension manifests itself in their faces as a sort of passive revolt towards what can best be described as a "cultural and intellectual hijack". In fact, the practice of conducting dissemination sessions for illiterate populations in the official working language can dangerously compromise our image in rural areas.

The roots of this distortion in communication and teaching methods can, unfortunately, be traced far back in the history of the Movement's policy towards promotion of humanitarian values. For the Movement has not accorded enough importance and signi-ficance to adapting to the needs of conservative communities in a continent such as Africa, where a strong oral tradition has given rise to a multitude of national, regional and local languages.

What are the solutions?

The problem is illustrated by the limited number of documents produced by the Movement in the languages of local communities. As a result, we have to resort to the services of interpreters of doubtful skills. In a cosmopolitan town such as Parakou, in northern Benin, where nearly 80 per cent of the population is illiterate and more than ten national dialects coexist, how can a broad-based dissemination programme succeed if it is only in French?

It is time to think long and hard about possible ways to get ourselves out of the relations we have with local communities based on inertia and a smiling hypocrisy which they sometimes develop towards us in order to ensure their "right to humanitarian assistance".

The adoption, somewhat belatedly, of a policy document and plan of action on cultural diversity in June 2001 in Porto-Novo by French-speaking states marks the beginning of the realization of this ideal, which the Association of French-speaking Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in Africa (ACROFA) would do well to seize upon. Indeed, we can surely agree on a strategy enabling local cultures and languages to be fairly represented in the dissemination programmes of National Societies. If we could establish a formula such as "each community is entitled to its language of origin, its own teaching materials and its place in the decision-making bodies of the Movement", we would already be making progress. It is in this respect that the Federation's Strategy 2010 should be refined in its application, so as to contribute - through the promotion of cultural diversity - to fostering respect for differences and an openness towards others. At the same time, we need to recognize how closely linked cultural diversity is to fundamental liberties and the notion of human dignity.

  The Movement's mission is to prevent and alleviate the suffering of vulnerable people without discrimination wherever they may be. It should therefore promote the diversity of non-harmful cultural practices and, in particular, ensure:
  • the development of linguistic policies and appropriate structures which favour the development of dissemination programmes on the Fundamental Principles and international humanitarian law;
  • that it takes account of cultural diversity in its teaching tools produced for the different components of the Movement;
  • that it initiates various dissemination programmes on humanitarian values for the media in national languages;
  • that it creates in the National Societies coordination bodies for programmes of promotion of humanitarian values in the national languages of each country.
In this way, we can make headway towards taking a new approach to the promotion of humanitarian values, which will be the very essence of the inexorable process whose ultimate goal is a lasting peace and for which tolerance is the objectively verifiable indicator.

Fernand Azonnanon
Fernand Azonnanon is head of communications for the Red Cross of Benin.

Top | Contact Us | Credits | Current issue | Webmaster

2002 | Copyright