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
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
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.
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
- 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 is head of communications for the Red Cross
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