“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
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
“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
Explanation of the proverb taken from Hammond-Tooke,
The Roots of Black South Africa, Johannesburg, Jonathan Ball
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.”
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
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 is an ICRC information officer in Pretoria.
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