In traditional African societies, disasters like floods, droughts were common. More often, these were beyond people’s control most of the time.  On the other hand, other disasters like fire which the community could respond to collectively did occur as well.

For instance, whenever a neighbour’s house was on fire, the alarm signal would take the form of shouts Moto! Moto! Moto! Nyumba ya jirani inaungua, kujeni tusaidiane tuzime moto!”  translating into Fire! Fire! Fire! Our neighbour’s house is on fire, lets come together and help put out the fire. The success or failure in managing the disaster – fire in this case – depended on how many people were reached with the shouting message, the extent to which they understood the concept of fire and the urgent call to action of helping the neighbour salvage the property.

Does the story of response to disasters in traditional African societies have any relevance for humanitarian work?

To put it in perspective: Is it possible that the lack of a common understanding of concepts is confounding the work of humanitarian actors and contributing to inefficiency and ineffectiveness of the sector, globally and locally?

Thoughts, intentions and actions are often (mis)understood depending on what meanings we activate from concepts. For instance, what comes to your mind when you hear the words gender, neutrality, impartiality or inclusivity? Whilst it is possible that these have universal meanings, contexts may influence understandings and subsequent actions.

What can we do about this situation for the benefit of the humanitarian sector?

As part of ongoing consultations, the East Africa Academy Centre in collaboration with the Geneva Centre for Education and Research in Humanitarian Action (CERAH) and the Coalition of African Non-Governmental Organisations (CoAN) convened the Humanitarian Encyclopedia workshop in Nairobi on September 6, 2018. The workshop was attended by 15 participants from Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. Drawn from academia and practitioners, the participants collectively interrogated how humanitarian concepts are used across time, East African contexts, organisational cultures, disciplinary backgrounds and professions. The workshop contributed to the Centre’s ongoing efforts to build a bridge between academics and the humanitarian sector in generating the understanding of concepts from this part of the world, another example of local initiatives informing international discussions.

“Such a forum as organised today by the Humanitarian Leadership Academy, the Geneva Centre for Education and Research in Humanitarian Action and the Coalition of African Non-Governmental Organisations is very important for bridging the gap between the examples we hear from students who enroll for our course at Makerere University, given that the students have immense field experience and by interacting with them, we get to learn emerging concepts from practitioners. We are grateful to the organising team for inviting us and enabling us to not only network but also contribute to the Humanitarian Encyclopedia.” 

– Ali Halage, Makerere University, Uganda.

Upon completion, in three years’ time, the Humanitarian Encyclopedia aims to show the commonalities and divergences that exist in the way main concepts related to humanitarian action are used by practitioners. During the workshop, different meanings, perceptions, uses and applications of concepts were assessed in groups, individually, through role play and story-telling. Humanitarian stakeholders are engaged, through workshops, in reflecting on concepts and ultimately, by offering an innovative knowledge-sharing platform to co-create and disseminate the Humanitarian Encyclopedia.

As a living Encyclopedia, the approach chosen to select the concepts that will form the entries seeks to reflect the diversity of languages and practices existing in the sector by involving a broad range of aid actors. Therefore, by bringing together aid/humanitarian practitioners, the East Africa Academy Centre played a collaborative role in this concept selection process that will shape the Humanitarian Encyclopedia’s architecture.

To wrap up the workshop, a one-hour panel discussion on Contextualising Humanitarian Learning Resources for East Africa was held. Ali Halage, a Lecturer from Makerere University shared his experience of contextualising an online course on Humanitarian and Disaster Resilience while Suada Ibrahim, the Disaster Reduction Manager at the Kenya Red Cross Society shared her experience on contextualising the Global Disaster Risk Reduction and Management online learning pathway to suit the East Africa context. Both initiatives at Makerere University and the Kenya Red Cross Society have been supported by the East Africa Academy Centre.


To find out more about the project, visit

and watch this short video:  “Contribute to the Humanitarian Encyclopedia

John Nduri
Learning and Knowledge Management Advisor, Humanitarian Leadership Academy East Africa
East Africa
CERAHCOANContextualisationDisaster Risk ReductionEast AfricaelearningencyclopediaHumanitarianKayaKenyaLearningonline courseTanzaniaUgandaWorkshop
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