Article originally published on LinkedIn,15 Sept. 2014.
The ebola crisis in West Africa, and the need for clear and accurate information for the populations on the front line of the epidemic, have exposed long-standing gaps as well as some strengths in development communication in African languages. How these both are addressed in public health education may be a key to controlling the spread of the virus.
For those who don’t know the area, West Africa is a multilingual region whose linguistic complexity is masked by the neat “English-speaking” and “Francophone” categories inherited from colonial division and rule. English and French (two countries – Guinea-Bissau and the island state of Cape Verde – use Portuguese) are used on official levels and in education, and to varying degrees in popular culture, but are not spoken by all.
African languages are very much alive as mother tongues and regional lingua francas, and depending on the country, may be the main or sole means of communication for many people or a large majority of the population. This is especially the case for the rural, the poor, and women – all of whom are important to reach with accurate and timely information about ebola.
So, how to get the information into the languages of the people? According to some observations, this is apparently not always happening, but when it is, there seem to be three main approaches*:
1) Interpretation, where information is explained by someone based on their understanding in one language, interpreted by themselves or someone else into another language. For instance, by a local official or health worker. This is an approach long part of development and extension work. Its advantage is its personal, direct nature, but the disadvantages include potential inaccuracies, incompleteness, or inconsistencies in the interpretation, which are hard to verify and correct.
2) Broadcast media, in which news and information about ebola is disseminated in whatever languages are necessary. This is an established and effective way of reaching many people, including not only national level broadcasts, but also community radio. However it is not clear how material on ebola is vetted (which is not to say there’s necessarily a problem there, just a question).
3) Text translation, in which in-country experts and/or international volunteers translate ebola material (such as a poster, or a Wikipedia article) from English or French into an African language. Text can in principle always be reviewed for accuracy, but the dissemination may be limited. (However, the fact that many speakers of the languages are not literate is not necessarily a limitation, since usually someone in a community can read aloud to others.)
So far as I can tell, these approaches do not intersect, which would be another problem. As much as the lack of coordination of ebola control efforts in general have been seen to be a problem, this is also the case also with messaging in African languages. A particular gap (common in development and extension in the region) would appear to be the lack of use of the written forms of languages to produce standard scripts or talking points that guide field agents or broadcasters in giving consistent and accurate information. Greater use of text-based material on ebola in African languages (using orthographies that are established, even if sometimes not actively taught in schools) could also facilitate building banks of public health education information in those languages.
It’s also important to remember three general facts about the many languages in West Africa that would help any concerted effort to improve messaging in them. First, some are spoken by millions as first or second languages, even as others may have few native speakers, which means that messaging could begin by focusing on the most spoken languages (i.e., there are logical ones to prioritize). Second, many of what are counted as separate languages are actually close enough to be mutually intelligible, so that translation in one closely related language could facilitate translation into others (e.g. among Manding languages, or varieties of Fula). And third, many African languages are spoken across borders, which would imply a need for inter-state coordination of translation efforts (harmonization of messages; avoiding duplication of work).
Who could help coordinate such efforts? To begin with, each country in the region has an agency charged with literacy and materials development in all or some of the first languages of their respective populations. On a regional level there is the African Academy of Languages, which is part of the African Union, and interacts with national level agencies on the one hand and UNESCO on the other. The latter, which has a long history of support for materials development and standardization in languages of the region, could also interface with the appropriate UN agency, if as some suggest, the UN should assume a coordinating role for ebola control efforts.
Public education is recognized as an essential part of efforts to control ebola in West Africa. In order to be effective, it must not only include information in the first languages and lingua francas of the region, but also assure its consistency and accuracy within and across borders. And in order for that to happen, there will need to be a greater level of planning and coordination about languages and development communication than one has typically seen up until now.
There is indeed a fourth approach to using African languages for communication of information about ebola: ICT. There are a number of YouTube videos, for example, and an app for Google Play. There is overlap here with the text-based initiatives (the app for instance includes text) and broadcast media (there are YouTube video outtakes from broadcasts). These, like the text-based efforts involving Wikipedia, for instance, have the potential to reach audiences with access to the internet or certain mobile devices. As such production increases, there would seem to be the same issues with verifying content accuracy as discussed for other approaches.
* This summary is based mainly on information included in two recent postings on the “Beyond Niamey” blog: Ebola and health information in African languages (4 Sept. 2014) and More on ebola and health information in African languages (10 Sept. 2014).