[LI] Ebola messaging in African languages – taking stock and looking ahead

Last year I put up 3 posts* on LinkedIn about messaging and public education about Ebola in West Africa, in the first languages of the region. I wanted to briefly return to the subject here, and consider lessons for the future.

Thankfully the epidemic is over and, despite a few vexing cases cropping up, Ebola has receded from the verge of causing a regional catastrophe. The efforts on local, national, and international levels that contributed to this success included public education and extension involved some formal translation of some materials and messages into African languages and probably quite a bit of translation and interpreting in the field. This is an important dimension of the overall campaign for which there is there is to my knowledge only one formal evaluation, done by Translators Without Borders (TWB) on their program, entitled “Words of Relief – Ebola Crisis Learning Review.”

TWB’s report is worth the read. Of particular note is the juxtaposition between the importance they indicate many agencies and experts gave to messaging in local languages, and the apparent low priority many of the agencies actually accorded to translating materials.

Wolof (YEnAMarre/ANAFA); Mende (ISOS/TWB); Krio (CDC) ; N'Ko (Athinkra))
Wolof (YEnAMarre/ANAFA); Mende (ISOS/TWB); Krio (CDC) ; N’Ko (Athinkra))

Messaging in multilingual contexts

Messaging for emergencies in multilingual societies involves … more than one language. Whether or not that dimension is planned for and how are other questions. Message only in English in Liberia or Sierra Leone, or French in Guinea (English and French having been inherited from the colonial period and used officially and in most formal education), and at some point or actually many points, the messages will pass into other languages, in some forms, at some levels, by some agents, and with varying coverage.

How that worked, and how clearly and accurately messages about ebola were conveyed to who and understood in various languages is important to know. For information that went out only or initially in one language, how was it transmitted to people without competence in that language (and who didn’t get the message)? The question is complicated of course by the number of people, localities, and media involved, and above all by the fact most of this certainly was oral and not recorded.

Planning for and developing material in diverse languages can help assure the accuracy of the message, at least as it goes out, as well as its resonance (here thinking about how a language is used), and potentially its reach. So looking forward, another question is will we have “lessons learned” from messaging about ebola and “best practices” for use of African languages identified to inform such planning?

None of these broad questions would be novel to anyone familiar with development communication or language in development. But is anyone aside from TWB taking them on?

Learning and planning

From having followed the ebola crisis at a distance, and engaged a number of issues about ebola education materials in African languages, here are a few points I would propose for use in considering of lessons learned and elaborating best practices. These complement observations made by TWB from their experience, and also attempt to encompass the broader picture:

  1. Follow the long-tail(s). The distribution of speakers of diverse languages in any geographic area is always a long-tail one, regardless of scale or location. But in a multilingual society, the language(s) at the head of the distribution will likely be different by scale and by location. Ideally messaging would take that into account prioritizing languages most spoken in a target area and then attending to how best to communicate in other languages. It is not clear that this was the explicit or implicit strategy, although to a certain degree it seems (from reports) to have happened “organically” – when for instance local government officials or health teams went out to meet with communities about the ebola crisis (either speaking in or having their words interpreted into the local language). However, future health education efforts could do well to profile their target audiences by long-tail distribution of languages, in order to prioritize use of resources.
  2. Different languages via different media. Some reports from Nigeria indicated that different languages were used in different media (not sure on accuracy): English on social media; English and Nigeria’s “decamillionaire” languages (Hausa, Yoruba, Igbo) in media used on broader levels; other widely spoken languages on provincial levels; and appropriate first languages on community levels. If this describes the situation – broadly if not in specifics – then there must have been a lot of translation, interpretation, or rephrasing of material from one language to another/others. How did this work. What were issues encountered, where, and with which languages? Were their particular links that worked well or could have used more attention/support?
  3. 2Ds+4Rs. Of the “2Ds&4Rs” I introduced as a rationale for reposting health information in African languages – demonstration, dissemination, reading, review, revision, and re-use – three “Rs” are particularly relevant to identifying lessons learned and best practices for use of those languages: Review and Revision for Re-use/re-purposing. These apply to both to materials in written language (posters, fact sheets) and audio/video (e.g., YouTube). How is the quality of the language used? Accuracy (and where translated, fidelity to original)? Does printed material use standard orthographies correctly? Are visuals understandable, culturally appropriate, and in the case of right-to-left languages, oriented in the same direction as the text? Is the language used in a variety (e.g., dialect) and register that is widely understood? These questions might be addressed by African language and linguistics experts (how many were involved in developing ebola materials?).
  4. Vetted fact sheets. A set of verified FAQs or talking points in diverse languages about an issue would seem to be a central element in public education about that issue. For instance, the TWB report cited above mentioned translation of “key social mobilization messages” by WHO and UNICEF. What other examples are there of fact sheets in African languages about ebola, and who was involved in developing them? How accurate were they (per the previous point)? How were they disseminated and used (e.g., by health workers, local governments, community radio stations)?
  5. Archiving by language. At the present time, various ebola materials (including in African languages) are available online on sites like those of CDC, Ebola Communication Network, International SOS, and TWB. As part of the process of developing lessons learned and best practices with regard to use of African languages in such materials, I would suggest they be brought together and collated by language, on language-specific sites, a meta site (a candidate for that would be African Language Materials Archive), or both. This would facilitate comparisons among materials from diverse sources dealing with health issues in the same language.

In its report, TWB calls attention to the “need to change current approaches to ensure that providing information and communication in languages people can understand is considered a priority in humanitarian response.” Towards that end, and more effective use of Africa’s first languages in health education generally, it would help greatly to have a comprehensive evaluation of the linguistic dimension of the efforts to combat the ebola epidemic in West Africa.

Further reading

Some recent posts on the Beyond Niamey blog address aspects of this issue:

* The previous LinkedIn posts on this subject mentioned above were:


This post was originally published on LinkedIn on 12 Dec. 2015

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