/ 19 April 2020

How to translate a pandemic

Nigeria Health Virus
Playing safe: Multiple hand-washing basins at the Mushin Market in Lagos were installed by a pharmaceutical company to help prevent the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus. (Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP)


Mororo moros. Corolla virus. Coro. These are the aliases that the deadly novel coronavirus goes by in West Africa. As the virus pummels Europe and the United States, governments here are scrambling to prevent an outbreak by enforcing lockdowns and ramping up public health campaigns.

But getting the message across to people who don’t speak or understand English — more than half the population in some areas — is hard. Explaining to them that the virus makes no distinction between poor and rich is not straightforward.

Prevention measures come in terms so foreign that there are no literal translations for them in many local languages. But to save the lives of millions, finding the words to communicate the seriousness of the pandemic is crucial.

It’s why Vickie Remoe, a publicist in Sierra Leone, got to work the minute neighbouring Ghana and Nigeria announced index cases of the virus. Remoe, the founder of marketing company VR & C, knew the virus would soon knock at Sierra Leone’s doors. So when the country’s first case was announced on March 31, she and her team had created fliers and radio dramas urging people to Was yu an, Dey na os and Kip tu yusef. In the widely-spoken Krio language, these translate to wash your hands, stay at home and keep to yourself.

“My instinct was if we are producing anything it has to be in a language that’s accessible to the majority of people and that language is Krio,” Remoe said. “We always start our work from a place of empathy. What can I say to people that they can connect with?”

Communicating ineffectively in an outbreak can be dangerous. At least 11 health workers were killed in 2019 in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in part because of the failure to convince some people that medical professionals could be trusted. The Ebola outbreak was declared on August 1 2018 and the World Health Organisation said 2276 deaths have occurred as of April 10 this year.

In North Kivu, where the Ebola virus hit hardest, responders used medical terms such as the French phrase ring de vaccination, which refers to a method of vaccinating suspected Ebola patients. But the phrase evoked images of violence: in the local Kinande language, it translated to boxing ring. The resulting distrust of health workers made them targets of deadly attacks.

Remoe said she wants to reach children who may not understand why they can’t go to school. She knows how it feels, she said, having lived through the Sierra Leone war with little understanding of why people were hurting each other.

Children now listen to the story of folklore character Koni Rabit, on Freetown’s radio stations. Koni Rabit, who stubbornly refuses to stay home eventually has someone cough on her and infect her with a disease.

The drama series is also useful for unlettered adults, Remoe said. It’s killing two birds with a stone. Still, translating terms like self-quarantine is difficult because it has no reference point in Krio.

In Iseyin, a town in Nigeria’s southwest, villagers have heard of kokoro korona. They’ve also heard it’s spreading because of G5 (5G) masts. It means Sola Fagorusi must plan carefully. He is the team leader of Onelife, a nongovernmental organisation creating awareness of the virus. With a spreadsheet, his team finds the right Yoruba words to explain how the virus spreads. The words they use must be factual and appropriate in the local context.

“Explaining social distancing is one of the toughest things here,” he said on a rainy Wednesday morning while doing his rounds. Most people understand handwashing. Using oti — alcohol — to wipe hands after touching surfaces is easy.

But distancing is a no-go area. “This is how we live,” villagers protested when Fagorusi told them e je ka sun fun ra wa — let’s stay feet apart.

At one point, even as he spoke, someone reached out to touch him.

As for stay-home directives? “That’s just not going to happen,” Fagorusi said. Many of the villagers live on daily wages. The most they are willing to do, they told him, is not shake hands.

Using posters in local languages may not be sufficient. They are handy for front line responders and semiliterates, but in-person campaigns work best, Fagorusi said. His team gets to answer the many questions people have, even if they expose themselves in the process.

“We are a talking and listening people,” Fagorusi said. “We love to talk and we love to be heard. That has to be the approach.”

This story first appeared in The Continent, a new weekly newspaper that brings you the best of our reporting on Africa. The publication, produced in partnership with the Mail & Guardian, is designed to be read and shared on WhatsApp and other social media platforms. Get your free copy here.