In November 2014, when Boko Haram forces occupied the north-eastern Nigerian border town of Damasak, in Borno State, the population fled north into Niger. Two years later, after the Nigerian army retook much of Damasak, thousands of people returned. They found homes destroyed and the hospital stripped of beds and supplies. Many had lost family members; many had witnessed or been subjected to physical and sexual violence by armed men on all sides of the conflict.
Earlier this year, an inter-agency team went to Damasak to assess humanitarian needs. One aim was to find out whether women and girls were experiencing violence or exploitation, but with no one on the team who spoke the women’s language, Kanuri, they could find only a male soldier from the local barracks to help them communicate. Unsurprisingly, the women claimed to have no protection concerns.
It was a stark example of what can happen when humanitarians cannot communicate in the language of the people they are trying to help. Yet a recent assessment by Translators without Borders (TWB) suggests such challenges are common in north-eastern Nigeria.
All the operational organizations interviewed by TWB in Borno State said language barriers hamper their efforts to understand and respond to the needs of internally displaced people (IDPs) and others affected by conflict and hunger. With 28 first languages spoken in Borno alone and low levels of education and literacy across the wider area affected, aid organizations struggle to recruit staff with the right combination of language skills and technical ability. Professional translators and interpreters are in short supply, particularly for languages other than the regional lingua franca, Hausa, so communication materials and program documentation tend to be available only in English, often in Hausa, and sometimes Kanuri.
As a result, humanitarians interviewed from six program sectors feared they lacked a full picture of needs and priorities across the target population, as speakers of minority languages risked going unheard. Without the right languages, ‘We can talk to the host communities, but not the IDPs.’
They also described challenges with providing assistance: Was information about the services available getting through? Were mine awareness communications understood, or were the various explosive remnants of war all being translated as ‘bomb,’ without the distinctions that determine how to stay safe? In short, how much was being lost in translation?
Despite lacking even basic data on the languages of affected people, organizations find ways around the language barriers. Some work through three informal interpreters in succession to communicate with affected people. Some have documents laboriously translated back into English to check their accuracy. Some provide non-professional interpreters for minority-language speakers so they can take part in training sessions.
All those we spoke to knew it was not enough.
Happily, solutions are available. Simple means of mapping the languages of affected people can provide humanitarians with a basis for planning communication. TWB has the expertise to work with subject specialists and language professionals to develop a library of multilingual humanitarian materials everyone can use and train translators and interpreters for minority languages. A protection glossary app designed by TWB’s Head of Technology, Mirko Plitt, has already proved popular and expansion is planned.
Together we can bring down the language barriers that impede recovery for affected people in Nigeria, now and for future emergencies.
By Ellie Kemp, Translators without Borders Head of Crisis Response