On the ground in the Democratic Republic of Congo: language support can help earn people’s trust in the Ebola response

The communication challenges between communities and responders aiming to stop the ongoing Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo are deep. Until a few weeks ago, I had only a faint understanding of the reasons behind them. I knew that the linguistic diversity of the area meant information about Ebola is not fully understood, even among the relatively well-educated population of Goma. Since landing in Goma and being confronted with a hand-washing station and vaccination poster even before I could go through immigration, I started to gain more insight. 

Developing the resources and capacities to communicate effectively with people at risk is a challenge in itself. Yet, a bigger challenge is getting responders to pay more attention to language to earn the trust of people through meaningful two-way communication.

It’s been over a year, and the outbreak has not yet been controlled. People’s fear of an indiscriminate disease and a medical process that can be intimidating are still affecting responders’ ability to provide care in outbreak areas.

No matter how effective prevention measures and treatment are, if people don’t trust or understand them, they will not use them.

Communication in the languages of people at risk can help ensure comprehension and establish trust. That is why TWB has deployed a team to eastern DRC to provide language support across the Ebola response. Improving understanding of the language dynamics affecting the response and building the capacity of responders to communicate with communities, in their languages, are ambitious tasks. 

We use language assessments to identify where breakdowns in comprehension and translation problems are happening. Together with a team of local linguists and partner organizations like IRC, IFRC, and UNICEF, we then identify language solutions to improve existing communication strategies and materials. 

To support field staff and community mobilizers, we are developing tools to improve their understanding of key concepts and multilingual communication skills. Research by the Groupe de recherche en sciences sociales (GRSS) has found important knowledge gaps among health workers, impeding their capacity to inform community members. We will also train speakers of the relevant local languages to provide translation and interpreting services across the response. This will have the added benefit of building translation capacity in local languages for future needs.

But I fear that getting responders to focus on language as a key component of communications will be more difficult than providing high quality language support.

Language is still too often an afterthought.

As my colleague Aimee Ansari said in an op-ed last year, language intersects with everything humanitarians do. Meaningful two-way communication fulfills a vital function in a crisis like this Ebola outbreak. It’s as pivotal as providing health services. 

In this response, a lot depends on whether the many responding aid organizations prioritize the languages of affected people. It’s critical that organizations mobilize the appropriate resources to fill the persistent communication gaps across the response. It’s not good enough to assume that people don’t face language barriers or to expect field staff to address them with little or no support. 

The gravity of the outbreak and an agreement to improve community engagement may provide the traction for a more language-aware approach to stop Ebola. That can show that responders are here to listen, understand, and provide trustworthy information and services to help people protect themselves and their families from the disease.

Despite the challenges, our team is determined to help make this happen. You can do so too by:

    • Asking what your organization, or the organization you donate to, is doing to communicate in the languages people speak and understand;
    • Sharing this blog with speakers of relevant Congolese languages who may be able to support;
    • Contacting us at [email protected] to learn more about our language support services and to discuss partnership opportunities in DRC. 

This project is funded by the H2H Fund, a funding mechanism for H2H Network members supported by UK aid from the UK government. It is also supported by grant funding from Gilead Sciences, Inc. Gilead Sciences, Inc. has had no input into the development or content of these materials.

Written by Mia Marzotto, Senior Advocacy Officer for Translators without Borders

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