Solving Stubborn Health Issues Worldwide – Translation is a Key Ingredient

The office of the United Nations in Kenya is focused on healthcare issues in East Africa. A tweet this week from the Twitter handle of the office’s director, Aeneas C. Chuma, lamented ongoing health issues among mothers in Kenya: “Maternal health has not improved in Kenya over the last decades. Time to leverage the private sector for results on MDG5 (Millennium Development Goal 5, Maternal Health)!

Meanwhile, CNN is discussing another lingering issue in Kenya and East Africa: childhood stunting. More than 2 million children in Kenya alone suffer from stunting; 180 million worldwide. A recent episode of Christine Amapour’s show on the network featured the head of UNICEF, Anthony Lake, who explained that the problem can easily be dealt with better nutrition and education.

These are just two recent examples of major non-governmental organizations talking about the stubborn problems of East Africa that continue to hold the region back despite strong growth outlooks. While journalists like to talk about the African Century and the incredible economic opportunities on the continent, we are still hearing about health issues that need to be fixed for that growth to reach its true potential. And, most frustratingly, these are issues that can be fixed with simple communication of critical information.

But that simple health information on nutrition, maternal health and other issues, such as cholera prevention, diarrhea treatment and infant care, must be provided in the language of the people who need it. In East Africa, that language is Swahili. Anyone who has been there knows that while English is taught in secondary school and can be heard in major urban centers such as Nairobi, KiSwahili is the lingua franca. In fact, it is the primary language for more than 60 million people in East Africa. It is the language of communication and must be the language for health information.

Translators without Borders believes that the information gap is in large part due to non-governmental organizations not providing the critical information in the language of the people who need it. But many NGOs are not getting that message. When I communicated with the Amapour program about the fact that language is key to addressing the issue of childhood stunting, they fully agreed and engaged in a discussion about it with us. We need to continue to spread that word. We also are working on some very exciting projects in Kenya through our Healthcare Translators’ Training Center in Nairobi. With our newly trained Swahili translators, we are translating a mass of general healthcare content from the Open University which will eventually go on the feature mobile phones of healthcare workers in the region. We also are transcribing maternal and infant care videos into Swahili. Those videos, developed by HealthPhone, will also be available pre-loaded on mobile phones at no cost to mothers.

The information gap is still wide, but through humanitarian translations we can narrow it significantly. Now we just need more non-governmental organizations and humanitarian leaders to acknowledge the issue and help us with the solution.

Rebecca PetrasBy Rebecca Petras, Translators without Borders Deputy Director and Head of Innovation


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