This past summer, political conflict in the small central African nation of Burundi forced thousands to flee. Refugee camps were set up in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda and Tanzania for thousands pouring over the borders. While French is spoken in many regions of Central Africa, the refugees were mostly Kirundi speakers. Aware of the growing crisis, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) East Africa, based in Nairobi, Kenya, jumped to action with a Communicating with Communities response to assist the affected population.
As part of the effort, the UNOCHA asked Translators without Borders Kenya (TWBK) to organize a Rapid Response Team (RRT) modeled after the RRTs developed in West Africa and the spider network system developed in Kenya. TWBK jumped to action, putting the call out to Kirundi translators and bilinguals in the fields of teaching and journalism. The assembled team was trained and tested using the new Translator without Borders Words of Relief RRT Orientation, developed as part of the Words of Relief pilot. They then worked together over a five-week period to help aid organizations communicate better with affected populations in the refugee camps. One of the most significant outputs was cholera information in Kirundi to assist with a major cholera outbreak in one of the Tanzanian camps.Two of the RRT translators were Crescent Niyontwari and Alexis Yesashimwe. Below, they tell their stories in their own words.
“I am Crescent Niyontwari, and I speak Kirundi, English, French and a little Swahili. A few months ago, when I was following news on Burundi via Twitter, I came to find a note from Translators Without Borders that there was a need for Kirundi – English translators to help in the Burundi crisis. I stopped and read carefully as it is my habit to pay attention whenever I see a tweet containing the word “Burundi”. It was the very first time I learned of the organization, and then I came in contact with the team in Kenya. That’s how everything started.
“It was not the first time I worked as a volunteer; in 2012, I volunteered with onlinevolunteering.org. I am very happy to offer my services. In the case of RRTB (Rapid Response Team Burundi), it was something special since my services would help to save lives of my fellow citizens who were in desperate need of help. I think my services really helped as access to information can save lives. I would have liked to offer more than what I did, but I hope to do so in the future. I appreciate the way the team co-operated with me via skype and e-mails during the training and the work itself. It was marvelous.”
“I am Alexis Yesashimwe, and I speak five languages: French , English , Swahili (East and Central Africa), Kirundi and Kinyarwanda (and some Lingala). I drew my inspiration from my convictions and values as well as from the philosophy of the organization itself (focused on communications). I have been in very vulnerable situations, so I dedicated my life to serving mankind; offering my services, skills and talents is a small contribution I can give to my fellow human beings in distress.
“The orientation [Words of Relief RRT Orientation] was so informative and encouraging; it personally motivated me to serve more.
“Together with the team I believe we empowered the new Burundi refugees to prevent some incidents that may have resulted in loss of lives when not aware. Some of the messages were “Knowledge is power” and “Prevention is better than cure”. Sure I would work again for RRTB and for TWB with pleasure!”