The power of words in crisis situations

It’s one thing to not understand a word. But it’s another thing entirely to not understand a potentially life-saving word. In this case, words have great power.

One year ago, on August 1, 2018, four cases of Ebola were confirmed in an eastern region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). On July 17, 2019, Ebola was declared an international health emergency by the World Health Organization (WHO). And there are now multiple cases reported and deaths from Ebola in Goma, DRC, a major transit hub in the area. In the largest-ever outbreak reported in the country, and the world’s second-largest in history, speaking the right language could actually save lives.


One word can be critical

Potentially millions of people feel like they don’t have enough information to keep themselves and their families safe from Ebola. So humanitarians and health care providers need to know which languages to use when communicating with people at risk of Ebola.

By talking to people on the ground, we have learned that critical words like “bloody“, “gums” and even “vaccine” weren’t fully understood in French or Standard Swahili, the main languages being used by humanitarians.


ndui-vaccine-the power of words and its translation
Some people at risk of Ebola aren’t familiar with the standard Swahili word for “vaccine”. They only know of “ndui”, a term that refers to prenatal vaccines. By sharing this insight with humanitarians, we help people stay safe from Ebola. This case shows the power of a word.

So we asked

We conducted a language assessment in Goma, DRC in February 2019. We asked people about three different languages: French, standard Swahili, and localized (Congolese) Swahili. So which should humanitarians use to communicate in the DRC?

  • French is the official language of the DRC, and one of the most-used languages in humanitarian communication. Yet, people had difficulty understanding important French terms like sanglant (“bloody”), sperme (“sperm”) or gencives (“gums”) on a poster about Ebola.
  • Standard Swahili caused confusion when it came to critical concepts like ridhaa (“consent”) on a vaccine consent form.
  • Congolese Swahili was the most effective language for communicating with people about Ebola in Goma.


The power of words- need to translate messages to Swahili


Are we Missing the mark?

These findings apply to Goma, DRC, so we need to conduct more research to understand what languages should be used in other parts of linguistically-rich DRC. So we will be returning to learn more by working with local people. Together we can start to understand how humanitarians can better communicate, and stop the spread of this devastating disease.


The power of words- are we missing the mark?-translators without borders
Photo: Translators Without Borders

Practical steps we can take

To begin with, we can test people’s understanding of information by holding focus groups to understand language barriers. Then, create signs and posters in the most effective languages to communicate how to stay safe from Ebola. Further, we can train interpreters on Ebola-related health messages. Finally, we can develop voice and text glossaries to assist in understanding and communication regardless of literacy levels.


To give the Power of Words

You can help us take practical steps to communicate about Ebola in a meaningful, lifesaving way. Give the power of words by donating to TWB today.

Author: Aimee Ansari

Aimee has been an aid worker for over 25 years, working in humanitarian and development contexts around the world. Aimee is the Executive Director of Translators without Borders, a non-profit dedicated to making it possible for people to get the information they need and want, when they need and want it and in a format and language that they can understand.

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