Coronavirus Warnings Lost in a Failure to Translate

Uganda’s government issues its COVID-19 guidelines in the country’s most popular tongues. Where does that leave people who don't speak those languages?

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Coronavirus Warnings Lost in a Failure to Translate

Beatrice Lamwaka, GPJ Uganda

At the Kiwanga village trading center, local council chairperson Margaret Nakawesa tells residents to wear masks. Some walk away, while others ignore her.

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MUKONO, UGANDA — Joyce Abalo sorts groundnuts as she waits for customers one recent evening at her kiosk at the Kiwanga village trading center, amid supermarkets, restaurants and other businesses. People shuffle past, chattering in Luganda, one of Uganda’s primary languages.

One hundred meters away stands the local council chairperson’s home in this central Uganda village in Mukono district, 25 miles east of Kampala, the capital. Recorded coronavirus messages thunder from loudspeakers in front of the house: “Wash your hands. Practice social distancing.” Again, in Luganda.

There is only one problem: Abalo, 54, doesn’t speak Luganda.

As a result, crucial forms of public communication about the coronavirus — including information posters and presidential speeches — have flummoxed her. “My 15-year-old daughter had to translate for me these messages,” says Abalo, a single mother of six. “Up to now, I still feel like I don’t understand what this disease is about.”

Abalo’s plight is far from unusual in this East African country of more than 41 million people. The country has confirmed more than 38,000 cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, and more than 300 deaths.

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Beatrice Lamwaka, GPJ Uganda

Margaret Nakawesa, local council chairperson for Kiwanga village, looks on as many people at the trading center go without masks and fail to practice social distancing, both of which are among the government’s coronavirus directives.

When the pandemic erupted in March, the government made TV and radio ads and plastered multicolored posters all over Uganda’s cities, towns and villages. The COVID-19 warnings and guidelines went out mainly in English and Luganda, the nation’s two most popular tongues.

A lack of current data makes it hard to know how many Ugandans speak the other 50-plus languages recognized by the country’s constitution. What is clear is that some Ugandans, like Abalo, were left uninformed or confused and had to find people to translate the COVID-19 messages.

The pandemic has highlighted the unique challenges that a multilingual country faces as it tries to protect its people from a potentially deadly virus.

“There has not been any coordinated effort to translate COVID-19 messages in local languages,” says Jane Frances Alowo, Luo subject coordinator at Makerere University’s School of Languages, Literature and Communication, in Kampala. “There is no communication strategy.”

Emmanuel Ainebyoona, senior public relations officer for Uganda’s Ministry of Health, defends the government.

“COVID-19 messages have been translated in the dominant languages and for refugees as well — French, Lingala, Kinyarwanda,” he says, referring to residents from Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi and Rwanda.

“My 15-year-old daughter had to translate for me these messages. Up to now, I still feel like I don’t understand what this disease is about.”

“These messages have reached everyone in every corner of the country,” he says. “People are not following [the coronavirus directives]. This is behavioral, and it takes time to change. The ministry will continue to enforce the messages.”

A team of Makerere University researchers found that many Ugandan communities that don’t speak English or Luganda know little about the coronavirus.

Medadi E. Ssentanda, one of the researchers and a lecturer in the university’s department of African languages, says the team heeded a warning he credits to the World Health Organization: Especially under stress, even people fluent in a community’s dominant language need clear, reliable health information in their own tongue.

“People are not following the [coronavirus guidelines] because they don’t know what to do, and this makes them vulnerable to infections,” Ssentanda says.

The team compiled and translated COVID-19 messages in six languages used in Uganda — Luganda, Runyankore-Rukiga, Ateso, Luo, Lugbarati and Kiswahili — and Braille.

“These are largely unifying languages in Uganda,” Ssentanda says. “A majority of the people will associate with these languages.”

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Beatrice Lamwaka, GPJ Uganda

Joyce Abalo sorts groundnuts in front of her kiosk at the Kiwanga village trading center in central Uganda. Abalo says protective masks make her uncomfortable, especially in hot weather. She says her children have to translate the government’s coronavirus messages because they are not in her language.

But their research surfaced a major challenge: Phrases such as “running water,” “sanitize” and “social distancing” eluded easy translation.

“While translating, we needed to localize the key terms to appeal to listeners,” says Sarah Nakijoba, another member of the research team and a lecturer in the department of linguistics, English language studies and communication skills at Makerere.

They could use neither words nor symbols for “sanitizer” because the concept is foreign to many rural residents. And for “running water,” they used a symbol of someone washing hands with water from a jerry can — a familiar ritual, especially for rural Ugandans.

Margaret Nakawesa, from whose house the loudspeakers blare coronavirus messages, has been a local council chairperson in this area since 2001. She says people use language barriers as an excuse to ignore coronavirus precautions.

She keeps a jerry can of water in front of her house and asks visitors to first wash their hands. Some people, she says, don’t do it.

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“People have a negative attitude toward following the standard operating procedure,” Nakawesa says. “No number of messages will make them do what is asked of them.”

She adds, “I tell them to stand across there and speak from there, but some of them walk away.”

Abalo, who is from the Acholi tribe, moved to central Uganda nearly 25 years ago. She is upbeat, and she talks and laughs loudly. She speaks her native tongue as well as basic English and Kiswahili.

She says she never learned Luganda because it is so different from Acholi. It has longer words, she says, compared with Acholi’s shorter, more straightforward vocabulary.

She says she is eager to comply with coronavirus orders. She just doesn’t know what they are.

“The corona messages need to be translated so that I am able to understand and know how to protect myself from this disease,” Abalo says.

She says symptoms of COVID-19 seem to mirror those of malaria: headache, fatigue, fever.

If she gets sick, she asks, “how will I know that I have corona?”

Beatrice Lamwaka is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Kampala, Uganda. She specializes in reporting on gender-based violence.

Translation Notes

Beatrice Lamwaka, GPJ, translated some interviews from Acholi.