Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Languages & communication in Nigeria's ebola success

In a comment to my posting on possible roles of language and miscommunication in the tragic murder of 8 ebola campaign workers in Womey, Guinea, Charles Chukwuemeka Okolie commented on the Nigerian experience, noting that the "Ebola message was given in more than 100 languages including the tiny minority tongue[s] both in the print and electronic media." Now that Nigeria has been declared ebola-free, some more details are being reported about ebola messaging in Nigerian languages.

For example, an article entitled "Ebola-free: How did Nigeria and Senegal do it?" the Los Angeles Times today mentioned public awareness campaigns on ebola in Nigeria in which "Information was communicated in multiple languages via radio, television, social media, text messages and a large electronic billboard in the center of Lagos."

Another current article, "How Nigeria prevented an Ebola epidemic" in Medical News Today (MNT) mentioned language use in the context of the Nigerian authorities' quick response to the ebola threat: "House-to-house and local radio campaigns - using local dialects - explained the risks, how to take personal preventive measures and what was being done to control virus spread."

A recent article in the Globe and Mail, "Ebola: How Nigeria and Senegal stopped the disease ‘dead in its tracks’," explains further:
"In Nigeria, social mobilization teams went house-to-house to visit 26,000 families who lived within two kilometres of the Ebola patients. They explained Ebola’s warning signs and how to prevent the virus from spreading. Leaflets and billboards, in multiple languages, along with social-media messages, were used to educate the broader Nigerian population."
And an IRIN article last week, "Ebola and the media – Nigeria’s good news story," provides a different perspective, implying primarily English use on internet and mobile devices, with Nigerian languages prioritized on other media:
"Nigerians who do not have access to the Internet and mobile phones have not been left out of the Ebola campaign. Traditional mediums like radio, flyers, posters, village meetings and announcements by town criers are all being used. Priority is given to local languages.

"Comparing the traditional methods of campaigning to social media and SMS campaigns, Nwokedi Moses, better known as Big MO, a vernacular language broadcaster with Wazobia FM, said the two approaches worked well together. 'The social media Ebola campaign was massive, but it complemented the traditional media. This is due to social media’s limited reach within rural areas.'"

Not overnight

Nigeria's success in multilingual ebola messaging evidently benefited from existing capabilities, including those developed in anti-polio campaigns (according to the MNT article cited above). Also, according to Johns Hopkins Center for Communication Programs director Susan Krenn (as paraphrased by CNN in an article yesterday, "Using music to fight Ebola in Liberia"), there have been in the past various family planning and anti-malaria programs on the state and city levels in Nigeria, in its "four main languages" (these are not specified, but probably include English, Hausa, Yoruba, and Igbo).

Nigeria also has prepared specifically for messaging on ebola. For example, last April, Nigerian health minister Onyebuchi Chukwu was quoted in a Xinhua article, "Nigeria not safe from Ebola virus: health minister" as saying:
"So Nigeria is in danger but we have recently said fine that in addition to the leaflets that we are producing for lassa and other hemorrhagic fever, we will now emphasize Ebola fever. As I speak to you, we have already approved for jingles to be produced in various languages produced for Nigerian Center for Disease Control to be aired on Radio, Television and newspaper adverts,"

What now?

There are several questions:
  • Which languages were used in ebola messaging? 
  • How were health workers who went house-to-house trained for messaging in the languages they would encounter?
  • What kind of materials have been developed in these languages and how are they being stored and made available for other ebola efforts? These would include not only items published for distribution, but also scripts for broadcasting and materials for instruction.
  • Most of the above information apparently concerns official (different levels of government in Nigeria) response. To what extent did international partners also contribute to ebola messaging in Nigerian languages? (The collaboration between Translators Without Borders and the Nigerian Institute of Translators and Interpreters was mentioned in a previous post on this blog.)
  • Are there lessons from this experience for other countries in West Africa?
This brief article focuses on Nigeria's success, which is not to overlook that of Senegal. I hope to be able to post soon on how Senegal handled ebola messaging in its languages.

NB- Some additional edits were made to this article after posting, on the same day.

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