Friday, December 26, 2014

When do Liberian languages bear mentioning in ebola reporting?

A recent Oxfam piece about door-to-door ebola education volunteers in the West Point township of Liberia's capital, Monrovia, is an interesting story about local level efforts to combat the epidemic...
However it tells us nothing about the important linguistic aspects of this communication and research effort in multilingual Liberia. What languages does a volunteer like the profiled Agnes Nyantie use in speaking with various people in West Point? What kind of training did she and colleagues receive in those languages? When she "meticulously" fills out visit forms, is she doing so verbatim, or translating from one spoken language to another written one (presumably English)?

It may be that all is done seamlessly in English (the official language), but given that Liberia is a country where 31 languages are spoken (per Ethnologue), that no first language is spoken by more than 20% of the population (per Aménagement linguistique dans le monde), and standard English is spoken by only about 20% of the population (per Fact Monster), that seems unlikely.

Liberian (Pidgin) English is spoken as a second language by around half the population, playing a role analogous to Krio in Sierra Leone, though not as widespread, and apparently not as standardized. So it may be that a lot of the conversations that would be part of work like that being done in West Point take place in the pidgin. However, would a non-standardized pidgin be used to fill out visit forms?

What about the first languages of Liberia in ebola work? They are used on radio stations, for instance. A story last October in Jeune Afrique highlighted local radio in first languages of Liberia, such as Bassa. A WHO/Africa story discusses traditional chiefs of the National Traditional Council of Liberia recording "several radio messages in different languages telling their people to take steps to avoid Ebola" - these recordings were also used on radio.

It would seem likely that these languages are used commonly in local level person-to-person interactions about ebola - whether of the sort described in West Point or in treatment facilities, etc.

However, given the lack of standardized writing for some languages (different situation from some other countries of the region) and use of indigenous scripts which are not yet fully supported on computers/mobile devices for writing some of them, there may not be much ebola messaging in text format - though that is a question to answer.

So back to the Oxfam article... Recognizing the importance of that organization's contributions to the fight against ebola, and the courageous work of local volunteers working with it to inform and research in ebola striken areas, it would be informative to have more details on the linguistic dimensions of their communication and survey efforts.

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