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Senegal: Wycliffe workers educate minority language communities on Ebola virus

Wycliffe literacy workers in West Africa are playing a vital role raising awareness of the threat of Ebola ...

Wycliffe literacy workers in West Africa are playing a vital role raising awareness of the threat of Ebola ...

It’s a sad fact that minority language communities are often the last to receive important health information. But thanks to the language development work undertaken by Wycliffe’s key partner SIL, some of these communities are now receiving this vital information in a language that they can understand.

Clare Orr and Elisabeth Gerger are literacy workers based in West Africa. Their role is to help community members learn how to use their written language. This may be by teaching adults and children how to read, or by producing books on subjects from learning your ABCs, to material on sustainable farming or important health information.

They write about their experience of developing health materials at a literacy workshop that took place last month (September 2014) in Senegal, a country on the edge of the Ebola-affected area:

These days, a lot of awareness-raising about Ebola is going on across Senegal on the radio and TV. However, many people in the villages don't speak enough French, Senegal's official language, or Wolof, the most widely-used national language, to understand the message well. This is why we are trying to reach them through documents and information in their own languages. Those who are able to read in their language can always read the information aloud for those who can't.

Currently, there are no cases of Ebola in Senegal. The recovery of one infected person, who had travelled from a neighbouring country, was followed by the declaration that none of those with whom he had been in contact were infected. However, with the news in neighbouring countries becoming more and more worrying, there is a need for people here to be conscious of the danger and educated about the disease.

We decided that we should hold a workshop to translate documents containing information on Ebola into the languages in which we work. At least two people from four language groups took part in the workshop. We did research on the internet and found various posters, flyers and an interesting lesson that could be conducted by Ebola educators in awareness-raising sessions in their villages.

This lesson starts with two women, Mariama and Aminata, who have both been infected with Ebola. However, while Mariama doesn't take the symptoms seriously and then contaminates her family and dies, Aminata immediately goes to the hospital and in the end she recovers. The story is followed by questions and answers about the origin of Ebola, its symptoms, contagiousness and prevention measures.

Just as with Bible translation, attention to detail to ensure that the message is clearly understood is vital when translating medical information.

During our workshop, the lesson mentioned above served as an introduction, informing the translators about Ebola.

The other resources we had found were presented to the translators and they were given the choice of what they wanted to have available in their languages. Once they had reached an agreement, we discussed the unknown or difficult words in the texts, then they began translating, starting with a poster.

A Senegalese doctor attended part of the meeting and was able to answer the participants' questions about Ebola. The translators were concerned about the possible impending danger, with good reason. At the same time, we had the impression that they were thankful for sound and clear information and wanted to pass it on to other people.

Clear and accurate information is important. Without it, it’s impossible to challenge wrong assumptions or change traditional beliefs.

False rumours pose a huge problem in our neighbouring countries: for example the idea that Ebola has been introduced by white people so that they can steal organs. Or that those governments exaggerate statistics in order to get more money from international donors. Moreover, the traditional African worldview is very different from ours, which makes it difficult to raise awareness and manage the crisis.

From a traditional viewpoint, illnesses mostly come because a god (fetish) is angry, or a mean person has put a curse on us. Sickness is to be addressed mainly at a spiritual level, therefore, by going to see a 'marabout' or fetish priest. Quite possibly the western view that ignores spiritual factors, is also to be questioned. On the other hand, many people in the villages have no idea what a virus is. There are worlds between people here and the doctors wearing yellow protective clothing and masks, who look scary to us, let alone to somebody in a remote village.

You can find out more about the role of literacy workers on the Wycliffe website.

PHOTO: Elisabeth Gerger leading a discussion on Ebola

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