Uganda: Lack of information in local languages leaves some behind during COVID-19 (Global Press Journal)

| February 15, 2021

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In Uganda’s Mukono district, Joyce Abalo hears recorded messages about preventing COVID-19 from a nearby loudspeaker. The messages convey important information in the Luganda language about preventing COVID-19. But Mrs. Abalo doesn’t speak Luganda so she doesn’t understand the messages. She relies on her daughter to translate, but admits that she doesn’t understand what the disease is about. And she isn’t alone. Many Ugandans don’t understand Luganda or English. Critics argue that there is no coordinated effort to translate COVID-19 messages into local languages. But a government spokesperson disagrees, maintaining that COVID-19 messages have been translated into the dominant languages, as well as the main languages spoken by the many refugees from DRC, Burundi, and Rwanda.

Joyce Abalo, 54, carefully sorts groundnuts at her market kiosk in Uganda’s Mukono district. One hundred metres away, a local council chairperson’s home plays recorded messages about COVID-19 on loudspeakers: “Wash your hands. Practice social distancing.”

The message is repeated again in Luganda, one of Uganda’s most common languages. Mrs. Abalo hears but does not understand. She doesn’t speak Luganda.

This inability to understand public announcements isn’t the only problem. In Uganda, many forms of communication about the coronavirus pandemic are in English and Luganda—including posters and presidential speeches.

To understand the messages, Mrs. Abalo relies on her daughter to translate. She says, “Up to now, I still feel like I don’t understand what this disease is about.”

Mrs. Abalo’s struggle is common in Uganda, where more than 50 languages are recognized in the country’s constitution. There is no information about how many people speak each language, but it’s clear that some people remain uninformed or are confused by messages about COVID-19 in majority languages.

Jane Frances Alowo is a Luo subject coordinator at Makerere University’s School of Languages, Literature and Communication in Kampala. She says, “There has not been any coordinated effort to translate COVID-19 messages into local languages.”

Emmanuel Ainebyoona is a senior public relations officer for Uganda’s Ministry of Health and defends the government. He says: “COVID-19 messages have been translated into the dominant languages and for refugees as well—French, Lingala, Kinyarwanda.” Uganda hosts many refugees from Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, and Rwanda.

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

But researchers from Makerere University found that many people in Ugandan communities where English or Luganda is not widely spoken know little about the coronavirus.

Medadi E. Ssentanda is one of the researchers and a lecturer in the university’s department of African languages. He says his team listened to a warning from the World Health Organization which stated that, especially under stress, even people fluent in a community’s dominant language need clear, reliable health information in their own tongue.

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

The research team compiled and translated COVID-19 messages into six of the major languages used in Uganda—Luganda, Runyankore-Rukiga, Ateso, Luo, Lugbarati, and Kiswahili—as well as Braille.

But their research uncovered a major challenge: Phrases such as “running water,” “sanitize,” and “social distancing” were not easy to translate.

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

For example, “sanitizer” is a foreign concept to many rural people. For “running water,” the researchers used a symbol of someone washing hands with water from a jerry can—a familiar ritual, especially for rural Ugandans.

Margaret Nakawesa has been a local council chairperson in Kiwanga village since 2001. Loudspeakers blare coronavirus messages from her house. 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.

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

Abalo is from the Acholi tribe and 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.

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

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?”

Photo: Kiwanga village trading centre. Credit : Beatrice Lamwaka, GPJ Uganda

This story is based on an article written by Beatrice Lamwaka and published by Global Press Journal in January 2021, titled “Coronavirus Warnings Lost in a Failure to Translate.” To read the full story, go to: