As was evident during my recent trip to Kenya, people who live in rural communities in Africa have particularly fragile health because of factors such as HIV AIDS, malnutrition, lack of access to clean drinking water and tropical diseases such as malaria, dengue fever and cholera. A general shortage of doctors and nurses as well as the distance to travel to government hospitals mean that most healthcare is dispensed by community health workers.  Even rural orphans who are HIV positive will tend to see a doctor only once a month – that is, if there is some way to pay the transportation costs. In the meantime, any opportunistic diseases will be treated locally, in most cases by a community health worker.

While English literacy is high among city dwellers and well-educated professionals such as doctors, in the rural areas English skills are extremely limited. Community health workers may or may not have a good understanding of English, yet their training and their field manuals tend to be in English.

This bias towards English impacts the quality of the healthcare information that is available to the people who need it most. The excellent manuals that exist may be poorly understood by people with rudimentary English skills, and this misunderstanding could, and certainly does, cost lives. Furthermore, in a system that is dependent upon community health workers to take the place of doctors in most situations, the effectiveness of their medical training is primordial. Learning in a language that is not your own impacts negatively on understanding and retention: when we’re talking about critical knowledge in health, nutrition, sexuality, AIDS prevention, and so on this problem takes on huge proportions. Inadequate access to information along with less than optimally trained health workers is just one more burden for the rural poor in Africa to bear.

The Obstacles to Healthcare Information Delivery in Local Languages

The number of trained translators in Kenya is insufficient today to respond to the need for translations. One result of this is extremely high word rates in languages for which translators do exist, such as Kiswahili. These rates, which can be as high as $.30 per word, limit the possibility for NGOs to pay to have their material translated.

In widely spoken languages such as Kikamba and Kikuyu, there simply are very few trained translators able to take on the task of making healthcare information accessible to people from their communities.

A further barrier to translation is the high cost of Internet connections, and of computers, which mean that few people are actually equipped. Without the assurance of payment, they are reluctant if not unable to invest. Even the use of cyber café facilities can be unaffordable for most potential translators.

New terms that haven’t yet been transferred into local languages, or may be unknown in certain languages – for example, ‘cloud computing’ in Luo – is an obstacle for the lone translator, without the benefit of a community with whom to discuss new terms and concepts.

The Resources

Kenyans are linguists. Most speak more than one language. Furthermore, there is a large pool of educated people who would make excellent translators if they had the right training. Culturally they are highly motivated by opportunities for training and advancement, as well as any kind of certification that could lead to career possibilities. Unemployment is high even for educated people and economic opportunities are limited. Wages are severely depressed.

Today, with your help, the Crisis Committee of Translators without Borders is designing a plan to tackle some of the needs we’ve identified. Contact me if you want to join us.

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