We’ve been invited to Kibera, Kenya’s largest slum, to talk about – of all things – translation. “We” refers to a delegation from Translators without Borders consisting of Paula Shannon, Simon and Harriet Andriesen, and myself. Kibera is a place we never expected to find ourselves in. The second largest slum in Africa after Soweto, Kibera is home to approximately 1 million of the poorest people on the planet. Our hosts on this improbable visit are 15 commercial sex workers.
To meet them we have to park at the government office then walk the train tracks that squeeze between the stalls displaying plastic buckets, clothes, tin cooking pots, coal. The tracks are so close that when the train goes by on its way to Mombasa or Uganda, it grazes the shanty structures just inches away.
We are late arriving at the drop-in clinic run by Family Health Options Kenya and its indomitable manager, Muthoni Gichohi. But cheerful greetings are called out to us as we climb the stairs to the second floor of a tin and wood structure.
The 15 girls – and clearly they are still girls – have been waiting for us in this hot tin room for over an hour. Modestly dressed in summer dresses or tee shirts and jeans, most are still active in the sex trade, but all are also what the Kenyan Ministry of Public Health calls “peer educators”. Their role is to educate other women in the Kibera slum on reproductive health: family planning, nutrition, and prevention of sexually transmitted infections (STIs). And who better to do this work?
The girls are all natural linguists. They have to be. The average African speaks 3 languages: these girls speak up to 10. Kibera is home to 14 different tribes speaking Kikuyu, Kikamba, Luo, Maasai and of course Swahili, the lingua franca. English is only a third, fourth or fifth language.
The girls are proud of their role as peer educators here, and rightly so. They are on the front lines of the worst health care tragedy in the world. The enemy is lack of information and some of the casualties include rampant HIV infections, a large number of AIDS orphans (50,000 in Kenya alone, according to UNICEF) and female circumcision affecting up to 100% of the girls in some tribes. The Center for Disease Control estimates as much as 20% of the population is HIV positive. FHOK tells us the HIV rate among their peer educators is less than 1%. Knowledge is everything.
This is why Translators without Borders has been invited here today. They need our help to share their knowledge of healthy living.
In a room full of women who are not at all shy, Mildred is particularly outspoken. She tells us that most of the people they are working with understand little English, yet that is the language of over 90% of their written health materials. “When you teach a woman in her language, she is in a better position to understand,” she points out.
Lydia is the nurse in residence. Just slightly older than the girls, she too is wearing a tee shirt and jeans. She adds “If you have a limited English vocabulary, our material may not make sense. What we need is materials they can understand.” Privacy is an often an issue: written translations mean that brochures may be studied at home.
Sitting by the window in a long flowered dress, one of the girls with braided hair chimes in. “They don’t understand our brochures so when they leave us they just throw them to the ground.” She illustrates this by making a throwing gesture.
The girls are used to working in the drop–in center as a group, even though they come from many different tribes and represent most of Kibera’s 14 languages. So they want Translators without Borders to train them as a group so they can translate their brochures into their own mother tongues. After all, they know best how to word their messages. They shine with a sense of mission. “We need to translate our materials so we can prevent them from getting STIs to live a healthy life.”
The girls are unequivocal, and more than a little persistent. “With translation we can prevent more diseases.” And they want our help.
With the objective of translating humanitarian information into the languages people need most, Translators without Borders has been drawn to Africa. However, a dearth of translators in most local languages, even those spoken by tens of millions of people, means that to fulfill our mission we must first pass through capacity building. So here we are talking to Africans about training them to translate for their own people. The demand for our training is far greater than we had ever expected. And we never imagined that we would find requests coming from a roomful of commercial sex workers.
On the other hand, who better to educate their peers than this motivated, determined group? The Department of Health Information agrees with us, but they have no budget and must themselves fight to get the money for a single computer. If we want to help, we have to find our own way to do so.
As we prepare to leave we assure the group we will try to find the funding for some computers and a space to train them in. They ask if we can do this soon, maybe in February or March. Every day more people are infected by the AIDS virus, more girls die in unsafe abortions, more children are orphaned. There is a tangible sense of urgency.
“We have many challenges,” they tell us, although this is amply clear. “So we hope you can support us.”