August 2019

Image: Translators without Borders

Changing lives with language in Mozambique

When providing translation support in a humanitarian crisis, language can protect and change lives.

On March 14 and 15, 2019, Cyclone Idai made landfall in Mozambique, Malawi, and Zimbabwe. The storm affected the lives of millions of people, leaving destruction and flooding in its wake. On April 25, 2019, a second cyclone, Cyclone Kenneth, struck the north of Mozambique, further impacting a country already struggling to recover from a disaster. Much help was needed, and the humanitarian world responded with aid, shelter, and food. But people had another important need: communication.

They needed information about their rights, where to seek and use humanitarian services, and how to stay safe. But they also needed to be able to tell responders what they needed. It’s not enough to hand out information without asking questions. Relief and recovery achieve best results when everyone can participate in the conversation. But this conversation needs to happen in the right language.


That’s where my organization, Translators without Borders (TWB), comes in. In just two months, we activated a community of translators, worked with international humanitarian organizations, conducted a language needs assessment, and developed a glossary for humanitarian responders in four local languages, plus English and Portuguese.


We knew that language would be critical to make sure everyone affected by the cyclones had what they needed to recover and thrive. During my time responding to the crisis, I saw what can be accomplished when language professionals and humanitarian responders come together to use words, not only to communicate, but to change lives.


Remote response to a complex linguistic landscape


When Cyclone Idai struck, we jumped into action. Our priority was to work with existing language sources and data to develop a "crisis language map" for the affected part of Mozambique.


The map showed humanitarian organizations which languages are spoken in different areas.  With this information, they could begin planning their programs and response plans – in the right language.


In a country with over 40 mother tongues, it was our job to figure out which languages made the most sense for humanitarian communicators to use. But the sheer number of languages was not the only problem we had to face. We also had to deal with the fact that Portuguese, the lingua franca in Mozambique, is not widely understood within the country. In addition, the literacy rate is also quite low, particularly among women, so we knew that audio communication would be important and helpful.


Armed with this information, we requested support from translator communities in the languages we identified as the most important: Ndau, Nyanja, Sena, and Mozambican Portuguese in Mozambique, and Shona for Zimbabwe. We were very happy that the community of linguists responded to our call.



Partnering with organizations and the community


TWB provides the connection between these translators and international humanitarian response organizations. Following Cyclone Idai, we worked with organizations such as the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, Save the Children, and the World Health Organization.


Our translators and project managers worked across time zones to respond quickly to the wide-ranging needs of these organizations. When a sudden-onset crisis hits, it can be a struggle to prioritize translations, as the needs in the response are always shifting. Information about how to access basic needs, e.g. clean water, is paramount. But people also needed information about how to stay safe from threats such as fire or cholera. And finally, these organizations needed to train local staff in their own language and share policies and expectations to prevent the exploitation of vulnerable people.


Some of our translators were locals from the affected area, who worked through power outages, harsh weather, and damaged technology to deliver critical information. One translator, Daniel, even declared: "I am writing to express my interest in working with Translators without Borders, especially in this moment of pain and mourning for the people of Mozambique… I live in the central region of Mozambique in the affected area, I live the drama created by Cyclone Idai day by day."



Learning about languages on site


One of the incredible powers of translation is that a lot of support can happen from desks around the world. However, we knew that we needed to be in the country to identify all those languages that people affected by Cyclone Idai understood and preferred.


Thus, in April 2019, I flew to Mozambique to conduct a language assessment. I met with affected people and conducted surveys in four temporary relocation sites in Beira, a major city in central Mozambique.


Through these discussions, we were able to better understand the language needs in the affected area. We learned that 65 percent of women do not understand written messages in any language. And, we learned that 41 percent do not understand written Portuguese, the main language that humanitarian responders were using.


We also learned that 33 percent of people we surveyed didn’t have or weren’t sure they had enough information about humanitarian services. Clearly, there was still work to be done. We therefore distributed our findings to key humanitarian leaders. We made recommendations such as to "prioritize audio messaging in local languages," and "to urgently set up confidential and language-appropriate feedback mechanisms." Recommendations like these not only help humanitarian groups to distribute much-needed information but also to incorporate suggestions and ideas from the very people who are trying to cope with inconceivable conditions.


Our community of translators and humanitarian partners undoubtedly changed lives with the help of translated information. However, the word still needs to be spread that communication – just like food and shelter – is as much a right as it is a need. In fact, it is communication that ensures that people can access these basic needs.


As one woman in Beira, Mozambique commented: "In the tent there is someone who does not understand Portuguese. When she was supposed to receive food, she did not understand and I had to translate for her." This person was lucky that she had a helpful friend. But we must continue to work towards including everyone in the conversation.