On the ground in Mozambique: helping survivors of Cyclone Idai get the answers they need in their own languages

Days in Beira, Mozambique are long and humid. The city and its surroundings are still reeling from the destruction caused by Cyclone Idai. Five weeks on, I see people seeking a sense of normality and routine: women and men walking on their way to work, children playing soccer on the street, families having barbecues on the weekend. Their resilience is astounding and yet the uncertainty about how to move forward makes the situation harder to cope with for many.

Credit: Andrew Lind / IOM

At one of the temporary accommodation sites in Beira, TWB’s assessment team and I met some of the people whose houses and livelihoods have been washed away. They patiently answered our survey, but they themselves had too many unanswered questions. Many were confused about the aid available; some had still no idea about the fate of loved ones; others wanted to go back but wondered what conditions were like where they came from.

Without the ability to get answers, I fear people might feel utterly abandoned. Without trusted sources of accurate, timely, and consistent information, rumors and misinformation can exacerbate the crisis. This can lead people to make poor decisions, or make them vulnerable to violence, extortion, and abuse.

The challenge is that people need the right information in the right language, right now. Nobody said it was easy, but if we are serious about our humanitarian commitments to effectiveness and accountability, it needs to be done.

That is why TWB is working with other humanitarian organizations to ensure a two-way conversation with affected people, especially the many that do not speak Portuguese. In the hardest hit provinces, the main local languages spoken and understood include Ndau, Nyanja, Lomwe, and Sena. One of our focuses has been mobilizing translators with the right language skills so that we can support making information available in local languages.

This is crucial work that is inspiring and humbling at the same time. Many of the translators we are working with have been directly impacted by Cyclone Idai. Gustavo, one of our volunteer translators, reminded me about this when we first met.

Gustavo is a high school teacher of English who has been translating critical information into and from Sena. Sitting at a desk in his classroom that still reeked of damp, he explained that people here are no strangers to natural disasters. Yet, a lack of information ahead of Cyclone Idai meant that few were prepared for its devastating impact. “The next day [after the cyclone] we could not recognize where we were. It was like there had been a war or a bomb which had destroyed everything: houses were gone; roads were cut; trees were down; there was no electricity or phone and internet connections,” he said.

Gustavo opened his home to host some of his neighbors and relatives who lost all their belongings. And when he received an email from TWB asking for his availability to help, he said “yes” right away. “I took the invitation as an opportunity to assist those in need with written or oral information in their own language. This is one of the best things I can do to help my community get back on its feet.”

A crisis like a cyclone, by its nature, is a traumatic event. But talking with Gustavo I am reminded about the powerful thing that is meaningful communication. Communicating with people about the situation and answering their questions can be critical. Helping people to understand where they can get help and how they can help themselves improves their psychological resilience and their ability to recover. Doing so in local languages is key to ensuring people understand information and can act on it to rebuild their lives.

There is no quick fix that will address all of people’s questions. However, I know that working with local translators is needed to come at the issue using the right languages. Together with our team, I intend to keep doing so.

As of 30 April, our team of volunteer translators has translated over 70,000 words into relevant local languages. Thanks to their support, we are filling information gaps on issues such as hygiene, health, shelter, safety, and preventing sexual exploitation and abuse. If you would like further information about our language support services in Mozambique, you can contact us at mozambique@translatorswithoutborders.org.

This project is funded by the H2H Fund, a funding mechanism for H2H Network members supported by UK aid from the UK government.

Written by Mia Marzotto, Senior Advocacy Officer for Translators without Borders

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