Africa, Development & Aid, Headlines, Health, Poverty & SDGs

HEALTH-MOZAMBIQUE: Many Languages, One Message

Ruth Ansah Ayisi

MAPUTO, Jan 29 2006 (IPS) - Travel the length of Mozambique, and chances are that you’ll hear a host of different languages being spoken: the official language of Portuguese, Shangana, Elomwe and Cisena to name just a few.

While this might be culturally interesting, it also presents health authorities with challenges when planning AIDS prevention messages and information campaigns. Which languages should be given preference with these initiatives? Do all of Mozambique’s languages lend themselves to frank speech about HIV – or do some require the topic to be approached in a more subtle way?

Linguist Esmeralda Xavier has been assessing how language is used to transmit AIDS messages, and whether translations between the various tongues are sensitive to cultural nuances. In Shangana, for example – a language spoken in the south – people use euphemisms when talking about sex. Rather than refer directly to intercourse, they would talk about “laying down the mat”.

Xavier found that a series of posters produced by the Foundation for Community Development, a non-governmental organisation, elicited a somewhat negative response from its audience.

The posters used sentences translated from Portuguese into an indigenous language that highlighted the risks faced by mine workers and truck drives, whose itinerant life style has made them especially vulnerable to contracting HIV.

While the messages were understood by those who read them, certain members of the community said the campaign seemed also to apportion blame for the pandemic.

“(The) community was not consulted sufficiently,” Xavier told IPS. Mine workers told her that they felt they were the only ones being blamed, even though their wives back home could be encouraging the spread of AIDS by having sex with other men.

Overall, however, she sees more to praise than criticise.

“I am impressed by the number of publications and radio programmes that are put out in local languages,” Xavier noted. Many of the posters and booklets on HIV/AIDS prevention have been translated into local languages. ‘Vidas Positivas’, a life skills booklet published by the Soul City health campaign in South Africa, is available in three local languages.

Producing AIDS materials that are sensitive to community needs is a challenge that the government and its partners are becoming increasingly aware of, says Elias Cossa: coordinator of communication and advocacy at the National Council to Combat HIV/AIDS (CNCS).

In an effort to ensure that HIV initiatives conform as closely as possible to the norms of various communities, authorities have set a policy that “information, education and communication materials must be produced locally and in a participatory way,” he adds.

“There are also cultural taboos, for example – youth should not speak about sex to older people, women can talk only to other women about sex and not men – and these need to be respected.”

But even if AIDS messages are conveyed in appropriate languages and with suitable phrasing, they mean little if people cannot access them. Written messages are of limited use, for instance, in a country where 54 percent of the population is illiterate.

For this reason, radio is currently the most popular medium for communicating about AIDS in Mozambique.

A well-received initiative from Radio Mozambique has been a radio soap opera called ‘Ruth and her friends’ which dealt with HIV – and was broadcast in 11 languages.

The United Nations Children’s Fund, UNICEF, also supports a ‘Child-to-Child’ radio programme, which has been run by Radio Mozambique for the past five years. Its main purpose is HIV/AIDS prevention among young people.

As well as transmitting in Portuguese, the young presenters of the show – now totaling over 200 – broadcast in16 local languages. In 2005, over 7,200 children and young people participated in the programmes.

Recently, regional workshops were held by CNCS to discuss a new communication strategy for Mozambique concerning AIDS awareness; it is hoped this strategy will be ready by March this year. At present, the country’s adult HIV prevalence stands at 16.2 percent.

Cossa emphasises that communicating effectively about AIDS is just one of the challenges Mozambique faces in grappling with the pandemic.

“To be effective, it is not only the community sensitivity that has to be considered – but a range of services must be in place to accompany this awareness campaign,” he noted.

“The services that are essential include quality health care…micro finance, anti-retroviral treatment and condom distribution.”

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