In recognition of translators changing lives in emergencies

12 March 2018
UNFPA translator Alexander Mushomwe ( L) chats with an expectant refugee mother who had just arrived at Sweswe Reception centre in Kyaka II. Thanks to his multi- lingual skills, he was able to communicate with this mother who revealed that she was facing abdominal pains after days of travelling from Congo. She was rushed to a health centre in an ambulance. PHOTO: UNFPA/Evelyn Matsamura Kiapi

Kyaka II Settlement, KYEGEGWA: Twenty-five year-old Alexander Musomwa is a young refugee living in Kyaka II settlement in Kyegegwa district, South Western Uganda. Like many other refugees, his is a story of displacement and uncertainty caused by the persisting inter-ethnic violence tribal clashes and human rights violations and abuses that have for decades characterized the his home country of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

In pursuit of a new life, Alexander - then only 20 years-old - fled on his own into Uganda as he watched as his home village in South Kivu was torn apart and his education prospects come to a halt. That was in 2013.

“By then I was pursuing a diploma in social work at the Institute of Rural Development in Bukavu, South Kivu. My dream was always to become a humanitarian worker so as to help my people who I had watched suffering for so long,” he says.

“I lost my mother and father in the ethnic clashes. And I was separated from my five siblings as we all fled in separate ways,” he recalls.

Alexander had lost hope. Nevertheless, on arrival in Uganda, he travelled to the capital Kampala as an urban refugee where he chose to enroll for a one-year English adult learning course at the YMCA in search of a better future. Little did he know he would soon become of the most valuable translators in Kyaka II, a settlement that hosts thousands of Congolese refugees speaking a multiplicity of dialects.

Today, Alexander speaks five languages; English, French, Swahili, Lingala and Kinyamulenge, some of the key dialects spoken by the refugees living in the settlement.

Now working as a volunteer for ACORD, a UNFPA Implementing Partner, Alexander’s value is visible as he conducts pregnancy mapping of new arriving refugee expectant mothers as well as in the communities where he plays a significant role identifying and following them up to ensure they attend four antenatal during pregnancy and deliver at a health center under skilled care.  

Thanks to Alexander’s linguistic skills, he was able to communicate with an expectant mother who had just arrived from North Kivu and said she was facing pregnancy complications. She was immediately referred by ambulance Bujibuji health centre III for observation and skilled care.

Alexander has a last message for young refugees out there: “If you are still an adolescent, go back to school and do the English course. You should not lose hope. Even without parents, there is still hope,” he says.

Like Alexander, twenty-seven year-old Lillian Nyamicu had always dreamed about serving humanity as a career. It is in pursuit of this dream that she enrolled for a bachelor’s degree in Development Studies at Makerere University.

“My dream has always been to serve humanity, even if it means volunteering,” she says.

Just like Alexander, Lillian speaks five languages; Kiswahili, Kinyabwisha, Kitoro, English and French. None of these is her mother tongue of Kinyankole, a dialect from Western Uganda. Today, Lillian prides of having served in several refugee settlements in South Western Uganda including Rwamwanja, Nakivale, and now Kyaaka II. This, all because of her lingustic skills and abililty to communicate to diverse communities in times of crisis. 

“I learnt all these local languages from the communities I serve. Being a multi-lingual interpreter in a humanitarian situation is an added advantage, especially when it comes to confidentiality. When you understand a refugees language, they will confide in you and confidentiality is assured because one does not need to go through another interpreter to communicate. This is especially so when handling Gender Based Violence cases,” she says.

The translator recalls two incidences of sexual violence cases; one, which involved a minor who could not share information with her parents following an incident of sexual abuse, and another, involving a sexually abused woman who was too stigmatized to tell her husband she was accosted by armed rebels.

“Because I could understand the language, this woman confided in me and I advised her about taking Post Exposure Prophylaxis to prevent HIV infections,” she says.

- Written by Evelyn Matsamura Kiapi