RHR Workshop at ARESTA Athlone – The Languages of Refugees in South Africa

In five minutes, five languages are spoken – at Sonke’s most recent Refugee Health and Rights workshop in Athlone. In the room of fifty people I am the only one, it seems, whose home language is English. The rest are fluent in at least one of five tongues – French, Swahili, Lingala, Kiyarwanda, Kirundi. And since there are well over 2000 languages spoken in Africa, the room was likely full of many less widely-spoken languages.

Pierrette, Papy and Micheline work as trainers on Sonke’s Refugee Health and Rights team, holding workshops and events with refugees and asylum seekers and educating them about their legal position in the country, what rights they are entitled to, and health issues facing them and their communities. Between the three, all these five languages are spoken – in addition to English.
This particular workshop was held at ARESTA, an institute that offers skills development, including English lessons, to refugees and asylum seekers. Although the workshop was planned for only 25 participants and 50 arrived, proceedings began as usual, with participants completing a pre-workshop evaluation form that assesses their opinions, knowledge and attitudes towards HIV and gender.

Not everyone understood the forms that are printed in English, so Pierrette read through the questions one by one and translated them into French. We soon realised that around the room, many people remained with empty pages – people who neither read nor speak, nor hear English or French. Micheline steps in with Kirundi and Kiyarwanda, and then Pierrette with Swahili. Although it takes some time, everyone’s form is completed.

Along with language comes culture. Because Sonke deals with gender roles, we come head-to-head with gender-inequitable attitudes that stem directly from culture and tradition, both locally and from further afield in the region. The gender component of the day’s training asked, among other things, ‘Is a woman a real woman if she does not have children?’ The great majority said ‘Yes – a woman is a woman with or without children.’ However, this attitude is contradictory to many of the participants’ home cultures.

Pierrette (who ensured I understood everything that was going on) told me that in each home language of the participants, there is at least one word for a childless woman that is used to single out, insult or justify abuse towards that woman. Amela milangi, from Lingala, meaning ‘one who ate glass’, and it is used to insult and demean. The broad awareness of the different cultural backgrounds of the many different asylum seekers and refugees in South Africa is intimately linked to the knowledge of a language, and crucial to engaging with people on social norms like gender roles.

Although I knew of the rich diversity of languages and cultures in our RHR staff, I had never realised how valuable that diversity really is. These workshops cannot take place without the linguistic resources we are so fortunate to have in our staff.

South Africa hosts approximately 137,000 asylum seekers and 37,000 recognized refugees from around Africa and the world. Most of the country’s recognised refugees come from Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Somalia, Burundi, Rwanda and Angola. The majority of the asylum-seekers are from Zimbabwe, the DRC, Somalia, Ethiopia and Burundi.(UNHCR Global Appeal 2008-2009)
ARESTA, the Agency for Refugee Education, Skills Training and Advocacy, provides English lessons, IT training, and other skills classes to refugees and asylum seekers at little to no cost. Sonke partners with ARESTA by offering workshops to their students on HIV, gender equality and the legal and health rights of refugees and asylum seekers.