Explaining the COVID-19 virus and vaccine in Setswana

Freelance journalist and media practitioner Pontsho Pilane has a daily slot on Motsweding FM radio where she explains health issues in Setswana. Through her work, Pilane found the importance of raising public awareness in all 11 official languages. 

In their own words

Before the pandemic started, I had a regular biweekly slot on Motsweding FM radio where I’d explain some of the latest health news developments in the country. It was on the current morning show called Di Rage. We’d talk about some of the health developments in the country. 

Then the pandemic hit and most, if not all of the information was in English. We would have press briefings with the minister, the ministerial advisory committee and the national coronavirus command council in English. 

Mmakobedi Choabi, the producer asked if I could come on more regularly to explain the latest COVID-19 developments to the Setswana listeners. This was even though Motsweding FM radio had their bulletin to inform their listeners about the latest developments. Choabi found that it would be more important for me to come and explain for five to eight minutes on the radio every morning. 

At first it was very difficult for me, I must say. Even though I am Motswana I never formally learnt the language. So my understanding and my vocabulary of the language was quite limited. It was quite challenging to translate the science into English, as accurately as possible. Then I had to translate the science into Setswana in a way that the meaning and the scientific accuracy of the message stayed the same.

Luckily Motsweding had started working with other contributors. They were helping to create the language around COVID-19. So with some of the help of language specialists working at Motsweding FM and external resources, we were able to come up with words for sanitiser and social distancing. Those words could help us explain the pandemic to listeners in their own language fully and clearly. This was in a way that did not minimise the importance of the language, the accuracy of the language and the grammar of the language.

The listeners really appreciated hearing the information in their home language Setswana.

It was quite clear that there was a gap that was not being filled for people. It’s not necessarily about vaccine hesitancy but the lack of knowledge and information. People understand things when they hear them in their own languages. There is a need for easily-accessible vaccine information in all languages to quell the hesitancy people have to be vaccinated.

We need to serve people where they are. We need to have the patience, compassion and kindness to talk to people and not assume that they are asking these questions because they’re anti-vaccine. 

There’s also a lack of trust. So much has happened in this country that has betrayed the working class and people from low income households and communities. We can’t take that for granted. How can you trust the government that is unable to provide water is being truthful around vaccines?


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I also think that it’s important to listen to health workers on the ground. Nurses are mostly from their communities and they know things their community is struggling with. These are some of the issues that we really need to take into consideration. It’s not just about Digital Vibes but the long-term breaking of trust that has come from the South African government, particularly the poor people in this country.


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There’s a long documented history across the world of how black people were experimented on and preyed upon by scientists. So this is some of the spaces in which Black people are introduced into science and we cannot simply dismiss it. We need patience and compassion in understanding the historical context in which Black people or low income communities find themselves and why they find themselves in that context. 

We need more patience, consistency and compassion from our government. 

The interview was edited for brevity and clarity.