When the cat catches the sun: Translated forecasts aid farmers

  • By Laurie Goering
  • 09/05/2017

In this 2009 file photo, Juliana Dabire, a cotton farmer, carries twigs from her field to make organic fertiliser near Gora village, 265 km (165 miles) southeast of Bobo Dioulasso, Burkina Faso. REUTERS/Katrina Manson


LONDON - When farmers in northern Burkina Faso speak about the direction of the wind, they refer to the direction it is blowing in. Burkina Faso's meteorological agency, however, classifies wind by the direction it comes from.

That means that when state forecasters warn of a strong west wind, farmers find an east wind comes gusting along, flattening their faith in forecasts.

But a new guide aims to solve that problem – and help farmers build better resilience to climate change – by translating the French and English words commonly used in weather forecasts not just into northern Burkina Faso's local languages but also its culture.

The guide, for instance, translates the French and English word "eclipse" – the total or partial disappearance of the sun or moon – into the much more colourful term Burkinabe farmers would use for the phenomenon, said Malick Victor, a journalist from Chad who led development of the translation guide.

"If on local radio I want to announce an eclipse, I need to say that 'Tomorrow, according to the meteorological forecast, the cat will catch the moon or the sun,'" Victor said.

"Right now, the language used (by forecasters) is so technical and not designed for the farmer," he said. "But if we give it to the farmer in a way they can understand, then they can use it."


Victor's guide – a dictionary of more than 500 French and English meteorological terms with equivalent translations in Moore, Fulfulde and Gulimancema, northern Burkina Faso's three most-spoken languages – was created as part of the British government-funded Building Resilience and Adaptation to Climate Extremes and Disasters (BRACED) programme.

The three-year programme aims to give some of the world's most climate-vulnerable people, in countries from Myanmar to South Sudan, the tools they need to prepare for more extreme weather and fend off more frequent climate shocks without slipping into worsening poverty.

Victor, who works for media non-profit Internews as part of Zaman Lebidi, a BRACED project led by anti-poverty charity Christian Aid, started the guide last year after noticing that efforts to get better seasonal forecasts to farmers through radio broadcasts weren't working effectively, in large part because of translation issues.

To sort out the problems, he brought together farmers, journalists from local radio stations, community leaders and meteorological agency officials, who over two days decided on 517 key terms that needed better translation.

In Burkina Faso, for instance, farmers have little use for terms like winter and summer, instead dividing the year into periods of different rainfall and winds, such as the hot Saharan Harmattan wind season or the monsoon period.

Efforts to broadcast expected high temperatures also don't make much sense for remote rural farmers without temperature gauges, Victor said.

"But if you can say whether it's a day you can go outside with your animals or not, that can help," he said.

The guide notes that it hopes to "remove the risk of misunderstanding" between meteorologists, who accuse journalists of misinterpreting weather information; journalists, who accuse meteorologists of being inaccurate; and farmers who aren't sure they can trust any of the information they're getting.


Edmund Henley, who organised technical assistance to the project from the UK's Met Office, said the effort is not the first to try to put complicated meteorological terms into other languages.

A World Meteorological Organization website, for instance, offers translations of scientific terms into Arabic, Mandarin, Russian and Spanish, among other languages.

But the Burkina Faso effort is unusual both in taking on local languages and making a "huge effort to get things into terms that are understandable to people," Henley said. "They had to think, 'What are we trying to get across?'"

The guide's focus on creating simple French and English equivalents for more complicated meteorological terms also means the guide is likely to be widely useful beyond Burkina Faso's borders, he said.

The translation project, backed by more than a dozen partner organisations – including Burkina Faso's meteorological agency and other national institutes, the country's radio and television groups, King's College London and German charity Welthungerhilfe – is now moving on to establishing mobile phone abbreviations for key terms.

That will make the better-tuned weather information more widely available by text message as well as on radio and television, Victor said.

"With abbreviations we can get it short," he said. "We know all the farmers in rural areas don't listen to the radio or read newspapers or look at television. But SMS doesn't need radio coverage."

Burkina Faso's government, which has encouraged the project, has indicated it intends to reprint and more widely distribute the new guide, and hopes to expand the translation effort to more of the country's approximately 60 languages.

The already translated terms are being put into the national primary school curriculum as well this year, Victor said.

The effort has also drawn the interest of other BRACED-funded projects in Niger, Ethiopia and Senegal, with journalists hoping to replicate the effort there, he said.

"Everyone wants to get this," he said of the translation guide.

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