Community Health Centre Staff Acquire Language Skills

22 Jul 2014 - 11:45


The University of Cape Town (UCT) Faculties of Health Sciences and Humanities, the Provincial Government of the Western (PGWC) Cape Health Department as well as the European Union (EU) have pooled resources to offer language courses to health service personnel at two Community Health Centres (CHC’s) at Delft and Kraaifontein in the Western Cape.

The Division of Family Medicine was represented by Professor Derek Hellenberg, Dr Nayna Manga and Ms Delena Fredericks. The isiXhosa Section was represented by Mr Zukile Jama and the Afrikaans section by Dr Joel Claassen and Dr Minnie Lewis.

While South Africa has 11 official languages and the Western Cape regards English, Afrikaans and isiXhosa as the three “official” languages of this province, the staff at most health facilities in the public sector speak mostly English and Afrikaans, which are not the mother tongue languages of a significant number of patients.  This imbalance has an effect on the access to care which these patients enjoy as well as the quality of care they receive. UCT started to address this language imbalance since 2003 by teaching medical students isiXhosa and Afrikaans during their undergraduate training.

Trying to improve the present situation at CHCs remains a challenge. The Division of Family Medicine and School of Languages and Literatures at UCT, together with the Tygerberg-North Sub-structure (TNSS) of the PGWC Department of Health supported with funding from the EU, have tried to begin to address this problem by piloting Beginners courses in isiXhosa and Afrikaans for health service personnel at the  Delft and Kraaifontein CHC’s. These courses have been accredited by the Centre for Higher Education (CHED) at UCT. 

Delft CHC Graduating Class

The first classes were rolled out at the two CHC’s in September 2013.  One hour classes were held weekly and their progress assessed midway and at the end of training. The first group of staff who successfully completed the training, graduated on 27 March 2014.  Eleven staff members completed the isiXhosa course while six completed the Afrikaans course.  Graduation ceremonies were held at both the Kraaifontein and Delft CHCs.  Dr L. Bitalo, the Director for the TNSS of the PGWC Department of Health, spoke at the graduation ceremony at the Delft CHC and emphasised the importance of communicating in a patient’s mother tongue language, not only for better medical treatment of patients, but also as a way of recognising and acknowledging patients’ dignity and humanity.

Kraaifontein CHC Graduating Class

The staff at both CHCs who completed the courses were enthusiastic about the course, saying that it would help them to communicate better with patients. They further stated that the courses also provided them with a better understanding of patients’
cultures. The Delft Health Committee representative, Mrs Amelia Jones who was present at the event, felt that the community members would benefit greatly from staff being able to understand the patients’ language, albeit at a very basic level.

The facility managers and staff at the two CHC’s and their staff deserve special thanks for taking on this project and seeing it through to a successful completion for the first cohort of students. So, too do the teachers who facilitated the teaching sessions.

The next round of teaching has already begun at both CHCs for 2014 and it is hoped that this training will continue and be extended to other CHCs.