Woman of many hats

Healthcare was never Professor Sheila Dinotshe Tlou’s first passion.

Her interest from a very young age was rather in languages and in helping others.

Born in Palapye in 1953, all that drove her was excelling at what she did, especially in getting the best education she could get.

But when she finished her secondary education from St Joseph’s college, she was told she “cannot eat languages,” and was given a list of Science scholarships to chose from instead and that’s how he landed in the nursing field.

“I was interviewed by a man. I told him I wanted to do languages, but he said, “Look, you cannot eat languages!” He therefore told me to make a choice in health sciences. I had no other option but to apply for a course in health sciences,” she explained.

According to her, the vacancies then were open in Zambia, Uganda and Ethiopia. Uganda was not an option because her father had disliked Idi Amin’s behavior. Ethiopia became her first choice.

“You can imagine, being a 19- year- old girl and looking at those pictures of handsome Ethiopians, you just want to go there. So I chose Ethiopia,” said Tlou as she recalled her younger days.

However a week later, she was told that there was an opportunity for her to study in the United States of America as well, so she changed her mind about Ethiopia and ended up studying nursing in the USA.

“When I got there, I told them that I am not really interested in the bedside kind of nursing, but rather public health. I enrolled for Public health, I took another course on languages and the other on gender,” Tlou explained.

Tlou who recently retired from her 7- year position as Director for the UNAIDS Regional Support has donned many hats through her illustrious career.

She was Member of Parliament, Minister of Health, and Director of World Health Organisation’s Collaboration Centre for Eastern and Southern Africa, United Nation’s Eminent person for Women, Girls and HIV/AIDS in the African region among others.

She has provided leadership in the regional response to HIV and ensured technical support to over 21 countries in the region.

She has been very instrumental in fighting early marriages especially in Malawi where the practice was prevalent.

“I was impressed at the response from the chiefs. They really took up the campaign to end early marriages,” Tlou sated.

During her time as Minister of Health in Botswana, Tlou with the full support of former state President, Festus Mogae led a forward thinking and focused HIV prevention, treatment, care and support programme, which is still a model today.

“I knew Mogae from his days as the governor of Bank of Botswana. We used to work together; he would invite me to come and train the bank staff on HIV and AIDS. At the time there was little knowledge on HIV/AIDS. I had to train nurses. We had a problem. Practicing nurses were clueless on the virus,” Tlou explained.

When Mogae became the country’s 3rd President, he nominated her to Parliament through a special election window because he wanted her in the fight against HIV.

Botswana then was among the hardest hit in the world in terms of HIV infections.

As the chairperson of the Southern African Development Community and the African Ministers of Health she provided leadership in the adoption of the SADC Malaria eradication Programme, the SADC HIV/AIDS Plan of Action and the Maputo Plan of Action on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights.

“Imagine me, a Motswana woman, sitting at the top, with all these international representatives looking up to me to solve our common problems, to make this world a better place! It fulfills me as a human being,” Tlou stated.
Despite all the colourful hats she dons, Tlou still considers herself an “ordinary village girl from Palapye.”

As a young girl, back in the 50s, she never imagined herself to someday chair international forums and receive awards alongside the likes of the former United States of America’s first lady, Michelle Obama.

“I grew up a lucky girl. I had educated parents who always wanted the best for me. Even today, I look back and I could say I am fortunate to have a mother and father who are both still alive,” Tlou stated.

She added that she is who she is today because of her supportive parents and her drive to learn. She started school at a tender age of five because “There was this girl who worked at home and I used to cry for her when she went to school. I would tag along and sit next to her through out the lessons.”

The school head then realized that Tlou was a bright student and he enrolled her at a much younger age and she sat in class with much older students, some of who were teenagers.

“I remember when I finished my primary school, my father got a space for me at St Joseph’s college in Kgale (near capital city Gaborone). It was there that I started lobbying for more girls to come to school,” Tlou explained.

She said then, there was one student, a girl who was almost as smart as her in class, but could not proceed to secondary school because her parents wanted to marry her off.

The brave Tlou, approached the parents and convinced them to take her to school and thankfully they did.

“I realized I have always have interests of others at heart from my tender age. At the time I did not realize it was advocacy that I was doing,” Tlou noted.

Much of Tlou’s work has since focused on gender and HIV/AIDS, which includes enabling women to negotiate with their partners for safe sex and she has worked with women groups locally as well to increase awareness on HIV and AIDS including reducing stigma.

To date she continues to add more feathers to her many hats.

Just a few months ago in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, Tlou received yet another Global leadership award for Global network of Black People working in HIV.

At a different forum, she was elected the campaign Chairperson of another global forum, ‘Nursing Now’ at the same time she is a Chairperson of two more forums, Forum for Innovative Diagnostic (FIND) and Global HIV Prevention Coalition.

Asked whether she has plans to make a comeback to Botswana Parliament, Tlou said she can only return as a specially elected, not having to undergo the hectic campaigns where even primary elections are charecterised by cheating and vote rigging.