After a career spent in the trenches fighting the scourge of HIV/AIDS in Botswana and the continent as a whole, Professor Sheila Tlou recently announced her retirement. However, as Mmegi Correspondent, NNASARETHA KGAMANYANE reports, Tlou is not tired and has not retired from fighting the epidemic
Kwete, as her loved ones call her, has retired from being the director of the UNAIDS Regional Support Team for Eastern and Southern Africa, a position she was appointed to in 2010.
Her career has been one of firsts, as she was the first nurse to join national politics after being chosen as a specially elected Member of Parliament. She was also the first nurse to become the Minister of Health in 2004.
Sheila Tlou is not just an icon to Batswana, but has raised the country’s flag in the international health fraternity, winning 25 awards including the prestigious Christiane Reimann Award that she will receive in Barcelona, Spain later this month.
Mma Tlou recently told Mmegi that even though she would be calling time on her career next month, her passion for fighting HIV and AIDS would continue.
“I’m retiring, but I am not tired. I will continue fighting to ensure that every person, even those who are in remote rural areas, have access to medical services,” she said.
Tlou said throughout her career, she had realised that the world economic situation did not augur well for greater resources in the fight to end AIDS. She said many countries did not increase their domestic spending on the AIDS response due to competing priorities. Many rely on the Global Fund and other donors, a situation that is not sustainable in the long run.
“Botswana, Namibia and South Africa are the only countries in Africa that fund their AIDS response by more than 60%,” she said.
“Key populations are often marginalised due to legal barriers to accessing services or because of stigma and discrimination. They do not receive adequate attention from national programmes."
She has seen some success in the fight against the disease during her time at UNAIDS. In the period since she began working at UNAIDS seven years ago, Tlou has seen the percentage of pregnant women with HIV receiving antiretroviral treatment rise to 90%. She has also seen a 66% decline in infections of infants.
As she retires from the public scene, Mma Tlou is, however leaving behind unfinished business.
“Serious challenges remain on issues of decriminalising same-sex relations and sex work, implementing harm-reduction programmes and recognising the rights and entitlements of people who inject drugs,” she said.
“We have work to do in improving legal and other mechanisms to protect men and women from sexual and physical violence and abuse arising from their perceived or actual sexual orientation or gender identities.
Unless these are addressed, we will not end AIDS by 2030.”
Family, friends, students and former colleagues describe Tlou as a very hardworking, humble and dedicated woman who has always shown interest in fellow human beings. The family and others gathered together recently at a retirement party for Tlou, where they shared
Bangu Morake, Tlou’s daughter-in-law, said the veteran health icon has been her role model since she was a young girl. Morake said she had never imagined that one day she would be close or even related to her role model.
“I have always looked up to Mme since I was a young girl. I was inspired by her achievements and determination to prove that women were worthy and could make an impact in the society.
“At the time I never knew that one day I would be part of her family, which is a privilege to me. Her energetic aura has always mesmerised me,” she said.
Morake described Tlou as a bubbly person who knows how to balance life. She said even though Tlou was a very busy woman, she always finds time to play and share her affection with her loved ones. She added that Tlou had a positive approach to life.
“Tlou has done so much pushing for many health projects such as HIV and AIDS initiatives. She knows no barriers. Once she sets her mind on something, she becomes unstoppable,” Morake said.
One of Tlou’s former students and close friend, Mable Magowe, recalled how they met when the former minister was lecturing at the International Health School (IHS).
“When I was Tlou’s student she was teaching Community Nursing. Her teaching style was always different from other lecturers and she would make her lessons interesting.
“She would tell you a story and put you in the scene. Her classes provoked us to make responsible decisions. Tlou was a bubbly teacher,” she said.
Magowe explained that Tlou’s teaching style made her eager to learn.
“The way she interacted with her students made us fond of her and as a result we saw her as the sister we never had.”
The journey of friendship did not end there as Magowe and Tlou also met abroad when the former minister was pursuing her PhD.
“She has always been a very hard working woman. Tlou never slept. She was busy studying, cleaning, doing laundry or cooking. She would wake us up early in the morning. I was always amazed by her perseverance and hard work. I once asked her if she ever sleeps,” Magowe said smiling.
Barclays Life managing director, Motshabi Mokone, described Tlou as a force to be recognised. She said Tlou was a role model for all health practitioners locally and internationally, saying she was a phenomenal woman who always strived to bring change in the lives of her fellow human beings.
“As we know, nursing requires dedication, passion and time. I therefore urge other nurses to look up to Tlou as they will reap something out of it at the end of the day.”