April 24, 2018

From Literature to Life Skills: One Educator’s Journey

“Things often look overwhelming for young people,” says Naomi Mnthali. “Will they achieve what we want them to achieve?”

“I want to see a generation that thinks in a progressive way,” says EDC’s Naomi Mnthali.

As a student at the University of Botswana, Naomi Mnthali knew that she wanted to be a high school English teacher. But more than any course on literature or writing, she says the most important class she took was on guidance and counseling.

“The course got me to think about the reality of the child, and why children did not always perform as well as they could,” she says. “I learned to engage with them and to find out what’s going on.”

Mnthali drew on these counseling skills when she became an educator. Students responded. They talked to her about their hopes and dreams, their problems at school, and sometimes even about health issues they were facing. Through it all, Mnthali listened.

“Things often look overwhelming for young people,” she says. “As an adult, you worry. What are they going to turn into? Will they achieve what we want them to achieve?”

Things looked especially overwhelming in Botswana during the late 1990s. A severe HIV epidemic had reshaped life there: rates of HIV infection were as high as 40 percent among some adult groups, and projected life expectancy stood at just 37 years—down from 63 years in 1987. The one sliver of good news was that HIV infection rates among youth remained low, offering some hope for the country’s future.

Mnthali came to realize that health education was just as important for students’ success in life as any class in English literature. So she moved to Botswana’s Ministry of Education, where she ended up coordinating an ambitious nationwide effort to promote HIV prevention and positive life skills called Living Skills for Life: Botswana’s Window of Hope. Designed for primary and secondary students, the program offered lessons in informed decision making, healthy living, and adolescent and sexual health. In 2002, EDC joined the effort to develop teacher training materials for the program, which led Mnthali to begin working for EDC in 2009.

Teaching life skills education was essential in combating HIV, but Mnthali says it was also intimidating for many teachers who were used to teaching math, literacy, and science—not sexuality. Once again, she drew on her background in guidance and counseling, but this time to help teachers.

“We try to get teachers comfortable with these topics, and to help them understand why it’s important to talk about sexuality,” she says. “It’s an uncomfortable area for many teachers to deal with. When you talk about sex education, you have to engage with learners in terms of how the body develops, and what happens when boys and girls reach puberty. You have to talk about relationships and different types of sexual orientation. It becomes very personal, and it comes into conflict with areas that are taboo in many cultures.”

Since its launch, Living Skills for Life has reached more than 2,800 teachers and 130,000 students. It has been a critical tool in Botswana’s efforts to eliminate new HIV infections and has even been included in the government’s strategic framework to promote adolescent health. Now, Mnthali has moved to South Africa, where EDC is using sexuality education and school-based life skills programs to prevent new HIV infections.

The work continues to energize her.

“I want to see a generation that has been exposed to health education and thinks in a progressive way—in a way that does not place themselves or other people at risk,” she says. “I look forward to seeing a generation that ‘got it’ because of what I contributed to their world.”

Mnthali has been out of the classroom for nearly two decades, but she still runs into old faces. In 2017, she was at a UNESCO health conference in Zambia when a student she had known years ago took the stage. The accomplished debater Mnthali had known as a girl was now a professional woman speaking about gender equity.

To Mnthali’s surprise, her former student began her presentation by acknowledging her. Mnthali had been a role model, she said, and it was she who had inspired her to pursue her dreams. The room erupted in applause. Mnthali was overcome.

“It was the highlight of my career,” she says.