“You are all beautiful small creatures and need to believe in yourselves,”
Zinhle Msimang tells the group of Grade 6 learners who have spent that last 20 minutes describing how ugly they feel. To facilitate discussions about puberty and self-esteem, Zinhle, who is also known as the SuperBug in the Midlands Meander Education Project (MMEP), often asks learners to imagine looking in a mirror and describe what they see. “Children need to understand that they are each unique and to learn to accept themselves as they are.” Her lessons are aimed at building self-esteem and confidence in the boys and girls in Grade 6 and 7 classes – particularly emphasising the importance of every part of one’s body, whether you love your ears or not!
Often children find it difficult to speak to their parents, or teachers, about the changes they observe in their own and friend’s bodies, so Zinhle’s encouraging and non-threatening manner allows them to understand the real facts, and assists them to make good, positive choices. Life Skills is one component of the multi-faceted MMEP programme that engages over 2000 learners in rural and township Midlands schools. Zinhle has fund a useful device to get discussion going around ‘those difficult words’ is to use cut out wooden letters to spell words associated with their body image and puberty. Not only increasing their confidence to talk about these issues, but improving spelling too. “Once they know these words, they can recognise them in text books and then learn for themselves.”
Recently, a group of Grade 7 girls asked Zinhe if they could speak to her without the boys present. This was their chance to share stories, feelings, laughter and camaraderie in a safe space, all the while learning vital information. After the lesson, one of the girls said to Zinhle, “Eyi Miss, wangikhulula”, which means “I feel so relieved”. However, it is not only the girls who feel relieved, often it is even harder for the boys to discuss these issues. Sometimes they make fun of one another – pointing out classmates who have experienced changes in their bodies. Zinhle lets them know that their time will come and that laughing at others doesn’t help, which usually means they all become contemplative.
A signature of MMEP lessons is Quiet Time – where learners are asked to simply sit for a few minutes in silence. Zinhle finds this technique very useful and occasionally asks the learners to share their thoughts and feelings from the Quiet Time “I always enjoy their imagination and believe that what they think about in that special time will always be remembered.”
Zinhle strives to help young people be aware that, with conscious effort, they can change the feelings they have about their body image. This builds personal strength that will stand them in good stead through their challenging teenage years.