When Dr Maithri Goonetilleke stepped off a plane in Swaziland as a fifth-year medical student in 2005, his life changed forever. Now he’s dedicated to changing the lives of the young people in the world’s most AIDS-ravaged nation.
Dr Maithri Goonetilleke doesn’t much like talking about himself.
The Sri Lankan-born 32-year-old Australian would much rather talk about Swaziland — the tiny, land-locked, mountainous, southern African nation he first visited as a fifth-year medical student in 2005 and which has captured his heart and his social conscience.
Dr Goonetilleke came to Australia at the age of 6 when he and his parents escaped the Sri Lankan civil war by immigrating to Melbourne. He attended the prestigious Carey Baptist Grammar School in Kew, then went on to study medicine at Melbourne University. He did his residency at Austin Hospital in Heidelberg.
As part of his fifth-year elective program he decided to go to Swaziland to work in the Good Shepherd Hospital on the recommendation of a friend who had spent her elective there.
He walked off the plane in 2005 and into a world of hurt.
“I had no idea how it would transform my life”, he says. “The moment I stepped off the plane the need was glaringly obvious, in your face. When I first arrived it seemed like there was death around every corner.”
Swaziland has the highest prevalence of HIV/AIDS in the world — over 310 000 of its population of 1.2 million are HIV positive. It also has the highest proportion of orphaned children in the world — there are around 180 000 orphans (15% of the population), either being cared for by grandparents, or with older children heading up households of younger children.
Today, Swazi adults can expect to live until, on average, 46 years of age. Unbelievably, that’s an improvement. In 2004 that number had dipped to 31. Almost 70% of Swazis live on less than A$1.20 a day.
Dr Goonetilleke came back from that experience determined to raise money for and awareness of the nation’s plight.
The result of his determination was the formation of Possible Dreams International (PDI), a non-profit organisation which partners with rural and remote communities in Swaziland to “empower families and individuals living with extreme poverty, malnutrition and endemic disease”. He is PDI’s executive director.
PDI has two broad arms. One provides relief for Swazi HIV/AIDS patients through food, medicines, housing, water and transportation. The other is about sustainable development, engaging with each community and individual in ways that help them to stand on their own two feet.
But there is also a third, more intangible arm.
“It’s about dignity”, Dr Goonetilleke says. “It’s about creating conversations about their dreams and how to achieve them in the long term.”
The most visible, engaging face of the organisation is the PDI choir, made up of Swazi young people (the age range is from 16 years to some in their mid-thirties) telling their own stories through music, dance and audience engagement.
“The choir was born out of that respect, honouring their humanity”, says Dr Goonetilleke, who is a talented singer himself. “The choir goes to remote and rural communities in Swaziland where there are sick, suffering, isolated people and gathers around them. They will talk, maybe build the family a chicken coop.
“And then they sing. Music is very important to Swazis. It is very healing and I’ve seen its power, most vividly.”
Many of the choir members are HIV positive, most come from a background of extreme poverty, but they all have one thing in common.
“They are just young people who want to be of service”, Dr Goonetilleke says. “They are passionate advocates for their people. Not only are they fine singers but they understand music as empowerment.”
Last month, the PDI choir came to Australia for an 18-day visit to Melbourne, during which they performed in Federation Square, Uniting Church venues and some of the city’s elite schools, including Wesley College, Carey Baptist Grammar and Strathcona Baptist Girls Grammar.
The tour was an eye-opener for both the choir members and the privileged young Australians for whom they were performing.
“For many in the choir it was the first time they had left the mountains of Swaziland, and none of them had ever been in a plane”, Dr Goonetilleke says.
“It’s surreal when two worlds collide.
“These are intelligent, articulate young people, telling their stories. They come, singing, into your lives and it’s deeply moving and very confronting.
“That’s what I want to do.”
As a resident with an interest in infectious diseases, and with experience working in one-doctor emergency rooms in rural Australia, Dr Goonetilleke had no idea that he would become an advocate for the Swazis.
“I never really planned any of this”, he says. “I am just following the dream as it’s unfolded. I’ll continue to do that. If it leads me to other projects and countries, then that’s fantastic, but my commitment has always been to do something well. My commitment is holistic.
“Aid work is intrinsically difficult because the moment you go into a community, you are a foreign entity. What’s required is a local team on the ground 24/7. It’s important to have an understanding of how disease and socioeconomic factors work within a particular culture. What needs to happen is, rather than partnering with the community, you become a part of the community.”
More information about PDI is available on their website (http://www.possibledreamsinternational.org). The choir’s 2011 CD, Voices for the voiceless, is available for download through iTunes.
Dr Goonetilleke’s book, Vula Bevalile: letters from a young doctor, has just been released.