Swaziland is a landlocked country in southern Africa, bordered by South Africa and Mozambique. Its current king is Mswati III, and the official languages are English and siSwati. Its capital is Mbabane, which has a population of 74,000. Overall, the entire population of Swaziland is roughly 1,400,000 people. However, because of the AIDS epidemic, the median age of the population is 20 years old, and life expectancy at birth is only 49 years. Approximately one third of all Swazi children have lost both their mother and father to AIDS.
Maithri Goonetilleke's book, Vula Bevalile: Letters from a Young Doctor, is an autobiographical journey through Goonetilleke's experiences in Swaziland. Born in Sri Lanka and raised in Australia, Goonetilleke had worked in rural areas of Australia, running sole-doctor emergency departments, and working in Indigenous communities and correctional institutions. However, his experiences in rural Australia could not possible prepare him for what he would find in Swaziland. Two thirds of Swaziland's population lives below the poverty line, and infant and maternal mortality rates are ten and forty times respectively what they are in Australia. Even knowing such terrible statistics, Goonetilleke's experiences in Swaziland were more shocking than he could have expected. During his first visit to Swaziland, he promised to return to Australia to tell the stories of the people he had met.
Vula Bevalile, a siSwati phrase which means 'open the closed door,' is a short book, which can be read with ease in an hour or so. The chapters are usually four or five pages long, and tell the story of an individual Goonetilleke has met. However, I would recommend taking your time to read it. Vula Bevalile may seem simple at first glance, but it is a haunting work that will stay with you for days. From the wisdom of Matron Zwane, the courage of the gogos, and the story of mischievous Busiswa, Vula Bevalile can reveal a lot about human nature, and the spirit of survival.