Rakhita and Senel: Transforming Lives

A SUNDAY TIMES Feature, 23 July 2017 entitled “Young and Unafraid,”… http://www.sundaytimes.lk/170723/plus/young-and-unafraid-251199.html

A month ago two young Sri Lankans were in London to receive the Queen’s Young Leaders Award. Established in 2014, the programme is aimed at discovering, supporting and encouraging exceptional young people between the ages of 18-29 across the Comonwealth for their contribution to their communities. This year, 21-year-old Rakitha Malewana and 26-year-old Senel Wanniarachchi were honoured for their work with HIV/AIDS and social activism respectively.

   Rakitha Malewana, raising awareness about HIV/AIDs. Pix by Indika handuwala

  Social activist Senel Wanniarachchi. Pic by Sameera Weerasekera

By this time, interviews have become somewhat routine for Rakitha. But when we meet the undergraduate Rakitha’s passion which lights up his face makes it obvious why the young scientist has achieved so much with his work in a few years- qualifying for the Young Leaders Award for the development of a new HIV nano-vaccine.

Rakitha is also the co-founder of United Youth Consortium (UNYCom), a volunteer-based organisation that works for the rights of HIV/AIDS positive individuals and the founder of ideanerd SL- a platform which popularises scientific research among schoolchildren.  In addition this over-achiever has secured two gold medals and a bronze at several science and research Olympiads, he informs us in a brief summary of his numerous achievements rattled off matter of factly, only giggling shyly when he sees our shocked expressions.

2017 too has been a significant year so far.  Most notably his name was also on the Forbes 30 Under 30 Asia – Class of 2017 in the field of healthcare and science, also being one of the youngest honorees from all the categories.  But Rakitha doesn’t share the hype that surrounds him. Instead “95% of what I’ve done is failure. People don’t see that,” he says.

Armed with a desire to teach English, maths and science, the 16-year-old Rakitha would venture into one of Colombo’s slum areas to try and interest six and seven-year-olds.  He was chased away several times but persisted. “I used my recognition to win their trust,” he recalls.  In the process he would find out that many of his young students’ parents and a few little ones themselves were HIV positive.

Despite his mother’s initial concerns, he together with his family’s support began research on HIV/AIDS leading to a gold medal at the International Science Projects Olympiad (ISPrO) in Jakarta.  Rakitha’s award-winning research saw him receiving an invitation from British Prime Minister David Cameron to travel to England to present his research. Rewind to around six years ago to Nalanda College when Rakitha was impatiently waiting for his O’L results.  Heavily into science, Rakitha had already discovered medical research and worked on projects which found their way to exhibitions and competitions. He also found time to take part in athletics and is a Kandyan dancer having followed his ves mangalaya. But science, which literally flows through his veins (both his parents are science teachers and his brother is studying science at university) is what encouraged Rakitha to investigate what would become his biggest project yet.

Then just 17, Rakitha doesn’t remember being nervous at  being both criticized and praised for his work by professors from Cambridge, Oxford, Imperial and some major pharmaceutical companies.  With his truly positive outlook he attributes the boost of confidence to the many times he was criticized while trying to conduct research in Sri Lanka. “There were so many people against me at the beginning,” he shakes his head. His mentors Dr. Anil Samaranayake and Dr. Rohini de Silva have been guiding him from the very start and are still helping him in his work.

Following his trip to England, Rakitha co-founded the volunteer based organization UNYCom with Prashani Goonathilake. To him, it’s more “a family” of around 80 members ranging from 17-30 years. Their whatsApp group is constantly buzzing, he laughs. They provide educational aid for the children of HIV-positive parents by conducting free tuition, counselling sessions, awareness programmes, documentation with special focus on sexual and reproductive health.

The path to success as he keeps mentioning was not without its bumps, with many casting aspersions on his own health- whether he too was HIV positive. It’s why Rakitha focuses on education and empowerment regarding HIV/AIDS, to break the stigma.  The same goes for his research. “Most HIV research is done in labs,” he explains, but for Rakitha, eating, teaching and living among HIV positive individuals has taught him the brutal reality of the situation. “I’m more concerned about the human,” he says candidly.  His secret, he shares- “I’m not afraid of anything. I’m ready for anything.”

Rakitha at an HIV/AIDs awareness programme

Social activist Senel Wanniarachchi is not an unfamiliar name in the twittersphere or the general online world. The journalist, writer and activist is the co-founder of Hashtag Generation, a youth movement committed to creating online and offline platforms to encourage discussions around youth engagement and gender equality. Senel’s work for this cause previously propelled him into the public eye as a Youth Delegate to the Permanent Mission of Sri Lanka to the United Nations, as a Senator for the Sri Lanka Youth Parliament and as a member of the international Youth Task Force (some of the few of his many accolades). But for the self-confessed introvert, social activism also allowed him to break more stereotypes.

“People who know me know that I’m awkward,” he smile-grimaces. But Senel’s initial shyness was remedied when joined the debating team at his alma mater D.S. Senanayake College. “I sucked at debating,” he shares bluntly, but kept at it till he was comfortable- an attitude he adopts for everything he does “just do things anyway, you may end up doing them a lot better”.

Teaming up with four other likeminded young activists who were also UN Youth Delegates, the group decided to start an online platform on Facebook where youth could engage and be empowered.  Using creativity and content to tackle current issues through memes and videos they started getting attention, with currently around 30 members. Through Hashtag Generation, another project We Govern Sri Lanka (#WeGovernSL) was born.  Training and empowering women through the use of the internet to get involved in local and political issues, the projects tackles the under-representation of women in Sri Lankan politics (in 2016 only 5% of women were politically represented in Sri Lanka). The group’s training programmes in Colombo and Jaffna attracted more people than Senel anticipated.

On their visits as part of the Queen’s Yo programme, Senel remembers visiting PEEK- a charity based on building eye care capacity in low and middle-income countries, which was spearheaded by a tech developer from Google and an eye surgeon who both left their financially lucrative jobs to take on a greater cause.

For Senel, the need to stand for what you believe in, although cliché, is paramount. “A lot of people think there is no impact in their work.” While Senel isn’t idealistically blind to everyday pessimism he finds optimism in an unusual place- data. “There has been progress over time. You can see results. It may be small, but it still matters.”

Senel (extreme left) with volunteers from Hashtag Generation

 
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