When Eric Trutwein discovered two decades ago that he was HIV positive, he returned to his Magway Region hometown to die. But his health improved, and he has built a new life through a guesthouse and a school for orphans.
By EVA HIRSCHI | FRONTIER
In 1999, when he was 54, Mr Eric Trutwein discovered by accident that he was HIV positive. He needed an operation and the Yangon hospital had tested his blood. It showed he had contracted human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which can lead to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) and is often fatal without treatment.
Trutwein had married a few years earlier, so he arranged for his wife to get a test too. She was also HIV positive; it transpired that her first husband had died of AIDS in 1997.
His wife passed away less than two years later, in December 2000. Feeling a heavy burden of fate, Trutwein decided to return to his Magway Region hometown, Yenangyaung, where he was born in 1945. As his name suggests, Trutwein has Anglo-Burmese roots: his great-grandfather had migrated to Burma from the United Kingdom and married a Burmese woman.
“At home, we were only allowed to speak English,” recalled Trutwein, now 73, who also attended a Christian missionary school where English was the medium of instruction.
Trutwein’s great-grandfather had been drawn to Yenangyaung by a job with the British-run Burmah Oil Company. Oil has been extracted from the ground at Yenangyaung for hundreds of years and the colonising British developed the area into one of the country’s main production areas. BOC began production at the Yenangyaung field in 1887 and at Chauk field, about 72 kilometres to the north, in 1902. The revenue from black gold made its investors rich but after General Ne Win seized power in 1962 it was nationalised along with all other industries.
Under Ne Win’s Burmese Way to Socialism, the oil industry and the economy more broadly went into decline. Trutwein’s great-grandfather had three sons who worked for BOC; after nationalisation, the family, like many others, lost their source of income. Unlike most Anglo-Burmese the Trutweins remained in Burma after the coup, although not necessarily through lack of trying; Eric said he was twice rejected for an Australian visa.
After leaving the oil industry, Eric Trutwein and his family found work in the timber trade, logging valuable teak deep within the country’s forests. Later on, they worked on infrastructure projects for Burma’s state-owned oil firm, building storage tanks and pipelines. While he learned a lot about construction during this period, Eric Trutwein decided against following his father’s career path and instead moved to Mandalay to study psychology. But after just a year, his English proficiency and engineering skills helped him land a job as a mechanic at the British Council in Yangon. He managed to finish his degree by attending night classes at Yangon University.
After being diagnosed with AIDS, Trutwein feared he did not have long to live. Soon after the turn of the century, he returned to Yenangyaung to buy a plot of land on top of a hill overlooking the Ayeyarwady River and build a house in which to quietly spend his last days.
“Back then, there was no medication for this disease available in Myanmar; people didn’t even talk about it. The government said that there was no HIV in Myanmar as it is a Buddhist country,” Trutwein said.
Fate was kind to Trutwein. “Somehow my health improved; I started to be able to move again and began walking around in my town,” he said. That’s when he was confronted by evidence of poverty and was especially disturbed by the sight of children begging in front of monasteries. Most of the children were orphans because their parents had died of AIDS. Trutwein began giving the children food and teaching them English. “These thirteen kids started to follow me everywhere, so I let them stay at my home,” he said.
Trutwein also began raising awareness about AIDS and soon became the country representative for an Italian NGO, Progetto Continenti, that was founded in Rome in 1989 and had been operating in Myanmar since 2003. With the help of traditional Myanmar theatre plays, they tried to educate people in Yenangyaung about sex, contraception and sexually transmitted diseases. “I remember I had to go to the monk to explain why we use condoms in our theatre plays. First, he didn’t want to allow it but then I convinced him it was for a good cause,” Trutwein said, adding that the performances helped to educate thousands of people.
“But then I asked myself what would happen to these kids when I die?” Trutwein recalled. “That’s when I had the idea for the guesthouse.”
His vision was that the income generated by the Lei Thar Gone guesthouse (which means “gentle breeze” in Burmese) would continue to benefit the children after his death. With his background as a self-taught builder and engineer, he started work on the first bungalow-style room, collaborating with local workers. “Most of them had no proper education or couldn’t even read, so with a stick I would just draw a rough plan in the sand and explain to them what they needed to do,” he said.
Soon after the guesthouse’s first room was completed in 2006, he had a chance encounter with an old school friend, Mrs Beda Hyacinth Elsaesser, who had married and settled in Germany and was visiting Yenangyaung for the first time in 30 years. Trutwein told her about his project; impressed by Trutwein’s altruism, she offered to help.
“I had worked for petrol companies, but I had no background in sponsorships or funds, so I was wondering what exactly she meant by offering to help. But I just said, ‘Yes’,” Trutwein recalled with a laugh. Two years later, he was pleasantly surprised to learn that Elsaesser and her friends in Germany had established an organisation to help raise funds for his project. They called it “Kinderhilfe Birma”, or “Helping Burmese Children”.
Change of plan
Meanwhile, work on more rooms at the guesthouse was proceeding slowly, partly because Trutwein’s health had deteriorated. He found relief in herbal medicine, and it helped sustain him for another few years. When the virus weakened him again in 2008, life-saving anti-retroviral treatment (ART) had become available in Yangon and he was able to receive treatment. The level of care in Myanmar for people with HIV – of whom UNAIDS estimated there were 220,000 in 2017 – has improved greatly since then, although the country still has the second highest prevalence of the disease in Southeast Asia after Thailand, and not all patients are able to access ART.
When Trutwein began building what he intended to be a home for the orphans, the government would not give him permission to open an orphanage, a role mainly reserved for monasteries. However, after the Private School Registration Law was enacted in 2011, Trutwein applied for a licence the following year and was granted permission to open a private school, a two-minute walk from the guesthouse compound.
“That was even better,” Trutwein said. The school, named “Light of Love”, opened in 2013. It has about 180 children from pre-school to high school, and its 17 full-time and six part-time teachers are regularly helped by volunteers. As well as assistance from Kinderhilfe Birma, the school also receives support from two European foundations, Hirtenkinder in Switzerland and Enfants de Birmanie in France.
“I realised that the education in government schools was very bad,” Trutwein said. “My primary goal was to teach the children English, as speaking English had allowed me to survive in this country.”
The school is intended to benefit destitute children, mainly orphans or those with one surviving parent. There are no fees and pupils are provided with uniforms, medical care and a monthly food ration. The school quickly gained a reputation for the quality of the education it provides, and it has accepted about 50 children from wealthier families, too – some even have parents who work at the Yenangyaung Degree College. These pupils are required to pay fees, which help to subsidise the other students.
Trutwein is delighted by the academic progress of some of the orphans he befriended many years ago. “Because of my disease I didn’t want to make plans and just lived day to day. I’m so grateful to see how some of the kids that I found begging in the streets have now graduated from college,” he said. “Only thanks to my AIDS this project exists.”
Lei Thar Gone: More than just a business
Lei Thar Gone continues to expand and now has 15 rooms. It attracts guests from around the world and they have the opportunity to visit the school and enable students to practise their English. Foreign visitors can expect to be greeted with a loud, “Hello, how are you?”
As well as generating income for the school, the guesthouse also provides opportunities to acquire vocational skills. “Many of the staff never reached a higher level of education than grade 3,” said Ms Therese Hubler, a former restaurant owner from Switzerland who first visited Myanmar in 2013. “But it doesn’t matter; we teach them how to work in hospitality and they are very keen on learning more.”
When Hubler retired, she looked for opportunities to use her skills to benefit underprivileged communities. She heard about the Light of Love school through friends and travelled to Yenangyaung to help establish the guesthouse, from decorating rooms and developing menus to teaching hygiene in the kitchen and handling bookings.
Hubler visits Yenangyaung twice a year for about six weeks at a time to help Trutwein and the staff. The rest of the year she manages the guesthouse from Switzerland, keeping the accounts and dealing with booking requests.
While at Lei Thar Gone she also teaches the staff basic English, which they can practise while checking in guests or serving breakfast on the terrace.
Evening meals are served in the guesthouse restaurant. The set menu of soup, salad, main course and dessert costs K10,000 and changes each day. A lunch option is being developed, as well as a mango-based cocktail to sip while enjoying stunning views of the sunset over the Ayeyarwady River.
A reward for staying at Lei Thar Gone is knowing that it’s all for a good cause.
Getting there: There are direct buses to Yenangyaung from Yangon, Bagan, Nyaung Shwe, Taunggyi and Mandalay. From Nyaung-U, the public bus reaches Yenangyaung in two hours. The guesthouse can arrange a free pick-up in Yenangyaung or a transfer from Nyaung-U airport for a fee.
Staying there: A double room for two costs between US$40 and $60 a night; a suite for two is $70 and $80 for three. Breakfast is included.
What to do: Options include a motorbike safari, a trip on a fishing boat or a ride on a horse-drawn cart. You can also enjoy the swimming pool at the guesthouse or strolls in the town.