By David Calleja
December 6, 2008
The words Partners in Compassion are synonymous with Sramouch He, a village near a dirt road junction just under 10 minutes from National Road Number 2. This is the highway linking the Cambodian town of Takeo and the nation's capital, Phnom Penh. The organisation has taken on the burden left by HIV/AIDS; orphaned children who have lost either one or both parents to the condition, or are left to obtain care that they may otherwise not get in a regular home environment. In fact, it is difficult to go anywhere in Sramouch He without finding a person who does not have a family member or friend affected by HIV/AIDS.
Wayne Matthysse, a 63 year old American has been co-running Partners since 2001 with his Cambodian counterpart Vandin San, who helped teach monks on educating awareness in HIV/AIDS in the local community. This is a facility for children and houses HIV-positive adults that help out and also undertake practical skills that may help earn them an income such as sewing and animal raising. Matthysse served as a Marine Corp medic in the Vietnam War and also worked as a Medic in Honduras before fulfilling a lifelong promise to return to Southeast Asia. Of the 65 children living within the grounds, 60 of them attend school; 17 at primary level and 43 at high school. At the beginning of the semester, two students became the first university entrants from the commune and are now in Phnom Penh studying law and medicine respectively. However, there is an underlying feeling that such an achievement is not cause for celebration based on some past events relating to the student grading system which could inhibit future opportunities for advancement. For legal reasons, further elaboration on this topic is not possible.
Wayne directs me towards a room containing a photo exhibition of children with HIV/AIDS, pictures taken by Andrew Jamieson. Kids between the ages of 5 and 10 fought for my attention, asked for a hug and then find a way to increase the deal to a piggyback or being lifted up with my forearms. "All of these kids already know how to unwrap and properly install a condom for use." Looking at what is being put into place is a sign of progression in life education and that every moment is precious worth utilising.
"Overall, there are 25 children with HIV living at the orphanage. "They have nothing to be ashamed of. They mix well with everybody at school and are not outcasts." Looking up and without so much as flinching, he continued, "The message among the residents is I have HIV/AIDS. So what? You have a big nose." Shifting focus, he goes on. "We have income generating projects, such as a pond where we grow frogs from the eggs that we purchase. Some of the older boys in their teens have a few chicken coops and raise chickens there. The adults are learning to sew so they can get money from making clothes."
"Partners in Compassion began as a hospice, taking care of 1 abandoned child who was in the advanced stages of HIV leading to AIDS left to die. We knew he would not last long," What began as a drop-off pointing caring for anyone in their latter stages of HIV or AIDS has now become a lively, active centre. Children eat, sleep, worship and learn. In 2009, Khmer classes will start in the new classroom currently under construction. As legal guardian, Wayne now devotes his energies in using the spiritual side of Buddhism to draw inspiration in making life regular for the 65 kids from infant age up to teenage years. "The relative success of Cambodia's public awareness about preventing further outbreaks of HIV/AIDS is a double edged sword," says Wayne . "In 2005, the average weekly death rate here peaked at 2 or 3, but with the arrival of Anti-Retro Viral (ARV) drugs courtesy of Médecins Sans Frontièrs (Doctors Without Borders), kids are living longer and we have not had a death since January 2008." In underlining the successes, the downside is that with the reduction in deaths, non-government organisations (NGOs) may regard this intervention as such a success, reducing or stopping funding and support and shifting focus to another nation whose situation is deemed to be in crisis mode. Should this occur, then advantages gained from all the hard work may be at risk by the decline of support.
Any visitors hoping for the type of scenario where they may take pictures of children resembling skeletons like buying a ticket to an AIDS-land theme park will be disappointed. "Every year, it is the same story. Photographers come here, stay half an hour and ask me to bring out a child with their bones sticking out so they can take a photo and send it back to their newspapers in time for International World AIDS Day."
In dealing with grief associated with losing a parent, kids adopt the primary tasks necessary to conduct the funeral, including cleaning the inside where the body is burnt as well as after the completion of the service and collecting wood. Adults on the premises weave bamboo trays in which the bodies are delivered to a crematorium, a small building that has 77 framed photos on one wall and the ashes of each person inside a glass cabinet directly facing the window. The portrait contains the names, ages and dates of birth and death of each person, with the youngest victim listed as being 22 days old. At the commencement of the ceremony, the deceased's child lights the fire to commence the proceedings and is helped by another child for emotional purposes. A Buddhist monk conducts the service. "Normally, we will hear crying for about an hour or so, but so many kids have gone through this process and they cope," Wayne elaborates. Once the body has incinerated 3 to 4 hours later, the bones are collected, washed in coconut water and stored in a jar.
One of the striking features is the Wat Opot Pagoda, where Buddhist prayer services are conducted every Saturday for the children. This was once used by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s but is now under restoration from members of the community of Sramouch He and the facilities' residents. With 2 kids in tow on my forearm, I commenced running up the stairs, humming The Overture of William Tell. For the next hour, a monk led everybody through prayers, chants and meditation. The last segment requires complete silence, but when surrounded by 65 kids, with 4 or 5 competing for my attention, how is it possible not to smile? I marvel at how everybody except for me could easily cross their legs and keep the position for an hour when I cannot even hold that same pose for 1 minute.
Afterwards, while giving a piggyback to one of the children and conducting an English conversation with a teenager, something clicked inside my mind, as if to say there must be a serious reason for leading me here. Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted one of the HIV-positive adults resting on the top of the wall, her body thinner than the concrete width. Her discoloured complexion and weakening flesh demonstrated the frailties and struggled of life right before me. Tears streamed down her cheek out of her bulging eyes. I smiled and she grinned briefly at me, exposing enlarged gums, but I think she saw right through my intentions. Before me was a lifeless skeletal exhibit with sagging skin wrapped roughly around her bones. Another woman working on the grounds is allegedly a "poker debt", having been prevented from attending school by her father, and used as a prize for other men on card nights before being kicked out of home upon her father discovering her HIV-positive result because she would have been worthless in his eyes. Later, I would make a more substantial effort to talk with some adults by running through some English phrases they were eager to learn from a book, but I regarded myself guilty of dishing out tokenism.
Wayne and I then get to The Chhang Story, a DVD compilation about the life of a 6 year old in the final stages of AIDS given 1 year to live. The images had been deemed too disturbing to use as a photo essay for public exhibition. Weighing less than 20 kg when delivered to Partners in Compassion's headquarters, the DVD tells the story of a child often unable to do more than lay on the floor due to being unable to take part in activities with other kids, yet still manages to have a profound effect on everyone, including Wayne, also the story teller. 'He seemed to be looking into my soul or questioning my integrity' reads part of one line as photos depicting his eventual lapse into the final stages of life appear on the screen. Matthysse offers no apologies in using haunting pictures of Chhang, including one depicting the child's bones sticking out of his body, accompanied by shriveled skin, as well as a time lapse of the fungus which appeared on his thumb and spread throughout his face.
The final stages deliver a commentary of Chhang's final moments before entering the afterlife. With all efforts exhausted, just as the young boy was ready to be pronounced dead by monks and tearful residents looking on who feared but understood that such a day would eventually come, Chhang collected his last ounces of energy reserves, gripping onto Wayne's hand as he was about to let go and using his other arm to hang onto tightly around Matthysse's neck. As the caption puts it;
With his final breath, Chhang screamed out to Jesus in the name that he knew… WAYNE !
Perhaps it is more of a realisation that the legal guardian who took this boy in and did everything he humanly could offer highlights the type of unconditional love that model parents strive to give their children. In Wayne's own words, "it is my greatest honour to be with someone in their last few minutes, knowing that I did everything possible to make his death dignified and comfortable."
Wayne credits the Chhang incident for being instrumental in turning him closer to Buddhism's spiritual side.
Wrapping up the presentation, he shows me a picture that he took at the moment where monks are undertaking the death ceremony, and the photo highlights a shining spot over the head of the boy. In spite of doubting whether to actually take the picture, he still did so and feels that it carries a certain message. "Perhaps there is a spiritual reunion that is sending a message," Matthysse says. "The grounds were once used by the Khmer Rouge and many people died here, and in the process of these grounds being used for caring for HIV/AIDS-affected people, between 200 and 300 people have passed away. Is it a supernatural phenomenon? I don't know."
In summarising his inspiration to keep Partners In Compassion running, Matthysse cites Thomas Dooley III, a 1950s American Navy physician based in Laos and Vietnam, and author whose humanitarian work inspired the formation of the United States Peace Corps under John F. Kennedy's presidency, to return to and remain in Southeast Asia. This is what keeps him going. Dooley's love for the people who fought independence wars against the French matches Matthysse's own desire to give his time to those who appreciate it most and reciprocate their warmth, for they will never walk alone.
To find out more information, visit Partners In Compassion's website, http://www.partnersincompassioncambodia.com/index.htm
Director Wayne Matthysse can be contacted on email@example.com
Readers may also be interested in a story David has written about feeding children living in Phnom Penh's Stung Meanchey rubbish dump, "Banquet For Phnom Penh's Rubbish Dump Residents" The link is: http://www.hackwriters.com/BanquetPhnom.htm
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