International Writers Magazine:Kids
Positive Outlook For Life: Being a Partner in Compassion
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 nations 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.
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," explains Matthysse. 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
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 deceaseds 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
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 swinging on my forearms, 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 Compassions 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 childs 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 Chhangs 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 Waynes hand as he was about to let go and using his other
arm to hang onto tightly around Matthysses neck. As the caption
With his final breath, Chhang screamed out to Jesus in the name that
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 Buddhisms 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 dont 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. Kennedys
presidency, to return to and remain in Southeast Asia . This is
what keeps him going. Dooleys love for the people who fought independence
wars against the French matches Matthysses 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 Compassions website,
Director Wayne Matthysse can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org
© David Calleja
For Phnom Penh's Rubbish Dump Residents - David Calleja
SOM CHO BEIE JOUR!
The limits of my Khmer are obvious to everybody in sight, but I am still
able to obtain laughter from those who seek another type of medicine.
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