It is June 20, 2008 and I am seated next to a former military officer and combat veteran on board a bus from Saigon, Vietnam heading for Phnom Penh, Cambodia. I am fielding a question regarding how many times I had visited Cambodia before. “This is my first visit,” I reply in a tone awaiting a lecture on life. “Son,” he said, “You are an infant, yet to find your place in this part of the world.”
Fast forward four months. My trusty black bicycle which I am loaning for the day rattles across the dirt road in Tropang Sdok, Takeo Province. I am weaving between rough potholes, tracks and grooves left by preceding motorcycles, trucks carrying rocks, ox carts and cows treading a familiar path. To my left and right, I hear giggles and screams of “Hello! How are you? What is your name?” Obviously, I cannot answer all three questions at once. My head turns in every direction as I gaze hopelessly into bushes and trees, expressing a bewildered face as I pass family properties filled with kids playing in the front yard while parents and extended family members sit around bamboo tables before I reach the road’s end. The junction leads to a pagoda where some children with tangled hair play games. Some of them live in the orphanage on the compounds of a place called Partners in Compassion, a residential and learning centre where infants and teenagers affected by HIV/AIDS through loss of primary caretakers or following contraction of the illness reside. It is two kilometres away in the nearby village of Sramouch He.
As I stop and ask for directions from a gentleman, he persuades me to look at his bicycle with the bamboo basket on the back. He offers to sell four piglets to me for the total cost of 150,000 Cambodian riel (about $USD 37.50). Since I am not well versed in the trading of farmhouse animals, I politely but awkwardly decline his offer. Soon, I am swerving around potholes, continuing my waving and greeting sessions as children eagerly anticipate my arrival wave from their gates. Before too long, I stare into water-logged rice fields. Rows of women toil in the midday sun. A few women stop their back breaking work as they see me in the distance, drop baskets and then giggle. I smile back as I ride by, almost losing control of my bicycle, run off the roads and plummet into the fields.
Many times before, I have heard about the works of the director, Wayne Matthysse, a former United States Marine Corp medic who served in the Vietnam War. How can I find a common link and contribute something useful? In 2 days, all I will be remembered for is just being another drive-by tourist. At the front of the crematorium, some teenagers stand by and watch me enter. One of them asks if I am looking for Wayne, and after hearing me respond yes, he points straight ahead as to where I may find him. “Hello, Wayne. I am David Calleja and I am a volunteer from Australia, working at Sorya,” is my introduction as we shake hands.
Wayne offers me a grand tour of the entire venue and explains that he is expecting a few more visitors to arrive today, some Phnom Penh based NGOs and a Canadian-born freelance photographer based in Bangkok. He speaks of the excitement that youths felt when John F. Kennedy was President of the United States of America, life in a combat zone and relationship with fellow soldiers, and the mourning he went through along with black American soldiers serving with him upon learning of Martin Luther King’s assassination of Martin Luther King. 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, as his dominating influence 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.
I am intrigued about the projects undertaken as I receive my tour. There are business ventures in fish farming, income generating projects for adult women such as sewing, and a chicken farming enterprise undertaken by some teenagers. Renovations for a new classroom to learn Khmer in a separate building were well underway. Just about every child attends school at either primary or secondary level, and two students also recently commenced university studies in Phnom Penh in law and medicine respectively. The message is clear: any person infected with HIV would stand out no more than a person possessing a large nose such as myself.
As we stroll to another building quarter, children grab my hands and compete with each other for attention, cling to my arms, hug my legs and in one or two adventurous cases, motion for me to give them a piggyback ride. The ones I want to connect with most are the kids who always hang back and never show any expression on their face, just stare blankly right through me and probably thought the same of my intentions. They see visitors come and go all the time and I am nobody special. Further afield in a solitary office past the sleeping quarters, I find myself looking over a gallery containing black and white photos of children residing on the premises, all framed black and white photos intended to form a photo journal display. Immediately my thoughts shift to preparing for the obligatory heartbreak stories, including one about a boy named Chhang which I would view in the form of a visual presentation on DVD. I dare myself to go through with watching a gut wrenching story, if only to test my emotional limits.
Wayne is the legal guardian of all children on the premises, and fits the role of being like a lovable uncle that watches over the welfare and safety of everybody, something he does vehemently. His efforts in commencing Partners in Compassion firstly as a hospice, and then turning it into a lively, active centre are truly remarkable. I interpret his poker-faced demeanour as a mixture of realism and sobriety brought on by the harshness that only battle-hardened life experience can deliver. “The relative success of Cambodia’s public awareness about preventing further outbreaks of HIV/AIDS is a double edged sword,” he elaborates. “In 2005, we were losing 2 or 3 people, 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.”
I ask him how many of the 65 kids here are HIV positive. “Twenty-five,” is the response. I ponder that thought for a moment, questioning what the downside could be at a local community level. If children use their knowledge to deliver an important message, it benefits everybody. How children in primary school here already knew how to properly unwrap and put on a condom is a wonderful achievement for promoting for responsible change. At a similar age of six or seven years old, I barely had the confidence to tie up my own shoelaces. But with any reduction in deaths comes the risk of less funding and complacency, and HIV/AIDS is always in crisis mode, no matter what the numbers say.
How do children cope with growing up, having each other for support, and what emotional and psychological effect might this have? Children undertake a large degree of responsibility when conducting tasks associated with the grievance cycle. They collect wood, clean the crematorium inside prior to the burning of the body as well as upon the completion of the service. As a child lights the fire to commence the proceedings of burying their parent, there is a high probability that he or she may require be assistance by another child during this emotionally charged period. The service is led by a Buddhist monk. “Normally, we will hear crying for about an hour or so, but so many kids have gone through this process and they cope,” Wayne states in a matter of fact tone. At the the ceremony, the child lights the fire to commence the proceedings of burying their parent 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 states in a matter of fact tone.
The children seem so burdened, I think to myself. I recall the one occasion where I shed tears, but to me the events leading to the death had more impact than the loss of life itself. My favourite uncle passed away in 1999 and at the burial service, I refused to accept a handful of dirt from somebody I regarded as a chief troublemaker when the coffin was being lowered and opted to spit on the individual. This was for two reasons; the person had upset my mother and also hurt my uncle on several occasions individually and as part of a collective in quest of personal gain. I expressed that anger verbally, something not permissible here.
At 2:00pm, I find myself in what I refer to as a lecture hall of spiritual worship, possibly a perfect opportunity to enhance my calming instincts with Buddhist chants and prayers inside the Wat Opot Pagoda. With 2 kids in tow on my forearm, I commence running up the stairs, humming The Overture of William Tell. For the next hour, a monk leads everybody through prayers, chants and meditation. My eyes open, I cast a glance on those who look around the pagoda too. The last segment requires complete silence, but when you are surrounded by 65 kids, with four or five children competing for attention, how is it possible not to smile? Everybody except for me can easily cross their legs and keep the position effortlessly for an hour when I cannot even hold that pose for a minute. Following the service’s completion, I spend time giving a piggyback to one of the children who zones in on my weak spot for undertaking fun activities and playing games. But out of the corner of my eye, one HIV-positive adult is resting on the top of the wall. Her discoloured complexion and weakening flesh demonstrate the frailties and struggles of life right before me. Tears stream down her cheek from bulging eyes. She grins briefly at me, exposing enlarged gums, a lifeless skeletal exhibit with sagging skin wrapped roughly around her bones. Comparing this to the mood around me when I am surrounded by children and adult workers, I feel completely useless.
Asking Wayne permission to watch The Chhang Tribute DVD involves a degree of mental and emotional preparation, and, if possible, some tissues. This compilation is about the life of a 6 year old in the final stages of AIDS. A rotunda named Chhang’s Place on the premises is dedicated in his honour, providing an indication of just how closely knit all staff, residents and monks were in making this little boy’s final 12 months and particularly last few moments as painless as possible. I am determined to ensure that I don’t walk away with solely images of a boy amidst suffering in my mind. Wayne advises me to put on some headphones attached to a laptop computer, and then the presentation starts. ‘He seemed to be looking into my soul or questioning my integrity‘ reads part of one line among the succession of photos and text depicting his eventual lapse into the final stages of life. I am a picture of concentration, lost in trance, fearing that any attempt by me to talk will only result in the muffling of distorted sobs.
Tears begin to stream down my face and I am trying not to let anybody see when the emotional knockout punch lands — Chhang’s final moments before entering the afterlife. The young boy is ready to be pronounced dead by monks with tearful residents looking on. The final part of the commentary tells of how Chhang collected his last ounce of energy to grip Wayne’s hand, and then suddenly finding more strength to place his other free arm around Matthysse’s neck.
With his final breath, Chhang screamed out… WAYNE !
Then, just like Chhang’s life, the presentation was over.
Wayne Matthysse’s desire to give his time to those who appreciate it most, and to reciprocate their warmth, will play a major part in ensuring that no resident will ever walk alone. Struck by his passion for giving, with the impending rural sunset due to commence its daily performance on schedule at 5.30pm, I thank Wayne for having me as a guest, locate my bicycle, and begin the cycle home towards my village retreat. Heading towards the gate, I take one final look at the logo of Partners in Compassion.
I have located an incentive to find my place within this part of the world.
To find out more information, visit Partners In Compassion’s website.
Partners In Compassion director Wayne Matthysse can be contacted here.