AIDS in Cambodia:
Buddhism, medicine, comfort and sorrow
photos and text by
He is the first patient I see and he has the eyes of
death. It’s my initial foray with Brahmavihara, the small Buddhist
NGO who’s invited me here to help them raise awareness about the
Cambodian AIDS crisis, the worst and least funded in South East Asia.
I have no idea what I’m doing, but I’m in it now, flung into
the orbit of this man’s suffering, almost ashamed to be holding
a camera. There is a nagging unseemliness about photographing suffering
— the Vulture Effect — despite knowing you’re there
to help. By showing suffering, by showing the compassionate action of
selfless individuals working tirelessly to alleviate it, perhaps it will
move others to compassionate actions of their own.
I’m here at the Maryknoll hospice with two remarkable women. Lok
Yay, (‘revered grandmother’ in Khmer), a 75-year old wisp
of a Buddhist nun who is well known around the AIDS wards of Phnom Penh.
Beth Goldring is an American Buddhist nun and founding director of Brahmavihara.
She began her AIDS project chaplaincy in 2000 on the most frayed of shoestrings,
before anti-retroviral (ARVs) medications had made it into the country
and the death rate was virtually 100%.
Unique in Cambodia, Beth and her Khmer staff, came at first to offer love,
comfort, compassion and spiritual sustenance to the dying. Then as ARVs
began to become available and more people started surviving, (40,000 deaths
per year has been reduced to about 12,000), Brahmavihara’s purview
expanded to include a host of necessarily elastic social services and
facilitations for destitute AIDS patients and their families.
Barely five feet tall with a ready smile, shaved head and eyeglasses,
the 62-year old former waitress, college professor, journalist and author,
is a powerhouse of loving energy. There is a certain magic flowing through
Beth and her entire Cambodian staff that is unlike anything I have ever
witnessed. When she walks into a suffering AIDS ward it instantly transforms
into a roomful of smiles and hugs. When she works her healing techniques
on terminal patients, it is extraordinary the way the suffering seems
to fade, giving way to a visibly deep peacefulness. This “magic”
Beth brings to her patients — patients whose pain is often compounded
by feelings of shame and abandonment — is the infusion of a love
that can only be described as utterly selfless, pure and unconditional.
Lok Yay has a different style and utilizes some different techniques,
but does so with the same expansive heart. Beth recounts occasions where
Lok Yay has brought patients with insurvivable CD4 counts (immunity levels
as low as 1 on a scale of 1500) back from the edge, and eventually back
to levels strong enough to take ARVs and survive.
Now, more than two months later, I find my work here in its final
hours. For the last week we’ve been re-visiting surviving patients
and giving them promised copies of their photographs, still something
of a rarity amongst Cambodia’s poor. They are as fascinated with
their images — even in such dire straits — as I am with their
warmth and courage in the face of it. The gratitude they express both
surprises and humbles me. I try through interpretation to express my own
warmth towards them, my own gratitude, but it feels awkward and woefully
inadequate. But one of the many things I have learned here, is that cultural
divides are more easily crossed, complex feelings more meaningfully expressed,
with something as simple as a heartfelt gaze.
In an unplanned bookend, I find myself again with Lok Yay standing
in the same room in the same Maryknoll hospice with the same man from
the first day. I should be surprised to see him still alive, but somehow
I’m not. The eyes are still sunken from his long illness, but they
no longer speak of death. One cannot help but think that this wisp of
a nun with the healing hands and the loving presence might have had a
little something to do with it.
Bennett Stevens is a freelance writer/photographer. More of his words
and images can be seen at www.BennettStevens.com
More of the "facts" about AIDS in Cambodia, as I've gathered
The great tragedy of Cambodia has been long and well documented, but is
far from over. Genocides and the physical and psychological scars they
leave behind take generations to overcome. Nearly 30 years after the end
of Pol Pot’s murderous reign, even though a good measure of stability
has returned, life is still cheap for too many.
Too many doctors make a practice of extorting money from AIDS patients,
leaving them to die if they cannot pay. Too many corrupt government officials
make a practice of skimming relief money earmarked for AIDS victims, even
going so far as to force long disbursement delays of anti-retroviral medication
(ARVs), in order to cover their crimes in red tape. One is incredulous
as to how they can rationalize their actions, actions that leave people
suffering and dying just so they can pad their bank accounts.
Perhaps they would point to what happens all too often on the street.
Some patients will gamble away their ARVs. Some will sell them on the
black market. Some HIV-positive sex workers will knowingly have sex without
But why? The obvious answers must be willfully ignored for the corrupt
officials to look themselves in the mirror. A person gambles their ARVs
because they live in ignorance and desperate poverty. A mother sells her
ARVs on the black market because she is desperate to feed her children.
A low-end sex worker sells her diseased body for 1,500 riel (about 38
cents) because she is desperate for a bowl of rice, or a cheap high to
dull the pain of her tragic life.
Government officials are apparently too busy looking down their noses
at such acts of desperation to consider the fact that it is their own
cruel corruption that is a major contributor.
— Bennett Stevens