They sit, demure and at first a little deferential, behind battered wooden desks in the low-ceilinged, mould-spotted classroom of a monastery in the eastern quarter of a suburb called North Okkalapa. Their ages range from 10 to 63. It is their smiles - some pristine white, others betel-stained - which light the dingy room. Alex and I sit at the front of the classroom alongside our interpreter and guides from Community Partners International who are showing us a project that desperately needs resources. Looking expectantly at us is a group as diverse as can be. Yet they have one thing in common: all are HIV-positive.
From our taxi Mingaladon Township is a blur of tangled streets and washing lines and green-washed fronts. Mango trees and banyans shade diminutive verandahs, and bicycle bells tinkle. We are a significant distance from the golden arches and duty-free of the international airport, in a place likely to be completely bypassed by most visitors to the country. It is pretty in its own way but there is no reason why any tourist would want to come here; no glittering pagodas, no colonial architecture. The bustle here is of a typical working-class suburb of Yangon, prettiness masking untold hardship. Never would I have imagined that the unassuming Marga Monastery could house an HIV project, called Healthy Living Helping Society, that is almost revolutionary in its aims. Its project director, Dr Myint Maw, appears fragile - 65, perhaps 70 years old? - but radiates a gentle positivity, his hair dyed coal-black and his shirt and longyi scarlet. He hands us literature and photos: “Our beauty pageant,” he says proudly, indicating an event supported by UNAIDS to help raise funds. “Our outreach workers - ORW.” (Acronyms are popular in Myanmar). “Rainbow Magazine: men marrying men,” he declares. His commitment to his staff, their project, and its patients is undeniable; his love for them and their cause, profound.
“We need medicines, medicines, medicines.” Repetition underlines the urgency of his message but his voice is sweet and quiet.
“Anti-retrovirals?” I ask.
“No!” He is too gentle to reveal his exasperation. Since the government increased its health budget recently, access to drugs to treat chronic conditions - the sorts we rely on in Europe or America - are now becoming more freely available, imported mainly from India. But he is talking about other medication.
“Medicines to treat OIDs: opportunistic infectious diseases. Enlarged liver; kidney failure; diarrhoea; dermatitis; coughing...”
I should have known, with my experience of cancer treatment, that it is often the predatory opportunism of a pneumonia or ascites that kills the cancer patient, rather than the cancer itself. The same of course is true of HIV. Another of Dr Myint’s staff members, so eager to chip in that he has involuntarily bounded to the front of the classroom to get as close to me as possible in order to hammer the message home, reels off the list of OIDs and the drugs they need to treat them. He has an unbelievably chiselled face, a long straight ponytail scraped into a jewelled butterfly clip, and the tiniest waist I have ever seen. Many of the men in the room are trans-gender, some wearing tiny little mini-dresses and visible bras, others with discreet mascara and neat bobbed hair.
The women, however, look considerably less bouncy. Secretly I am horrified to learn that one sitting immediately opposite me, with watery red eyes and a listless look, her arms and collarbones at sharp right angles to her flat matte flesh, her air one of emptiness, is only 35. She is younger than me but I had thought her to be closer to 50. Teng Teng Aung contracted HIV from her husband in 2007 and passed it on to her 10-year-old son, who sits next to her. Now she is a widow earning a meagre monthly wage - $6, maybe $7 - hand-washing laundry for her neighbours. The others tell similar stories.
Here, they are a family and Dr Myint their father. They relax in our company and tell us more. They giggle and pout and exchange little remarks. They tell us how they benefit from the counselling that Dr Myint provides, and the nutrition, and the weekly meditation sessions with the monastery's monks. Tell us how they like learning how to sew, and to indulge what is clearly a popular love of beautifying; these form the vocational arm of Dr Myint’s operation. They tell us about their hopes and worries. Pearl, a gay man with a platinum blonde pudding-bowl cut, looks younger than his 55 years and smiles at me whilst batting his lashes throughout. In a former life he sold his body; now he sells charcoal and rice from a little shop of his own, and counsels some of the new patients who join the group, which now numbers 200. It’s not just that they have HIV. They face daily prejudice, and taunts. Isn’t it bad enough?
Of course, I want to write out a cheque right there. I want to solve their problems with one wave of a wand. I want to be able to guarantee them not 3,000 kyats per month for food - that is, roughly $3 - but three times as much, for all eternity, so that they can buy vegetables and fruit as well as instant noodles and oil. I want to hug the bony mothers and tell them that their sons will be educated and cared for when they are gone. I want to beg the women - and the men - not to consider prostitution. I want to thank Dr Myint for being there every day, from 9 until 5, and for placing his hopes in our hands. And I am thankful for being there. For this is indeed a great privilege, to be able to see his work and to think that we might be able to make a difference. It would be hard - exceedingly hard - for me to turn my back on Dr Myint, a sort of Robin Hood with his band of merry (and admittedly not so merry) men and women. He is a heroic outlaw of sorts, his modern folklore story a ballad of our times. And for many, he will become a legend. But I have to be a realist, and I need to figure out how we can support him in a reliable and consistent way. How will we do it? The riddle is both fiendishly complex, and ridiculously simple, since accessing money is one of the hardest things in the world - when it ought to be one of the easiest. We will, at least, try our damnedest. I take heart in what, I hope, will help us achieve our goal of getting Dr Myint the resources he needs - and that, is hope in the heart itself. If only we can show how necessary this project is, the heart ought to respond, and the cash will follow.
It reminds me of another riddle, one that Robin Hood might even have read himself:
“What is longer than the way? - Love.”