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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Don't shoot me, I'm only the ice cream seller!

Don't shoot me, I'm only the ice cream seller!

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ice.jpg

The ice cream seller, having survived the rumour mill and with a clean

bill of health, is back in business

THEY haven't eaten much ice cream lately in Village 5, Treuy Sla Commune in Kandal.

Or for that matter in Village 6 about a hundred meters down the road.

The sole ice cream man servicing the dirt strip connecting the two villages was recently

put out of commission - by a vicious rumor which became a media frenzy. People in

the area thought he had AIDS, so they forbade their children to buy his homemade

ice cream.

To keep the record straight, it should be made immediately clear that the ice cream

man does NOT have HIV/AIDS. Nor did a lot of other people in Village 5 and Village

6 who were allegedly HIV positive.

But they did all become entangled in a village-wide web of rumors and gossip that

involved one dead woman, a list of 37 lovers in a pillow case, police-enforced HIV

tests and one suicide by hanging - most of this untrue, of course.

The part of the story that is certifiably true is that a 40-year-old woman died in

Village 5 about two months ago. Until the Water Festival in November last year she

had been fine, except for a slightly crippled leg from a childhood beri-beri infection.

After eating a bowl of duck soup at the water festival, the woman suddenly fell sick

with a high fever. A local health worker saw to her, but recommended that she be

taken to Phnom Penh for further examination - which the family couldn't afford. After

three months of illness, the woman died.

That should have been the end of the story. But it was only the beginning.

The woman, who had lived in Koh Kong for several years, had only recently moved back

to her parents' house in Village 5. That may have been the spark that set fire to

the village gossip. Because soon rumors began circulating among the villagers that

the woman had died from AIDS - some even said that she had hanged herself in despair

over her disease.

Also, a mysterious list of 37 lovers appeared in the gossip maelstrom. Supposedly

the woman was worried that she had given the deadly disease to her boyfriends, so

she had left a letter with their names under her pillow. Soon the freewheeling chatter

had turned her into the local village whore.

"People come here and ask me about that list. But I tell them it doesn't exist.

My daughter didn't even have a pillow case," says the distraught mother of the

woman.

As the rumor mill relentlessly kept turning, the police were said to have shown up

at the woman's deathbed to examine her condition. Others believed that the law enforcement

officers had pressured the assumed 37 lovers to take HIV tests. Then somebody heard

about a women who had hanged herself because her husband was on the list. Others,

however, said that the suicide victim was a man.

All this goes to show that the villagers were having problems keeping up with their

own rumors. They still do. In Village 5, they say that the 37 lovers live in Village

6. In Village 6, naturally, they say it's the other way around. Nobody actually knows

any of the unfortunate boyfriends, who were reported to be so mortified that all

they could do was sit at home and not even help out with the housework.

Except for the ice cream man, of course. Everybody knew that he had been in cahoots

with the dead woman, who by now had grown into a promiscuous, mortally ill, man-eating

monster.

And that's when it all went horribly wrong for the poor fellow who ekes out a living

for himself and his family by selling bean-and-cream popsicles at 100 riels (3c)

a piece.

"It was not true. They defamed me and made me look like a drunkard and a playboy.

I became a very poor man, because nobody would buy my ice cream. Also, my wife got

very angry with me when she heard what people were saying. At first she thought it

was true, so I had to leave my home for a week," says the stricken ice cream

man.

In the end, he had to sell two of his hens to pay for a motodop fare to his parents'

house to borrow some rice from them. He didn't have enough money to go all the way

and had to walk the last bit.

The ostracized ice cream man was also soon to learn that not only good, but also

bad and false news travels fast. The media spotlight descended on the village and

suddenly the ice cream man found himself mentioned in various Khmer-language newspapers

and magazines. The ice cream man's son heard his father's name on the radio. That's

how he heard about the story.

Things got so bad that an unknown benefactor arranged for the ice cream man to have

an HIV test at Takmao Hospital. When the examining doctor brought a clean HIV certificate

back to the ice cream man, he reportedly showed it to all the houses in the village

before handing it over. Nobody seems to remember that, though.

Nowadays things have quietened down a bit. Ice cream sales are picking up again and

the ice cream man's wife has forgiven him.

But back to the woman with the slightly crippled leg who ate the duck soup at the

water festival . . . Her alleged death from AIDS and her 37 imaginary lovers are

still the talk of the town in both Village 5 and Village 6 - and all the way up the

river, where everybody has, of course, heard the story.

However, in a house close to the dead woman's home, a female neighbor took a refreshingly

down-to-earth view:

"These days everybody around here says they have AIDS if they get sick or a

bit skinny. But I saw that woman when she was sick. That was not AIDS; that was the

duck soup."

(All names have been withheld to limit the escalation of rumors.)

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