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