Karen Margrethe Ali
The Red Crescent in Jessore had been contacted by Aisha's (1) brother five months ago. He had been advised by the local doctor to take his sister for an HIV test, as it was obvious that she was very sick. He had informed them that his sister had been working in Bombay for some years. Her health had deteriorated; she had lost weight and become weak.
Aisha is 26 years old. She has decided that she will continue to travel back and forth from Bombay. She will receive some treatment from the local doctor, get some rest at home, and as soon as she feels a little better, she will insist on going back to Bombay.
typical impatience would be clear from some of my interjections: "Didn't you listen when I answered your wife 10 minutes ago about the population in my country?" Or "How much do you think the population has increased in 10 minutes?"
I acknowledge that using photography as a tool for social change is good, but when I look at my dirty clothes and shoes with no water to clean them, I start wondering what's wrong with fashion photography, in a nice, clean studio…
Finally we approached the part of the village where Aisha lives. The villagers here are just as friendly as the others. They will get out of their chairs so we can sit comfortably; invite us for food and drinks. In this part of the village we have a different approach; we tell them that we want to know about the health condition of the people. "Could we help?" Well, none of us are doctors, but we have one person from Red Crescent with us, and he gives the people the name of a good doctor there who they could visit.
After another hour of listening to complaints about headaches, bad stomachs and other health problems, we decide that we will go to Aisha's house. The house is easily noticeable, as it obviously is newly built, but not completely finished. It is made of bricks, and has a better standard than most other houses in the village.
When we told the villagers that we wanted to visit the girl that was sick and could not come and talk with us, they got quiet. Nobody objected, but no one volunteered to take us there either. They stood back as if the house we were approaching was a forbidden area for them. We realised that her relatives and the people in the village knew she had AIDS.
Aisha was sitting on the veranda in the front of the house. She was the thinnest person I have ever seen, a skeleton. Her bones were sticking out and she could not have weighed more than 30 kg. But her eyes were still sparkling and she was looking at us with excitement. Although she was only a shadow of what she might have been, she was still a beautiful woman.
Her parents who were also there invited us to sit down, and after a while we also met her brother and sister in-law. None of them had been part of the crowd that had surrounded us, and we came to realise that they were excluded from the village.
Aisha had a lot of respect for her father, and she would not talk as long as he spoke, so we spent some time listening to him talking about the village and the people there, but he never mentioned that his family was not considered a part of the village any longer.
Aisha's mother was combing her daughter's long and thinning hair. "It used to be so thick and shiny, but look at it now" she lamented.
While her mother was doing that, Aisha was gradually starting to talk about her life, giving excerpts of the time she used to be in Bombay.
Aisha's father massages her feet to relieve some of her pain
She never said directly that she used to work as a sex worker. She mentioned that she used to make 500 rupees a day and that most of it was kept by the middleman, the dalal. This did not mean that she was admitting that working as a sex worker, as there are different kinds of work in a foreign country where a middleman could be involved. However, the amount she used to make was very high for an illiterate village girl.
She told me that she had been married there to a well-off Hindu and that his mother never accepted the marriage and gave her a hard time so she left her husband. Her mother added that the house was financed by the sale of Aisha's jewellery from the marriage.
Her brother had been to Bombay to visit her on a couple of occasions. He must have understood how she earned her money, or did not want to know the truth? Did he ever try to persuade her to go home? He was also poor, living in the house that Aisha had built and enjoying the money she was earning.
While we were there, Aisha's pain got worse, she had to be taken inside the house to help her lie down. The photo session could not be completed, so we agreed that we would come back the next morning.
The next day we could hear Aisha's cry of pain and moaning as we approached the house. "Aisha is in a lot of pain today", her mother said. "This is how it is for her most of the time, day and night; for how long will I have to see my daughter suffer like this?"
Her father was patiently massaging her feet to relieve the burning sensation. His strokes were so affectionate and so caring, and his face looked grim with pain and worry for his daughter. "Why does God let me suffer like this?" Aisha cried, and her father was shaking his head, mumbling.
It seemed as if the massage gave some relief to her pain; her father left the room and Aisha told us a long story about her father on a fishing-trip. She had not been with him, but she told the story with so much affection and excitement as if she had seen everything with her own eyes.
One question had been on my mind for a long time, a question that I did not have the courage to ask: Why would Aisha go back to Bombay again and again, against the doctor's and the family's advice, until she was so sick that her body would not carry her?
The answer probably lay in the unfinished house where we were sitting, the house that her poor father would never have been able to build with his meager income from fishing. Aisha went back to India to make money for the family that she loved so much, for a better living and a better house. Did she ever suspect that she was HIV infected, we will never know.
"Thanks for the biscuits you gave me yesterday; she said with a smile, they are my favorites. Can you give me some from the packet?" The way she eats them, slowly as if she was appearing in a commercial, as if it was the best biscuit in the world. It makes me take a glance at the packet and look at the name of the brand. Regular locally made biscuits, how can they taste that good? "I have not had biscuits for a long time", she explained, "father says it's a luxury we can't afford, and that we can get a lot of rice for the cost of a packet of biscuits."
A short moment of enjoyment, and then the pain started again. Her father got there as soon as he heard her cry, gave her a massage for a long time, and then her mother took over. She told me about the family's situation as an outcast of the village with hardly any visitors except people from the local organisations working for HIV/AIDS affected people. She briefed me about the gossip in the village over them. She also said that the people in the village do not let them use the common pond to get water, about the arguments between the members of the family that is often about Aisha and the disease, and about the fear they all have of being infected.
"What has the doctor said about her condition?" I asked. "He said that she would not regain her health like before, but would get better." In the West, doctors would be more honest, they would tell the patient how long he or she could expect to live. The mother whispered in a voice that could hardly be heard, so Aisha would not hear it, "We are sharing the same toilet; do you think that there is a chance for us to get HIV also?"
So much for the awareness campaigns, that is, so little information she has received, or maybe understood, the mother of a girl with AIDS.
We were getting ready to go when we realised that our visit to the family had attracted some curious people who were now sitting outside their house, talking. The voice of a female teacher, who was taking part in the conversation could be heard over others as she was exclaiming in a loud voice with a lot of confidence: "Everybody knows what kind of work poor, illiterate village girls get involved in once they end up in Bombay to make thousands of rupees every month to send home to their families. Of course, we understand how they make that money."
I told Aisha that we had to move on, and that I hoped I would see her again sometime. I did not tell her that I did not dare to hope that the medicine would keep her alive for me to visit her a second time.
As I looked down at her lying there, so fragile, sick and helpless, I was wondering, in a short instant of being naïve, how she could get customers until just a few months ago, men who, without hesitation would pay to use and enjoy her sick body, again and again.
The cruel reality probably is that, after she got sick, she might have attracted more customers, as her thin body was of less value than before, so they could get it for a lower price and more men could afford her….
As we met again with the man from the Red Crescent who was assisting us, he told us that he had been walking around the village to find out about girls working in Bombay. He showed us a long list of families with girls who had gone there. "There are many of them going there" he said shaking his head, "I did not realise that there would be so many…"
"Take me with you." Aisha said with a thin, pleading voice." Where to? I was thinking. She had been to a hospital in Dhaka, but did not want to stay there but wanted to go home. What is the option for people like Aisha in Bangladesh, people dying of Aids?
The last thing I saw was her hand waving from the bed, like a straw swaying in the wind, and I wondered how long the straw will sway until the wind overtook it….
Aisha died of AIDS 3 months after our visit
1. Aisha is not her real name
2. Map Photo Agency is a team of photographers working since 1993 with developing agencies in the field of social documentation through photography, photo exhibitions and publication of books.
The writer is a social worker from Norway.
(R) thedailystar.net 2006