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A little known fact of life in China came to light when the diary of a 14-year-old peasant girl made it from a remote town in rural China made it to the bestseller lists in France. The book, which has now been published in 16 countries around the world, tells the story of a young girl who is desperate to stay in school, despite the problem of sky-high school fees, which her parents can not afford.

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7 mai 2006 7 07 /05 /mai /2006 15:46
Hello

First a word to explain my long silence since the last letter in January. It is due to the fact we had to restructure ourselves after my return to Paris, and that responsibility was passed over to Perrine in Beijing. But be assured that silence does not mean inaction: the stipends for the second semester have been secured as usual, the French students of the Lycée Français International in Hong Kong have made their usual and very successful visit to Ningxia, and Perrine has made several trips there to organize our action and to envisage new possible routes of operation.

HONG KONG. In April, Anne-Marie Bordas, a teacher of Chinese at the Lycée Français International of Hong Kong, led a group of students on a visit, the third of its kind, to meet with students from the Yuwang and Ma Gao Zhuang schools. In the account Anne-Marie gives of the village, she evokes “scenes of pure joy and of happiness shared by our students from the Lycée, and the Chinese college students, especially those at Yuwang. Our boys from the second form taught the Chinese students, with their rudimentary Mandarin, to play tag,  and we saw the large courtyard behind the college filled with hordes of students, crying and laughing… The same adolescents, a bit earlier in the day, had been covered in dust from gusts of wind whirling up the sand, and armed with spades and hoes, planting trees and creating a new layout for the space around the buildings of the college”. Fundraising activities carried out over several months in Hong Kong allowed the students not to arrive empty-handed. In particular, they realised an old dream: the dream of filling the library of the college at Yuwang, whose shelves had been desperately empty except for some old Maoist brochures from bygone times, which were gathering dust…The French students also brought teaching materials to Zhang Jia Shu, Ma Yan’s native village, for the elementary school children there, and based on a list provided by a doctor responsible for this area, they had bought some medical supplies which they left with the doctor in charge, in Li Jiawa, near Zhangjiashu. This doctor was absolutely delighted at this gesture and he even killed a sheep and offered it to the small group of visitors. The students asked the doctor lots of questions in order to gain an understanding of the healthcare situation. “This initiative was apparently very well received both by the doctor and the local population,” Anne-Maire tells us. These exchanges should continue next year, despite the departure of Anne-Marie who has been in charge of this project from its inception; at least, everyone wishes for it to continue...

NINGXIA. Apart from the stipends and the financial aid given to boarding students, this spring we were able to furnish the new canteen built for the college at Yuwang, upgrading its equipment so that it no longer has much to envy an urban college about, were it not for the poor sanitation which is due to the absence of running water. Perrine, our co-ordinator in Beijing, has made several trips there during the last few months and she has led consultations and deliberations about two ongoing ‘construction projects’ regarding which were are moving ahead with caution: healthcare, and a micro-credit programme.

Regarding healthcare, we have already paid for urgently needed surgery for children or for parents of our stipend recipients, on a case-by-case basis. As Perrine emphasizes, ‘entire families can fall into absolute poverty because of illness’ – hence the idea of a fund for medical surgery in order to deal with the most important cases (how to define these, though?) has been launched now…Could one perhaps adopt the same approach as toward education - help the entire community, but also reserve some funds for those most destitute/impoverished, and to try to establish selection criteria, and stick to them? An ambitious project for this year.

Regarding microfinance, we are in discussion with a Chinese NGO. Perrine and I met the director of this NGO last December. He runs a spectacular micro-credit project for a community of stock-breeders in another part of Ningxia. Perrine has since met with him again and he could extend his activity to the district of Yuwang, where we are operating, and allow our friends to benefit from his experience. The question of how to fund this remains open but discussions are underway, notably with PlanetFinance, an  NGO which specializes in microfinance and is already providing this Chinese organization with technical support. Another big project for this year, one which could have considerable impact but requires a big effort, and above all a lot of energy. Fortunately Perrine lacks neither.
 
FRANCE. The work of the association is going on at a calmer pace in France. After the success of the concert and photo exhibition in December at Sèvres in the Paris area, the operation ‘cookbook’ is in full progress! Our friend Pascale from the Southern branch of the association has had the book with recipes made last year for the benefit of the association reprinted; it has been selling like hotcakes. This book –in french-, entitled Little recipes for a great cause is therefore again available, at a price of €15 (plus transportation costs), the full amount of which will be used for our action on the ground in Ningxia. Do not hesitate to order it and perhaps sell it amongst your acquaintance, a gesture both nice and useful for the support of our friends in Ningxia.

Best wishes

Pierre Haski

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7 mai 2006 7 07 /05 /mai /2006 15:43
Hello to all,

And first, a happy Chinese new year of the dog. This turn of the year will also mark a change in our association. After more than five years spent in China, I have returned to France in January. That means also that I will have to cease coordinating the activities of the Children of Ningxia, a task I took on when the association was founded in 2002. I will of course continue to be actively engaged from France, together with our team of volunteers there.

On the ground in China, we have fortunately already worked out my succession: Perrine Lhuillier, a friend of the association practically since its inception, and based in Beijing, has agreed to take over the coordination of the Children of Ningxia in China. Perrine has been working in China as a consultant since 2004. She has already been to Ningxia three times, and has met our friends, contact persons and some of the children there receiving assistance from us. Before agreeing to join us in her new function, Perrine conducted an audit of the association in 2005, pointing out the strengths and weaknesses of our organization, what we have achieved by, it has to be confessed, rather unusual methods. She also opened up some new avenues for the future. She holds a degree from the Institute of Political Studies in Lyon, France, and a master’s degree in Theory and Practice of Human Rights from Essex University in the UK, has studied Chinese at Fudan University, Shanghai, and is thus extremely well prepared for the task of opening up a new page in the history of the association. Welcome, and good luck!

In the course of the month of December, Perrine accompanied me to Ningxia for a visit, during which I took leave from all my friends there, and officially introduced my successor to them. It was a very emotional trip: many tears were shed especially with Ma Yan and her mother, Bai Juhua. These two had been the closest companions during our unusual adventure. And there was some real emotion, too, when we met the directors of the two schools at Yuwang and Ma Gao Zhuang. We have formed ties of trust and friendship with them, even though this was not a foregone conclusion. And emotion even among the authorities of Yinchuan, the provincial capital of Ningxia, with whom our relationship was at times even more complex…

But the most important aspect of this trip was a new initiative bringing some new hope. The association decided for the first time to grant a micro-credit, in order to allow a young woman who had been forced, by her family, to leave school at 16 years of age and get married.We helped her to open a shop, thus escaping from the vicious circle of misery she had been caught up in. The young woman in question is not unknown to the association: Ma Shiping is Ma Yan’s cousin, friend and onetime rival as described in The DIaryof Ma Yan. Her premature marriage came as a shock to us. At the time I wrote Ma Yan and her sisters when I realized how widely different their fates would be: one of them happily pursuing her studies, the future wide open before her, and the other having crashed into a wall at only 16 years of age, finding herself condemned to a life of misery and confinement/constraints.

When Ma Shiping told us about her plan to open up a shop in Yuwang, the community in the south of Ningxia on which her village depends, we did not hesitate long. This certainly is a way for her and her husband to leave/abandon agriculture, in this region made difficult by chronic drought, and an alternative to migrant work on the building sites [chantiers] of the big cities, which in this kind of situation often is the only remaining option for survival. So we gave this modest credit to Ma Shiping – 2000 Euros, interest-free, allowing her unexpectedly to open a shop. The form of a micro-credit is ideal in her case, since it is obvious that she would not have access to an ordinary bank loan. She can thus avoid a form of charity assistance which is never healthy in the long run, even though it may help one to get through particularly difficult times. 
We will provide the same kind of support to another young girl whose story is similar to Ma Shiping’s: Ma Xiaoqian was also married at the age of 16 in the village of Zhang Jia Shu, Ma Yan’s native village. She, too, figures in Ma Yan and her sisters...
We will keep you posted about how these projects, whose success is obviously not guaranteed, will develop. Success is not guaranteed, partly because our friends have no previous experience, but partly also because of the very difficult economic situation in this region, and just as much because of our own lack of experience with micro-credits… Incidentally, during our stay in Ningxia we came across a remarkable Chinese NGO, which has been working with micro-credits in rural areas in another part of the province; an enriching experience. It is at least a route that deserves to be tried out, and we are planning to extend this option to other families, too, and to look for the funding required to do so.
This trip to Ningxia certainly allowed me to look back at the path/way/route we have covered over the past three years, since the publication of Ma Yan’s Diary (2002) and the foundation of Children of Ningxia  The schools of Yuwang and of Ma Gao Zhuang, and to a lesser degree that of Zhang Jia Shu, have changed beyond recognition: computer rooms in the two first-mentioned institutions and 1200 students in uniforms in all three of them; free tuition, including boarding fees, for all; and most recently new dorms at Yuwang, with new metal beds all bearing an inscription “donated by the Children of Ningxia.”
Solidarity of this kind will one day, thanks to your support, have made it possible for hundreds of young people in this small corner of ‘the other China’ to improve their chances in life -- people whose lives are not touched by the triumphant figures about economic growth being trumpeted in Beijing, Shanghai, and other big cities. Figures which, as numerous commentators have observed also inside China, make the enormous disparity between cities and the countryside, the affluent and the excluded, appear all the more cruel.
Of this, we had a new illustration during our last trip. In Ma Yan’s comfortable apartment in Wuzhong, a big Ningxia city where they have been living since Ma Yan has been going to senior high school, we met a woman from Zhang Jia Shu whom we know well. We told you the story of the miraculous surgery that helped a child in the village with a congenital deformity of the foot to walk normally, thanks to the intervention of a friend of ours in Paris, Hélène. Another son of this impoverished family now also had a health problem: decalcification had led to his stumbling and breaking his leg. Ma Yan’s family paid part of the medical costs arising from this, 1200 Euros, a real fortune for these poor peasants. We decided to take care of the second operation necessary to prevent this child from being crippled all his life. Without this help from two different quarters, there would have been no way for him to get appropriate medical treatment, in a country in which access to healthcare has become a luxury for the overwhelming majority of 700 million Chinese peasants.
We will seek in 2006 to improve the ways in which we operate in Ningxia, still giving priority to education, but also paying attention to other areas so far as possible, as indicated in this newsletter. It is in place here to remember that the association only works because there are volunteers supporting it, and that it works mainly on the basis of public donations and of donations from specific projects, such as a charity concert in France in december and a sale of toys in Hong Kong in December: your help can make a difference on the ground.

All the best.

Pierre Haski

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15 novembre 2005 2 15 /11 /novembre /2005 00:00
Anne-Marie Bordas, a chinese-language professor at Hong Kong's french international school has been the key person in organizing her school's support to Ningxia and to mobilise for the Trailwalker race. She wrote this article for the Hong Kong medias.


"As a Chinese Language teacher, I have always believed that my duty is not confined to just teaching the language skills.  It is also my responsibility to encourage my students to understand Chinese culture and to discover the realities in Modern China.  Nevertheless, with my limited knowledge and resources, I have more ambition than strength to execute all my wishes.  I can only be contented that I am always trying my best.
I have lived in China for 7 years during the eighties and was naïve enough to think that after the formation of People’s Republic of China, all Chinese children would be able to go to primary or secondary schools. To my great disappointment, I have learned that reality is not as such.
When Pierre Haski, representative of French Journal “Liberation” visited Hong Kong French International School in 2002, he gave us a conference on the fate of Ma Yan and other young girls in Ningxia.  I felt very surprised, I could never have thought that with China’s open foreign policy and new market economics, education could become a commercial undertaking and this in turn can lead to so many children being deprived from proper schooling.
What is even more annoying is that most of those who are deprived from education are girls. Aren’t women considered as equal as men? How can we let 15 or 16 years old girls get married and start to raise children? How come in this area there is no birth control policy?
I have discussed with my colleagues and students, we all agree that a well-off school like ours should do something to help these children.  But we knew that we could not react impulsively.  Could we really help them?  What should be the best way? At that point we did not have clear cut answers.
Soon after, we have started to communicate with the students from Yuwang, Ningxia. Then our school organized many activities like social evenings and homemade cake sales to raise money.
Since 2004, I have been making a yearly visit with teachers and students from our school to Yuwang Secondary School, Zhangjiashu village and Magaozhong Secondary School in Ningxia. Our objectives were to further understand the situation of the students and the villagers; to learn about the lives of the Muslim people and to keep communicating with them. Besides, we also wanted to educate our students that no matter who we are, regardless of our status, nationality and age, we can all do something for other people.  So that when our students grow up and have their own career one day, they will still remember that in China or elsewhere in the world, there are deprived people who would be needing help.
Last year and again this year, Oxfam allow our school to form a team to participate in the trail walker event, it is another way for us to raise public awareness so as to help these lovely children in Ningxia.
Anne-Marie BORDAS"


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15 novembre 2005 2 15 /11 /novembre /2005 00:00
Laurent Parzy is the captain of the team "Children of Ningxia" which ran in Hong Kong's Trailwalker race this year. He explains why he decided to run for the second consecutive year in this gruelling race aimed at supporting humanitarian causes.

"I am a Science teacher at the French International School and I was introduced to the actions of the association “ Les enfants du Ningxia” by my colleague Anne-Marie Bordas.
The story of this association starts just like a marvelous fairy tale for children. “Once upon a time….” a young girl called Ma Yan was living in the village of the isolated province of Ningxia in the north of China.  Her family was very poor and could not afford to pay her school fees. Ma Yan wanted to study because she knew that education is the only thing that can help her out of her misery. She had written all her rebellious thoughts in her notebook. Her words were first read by a French journalist Pierre Haski who then made her story known to the whole world.  He edited Ma Yan’s Diary and many volunteer workers came to his help to set up the association “Les Enfants du Ningxia” and the funds started to arrive…
Now, Ma Yan continues her studies and hundreds of children of her region can go to school or college.  Thanks to the association, their living condition and their schooling facilities are improving every day.
This story is so beautiful and cannot leave any teacher or parent indifferent.  My daughter and my son have participated in a trip with their classes to Ningxia in 2004 and 2005 respectively.  These yearly trips were organized by their school.  They met Ma Yan; and they brought with them stationeries, clothes and money for the children in the region.  Those were trips to exchange, to discover and to share that had opened the conscience and spirits of the young learners as witnessed in the articles by the students.
Last year, I have accepted to commit to the Trailwalker race under the name of “Enfants du Ningxia” with 3 other colleagues and parents.  This race of 100 Km is organized by Oxfam each year to raise funds to finance humanitarian actions all over the world.  Our team “Enfants du Ningxia” has brilliantly finished the Trail in less than 24 hours, thanks to a magnificent moral, human and material support.
I have decided to renew my participation this year under the same colours of “Enfants du Ningxia” with a new team.  My 3 other teammates are: Regis Jouan, Sebastien Hesri and Frederic Thierry d’Argenlieu.  Our objective this year is the finish the 100 Km race in less than 20 hours and to raise as much funds as possible.
We will start our race from Sai Kung country park this Friday, November 11 at 11:00am and our team will bear the number 459.
Laurent Parzy
Captaine of team “Enfants du Ningxia”



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15 octobre 2005 6 15 /10 /octobre /2005 00:00
Dear all,

The new school year of September 2005 in Ningxia is remarkable in a number of ways. Firstly, we have the joy of now counting for the first time a university student amongst our scholarship recipients. Yang Xia, who is from Zhang Jia Shu, Ma Yan’s native village, and who has been supported by the Children of Ningxia for three years already, has been admitted to Yinchuan University in the provincial capital of Ningxia. She will be studying telecommunications there. She is the first girl from Zhang Jia Shu to go this far in her studies, and we are so proud to have accompanied her on this difficult road.

Actually, we have three university students this year, two boys in addition to Yang Xia. Our Parisian friend was in the native village of Bai Juhua, Ma Yan’s mother, on the occasion of a celebration of the departure of one of these boys to university. Everybody gave him a present and wished him luck. It means quite something in these villages to have made it into university. In order to get there, one has to study hard - but also be able to pay for one’s studies. For Yang Xia, we have had to make a bank order for RMB 8100 for one academic year (about 800 Euros), covering the tuition fees as well as modest living expenses for one year in the provincial capital. This corresponds to about 20 years’ income of a peasant in her home village. In other words, without support from the association or from another public or private organization, no child from this district could hope ever to gain access to higher education.

As mentioned in our previous newsletter, the government this year introduced free tuition for the nine years of compulsory schooling in China’s poorest districts, including the one we are active in. We have accordingly made some sensible changes to the way we provide support. From the beginning of the new school year in 2005, we provide support to the three schools with which we co-operate in the following manner:

1) The association takes care of those fees for which the students’ families themselves remain responsible: The fee for room and board for students from faraway villages who only return home on the week-ends. This affects more than one thousand students in Yuwang and Ma Gao Zhuang;

2) For those who already received bursaries from the association, the amount of the payment has been reduced in order to reflect the reduction of costs due to the abolition of tuition fees; but we continue with a smaller payment to allow the children of the poorest families to buy food and clothes;

3) The bursary system remains unchanged for senior high school students; that is, for those who go beyond the nine years of compulsory education;

4) The association accompanies those who succeed in getting into university.

A total of 1200 students will have receive support from the association at the beginning of this new school year, a record number in terms of students and also in terms of expenditure, since we will have spent nearly 14,000 Euros.

For the new school year, the association has also paid for school uniforms (overalls bearing the name of the school) to be made for all the students of Ma Gao Zhuang and Zhang Jia Shu, that is, nearly 600 children. This is what we had already done for the students at the school in Yuwang. We came to realize that these uniforms were an object of considerable pride among the student who never took them off, not even on week-ends back in their villages…

The abovementioned changes in our system thus reflect and complement the step taken by the government toward making education free, which has been promised for the whole of China by 2010 - for the nine years of compulsory education.   It has become possible for us to have a more equal impact on the school age population of the district and thus to have a real impact on its society as a whole. And on top of this, the admission of the first bursary recipients to university has been a boost to everybody’s spirits. People are shown a way to break out of a miserable fate, dictated by chronic droughts.

An entirely different event at the beginning of this summer reminded us of the point to which the situation remains precarious in China, and uniquely so in Ningxia. Xiu Xiu, a thirteen-year-old girl in Ningxia, committed suicide. She left a note for her parents saying that since she could not get good school results, she would rather save them the expense of letting her go on with her studies, which she herself put at 100,000 Yuan RMB, that is, at about 10,000 Euros. A few days later, a text posted on the internet forum of the very official People’s Daily bore the title ‘From The Diary of Ma Yan to Xiu Xiu’s Letter.’ The author who signed himself Yun Zhitao, drew a parallel between Xiu Xiu’s tragedy and the lucky story of Ma Yan, of which he remembered the details. He added: ‘No one would have expected that two girls’ stories acquiring nationwide fame would come out of Ningxia within short time from each other – out of a region where nothing ever happens. This is not a mere coincidence. The line from The Diary of Ma Yan to Xiu Xiu’s letter illustrates two things our education system persistently fails to be: universal, and fair.’ He adds further that the reality falls far short of the optimism spread by the Ministry of Education, and reminds us that at a time when the statistics were [also] very good, Ma Yan was obliged to drop out of school because she had no money, and that it was entirely due to the lucky coincidence of her diary’s publication that she could go back to school. The author emphasizes also that the education system is turning less and less egalitarian and more and more elitist, based on money and power. And he appeals to China to invest more in its educational system in order to make education truly universal and fair. This lucid comment is not exceptional in a China that has liberalized too rapidly in certain sectors, it sometimes seems, and that is now beginning to realize this. This summer, China Youth Daily (of 20 July) commented as follows on the problems with higher education: ‘University student poverty is continuously on the rise. This is primarily a result of the increasing disparities between modes of living, and of economic growth, which directly affects the costs of studying. The poor students, who are generally from the countryside, have no access to goods enjoyed by the more fortunate students, and they will therefore tend to isolate themselves from their fellow students. This results in a certain social disequilibrium right inside our universities. The support provided by government is in reality not more than a small compensation for this.’ The magazine Caijing, in turn, criticised the ‘rise of bureaucracy in universities and the end of the public monopoly on education, [which] have turned Chinese university into one of the most expensive in the world.’

Our action, targeting education in a Ningxia district, is taking precisely the direction which numerous participants in this debate have been hoping for, especially the author of the comparison between Ma Yan and Xiu Xiu. It is encouraging to see to what point this debate has progressed since the beginning of our action, and especially encouraging to see that Ma Yan’s Diary has contributed to this progress, and has indeed become a reference point in this debate. Yet now that we have our first university students, and given the costs of studying, we have also embarked on a road which threatens to become a heavy burden on our accounts, since we have several dozens of bursary recipients who will in the course of the next few years be entering university. It is up to us, then, not to disappoint them, and to find ways and means of increasing the association’s revenue from donations, up until now tailored to the far more modest expenses incurred at school. So the association depends on your support more than ever.

Regards
Pierre Haski

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20 juillet 2005 3 20 /07 /juillet /2005 00:00
Her name is Yan Xia, and she was born to a poor peasant family in the southern Ningxia village of Zhang Jia Shu, also Ma Yan's birthplace. Yan Xia is now proud to be the first girl from her village to enter university in september after successfully passing her entry exam last month. She's also the first youth supported by our foundation to reach that level : Yan Xia has received a scholarship of the Children of Ningxia for the past three years, and we're very happy she's made it to the top.
Yan Xia has chosen to study telecom at the University of Ningxia, in the regional capital of Yinchuan. And she will continue to be supported by the Children of Ningxia association to pay for her college fees. We hope many more students will follow her path and help uplift this empoverished region.

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19 juin 2005 7 19 /06 /juin /2005 00:00
NEWS/
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For Young Readers

Washington Post / Sunday, June 12, 2005; Page BW11 


The Diary of Ma Yan: The Struggles and Hopes of a Chinese Schoolgirl
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edited and introduced by Pierre Haski, translated from the French by Lisa Appignanesi (HarperCollins, $15.99; ages 10-up). You don't review this small book; you tell people about it -- adults as well as kids -- and say, "Read it." It's one of those elemental, utterly artless works that simply stop you in your tracks.

In May 2001, Haski, a French journalist, visited Zhangjiashu, a Muslim village in a region of northwestern China so debilitated by drought that the government had declared it uninhabitable. Nevertheless, Haski dryly notes, about 3 million people still live there, in grinding poverty. As he was leaving, a woman handed him a letter and "three small brown notebooks." The letter, written on the back of a bean seed packet, was a cry of protest from the woman's daughter, Ma Yan, who had been told she would have to leave the school where she boarded during the week and stay home to work in the fields. The family could afford only her brothers' fees. Even though school was a grueling, dangerous 12 1⁄2-mile walk away, Ma Yan wrote in the letter that her mother's words were "like a death sentence." She was 14.

The notebooks contained a diary Ma Yan had kept between September and December 2000. The entries were brief and the tone matter-of-fact, yet they disclosed a life of extraordinary daily hardship and a seriousness of purpose that belied the writer's age. Here's the full entry for Sept. 8: "This morning during class, our Chinese teacher taught us that in life a man has to act according to two principles: his values and his dignity. This will ensure the respect of others. At the end of class he warned us to be careful on the road on our way home. Those who have money can get a lift on a tractor for one yuan [about 12 cents]. The rest of us have to walk. But we mustn't dawdle." Even allowing for the rote pieties and the likely loss of immediacy entailed in the double translation from Mandarin to French to English, this hardly sounds like a 13-year-old.n between the hair-raising glimpses of privation -- Ma Yan doesn't even have a change of clothes and is often so hungry "I think I can see smoke coming out of my stomach" -- comes the refrain: School is the only way out. One Friday, she describes arriving home and being asked to haul bales of buckwheat. "I couldn't really walk any farther," she writes, "but Mother forced us to go." Ma Yan isn't angry at her mother, though: "How could we refuse her? She exhausts herself to provide food for us when there's nothing left, and then she exhausts herself all over again, without getting anything out of life for herself. She doesn't want us to live the way she does. That's why we have to study. We'll be happy. Unlike her."
On Sept. 24, "a nice day," Ma Yan notes sharply, "In the big cities, even going to the toilet requires being able to read."
Intrigued, Haski returned the next month to Zhangjiashu, where he found the cheerful, round-faced girl back in school after all. Her mother had taken a laboring job in the city to pay for it. Haski stayed in touch, and Ma Yan kept up her journal, the entries growing longer, more vivid, more self-aware, by the week. ("Her life is a fast and tough teacher," Haski comments.) In January 2002, a French newspaper published an extract. The response was immediate: Readers sent letters, money and gifts; the diary came out as a book; scholarships were set up. Ma Yan became a celebrity, even in China. Her family bought some sheep and a new television. Last year, she flew to Paris for a book fair, and she has a good chance of attending a university -- once an unimaginable dream.
Ma Yan's story is on track to end happily. That's not so clear for the larger story her diary illuminates. The book raises questions, even for younger readers. What about those school fees, for example? Wouldn't a communist country provide free, universal education? It turns out that it does -- in principle. In practice, most of the money goes to the cities, forcing rural schools to impose special fees to make up the shortfall. Corruption siphons off more funds. In March, officials said rural school fees would be eliminated this year as part of a wider push to reduce inequality between China's booming cities and backward hinterlands. But critics doubt the policy can be enforced.
On Nov. 22, 2001, 14-year-old Ma Yan wrote: "If you walk up to the high plateau to look down at [Zhangjiashu], all you can see is yellow barrenness, a dried-out terrain. It's not even a landscape. To tell the truth, there's nothing to see. Nor does the economy produce anything . . . . The situation has to change."
At the very least, her diary puts an unforgettable human face on the struggle.


Elizabeth Ward

 

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14 juin 2005 2 14 /06 /juin /2005 00:00
THE LETTER FROM NINGXIA/
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Letter 31 May-June 2005

Dear All,
For the second year running, students at the Lyçée français international (LFI) of Hong Kong went to Ningxia at the end of May to visit the educational institutions and the communities whom we are helping. Nineteen students and three teachers, among them Anne-Marie Bordas, the organiser of these exchanges that are becoming regular events, were thus able to get a real sense of the problems with education and the difficult living conditions in this region struck by chronic drought.
At Wuzhong, the high school where Ma Yan is now studying, they were able to speak to students their own age in a modern school building situated in a big city. Then they went on to visit Yuwang and Ma Gao Zhuang, two rural high schools receiving support from the Association. They concluded their visit in Zhang Jia Shu, Ma Yan’s native village and the poorest of the places visited. At Zhang Jia Shu the young French students divided into small groups and had meals with individual peasant families, talking with them and discovering the simple life of these disadvantaged regions. Their visit was accompanied by important gestures of solidarity toward the schools and the families visited. These exchanges correspond perfectly to one of the goals we have set for ourselves: the goal of building bridges between worlds which would normally have no connection; and both parties come out enriched by the experience.
This trip also allowed us to check up on the progress of our ongoing projects. At Yuwang, we had the pleasure of seeing a teacher download a maths programme from one of Tsinghua University Beijing’s websites, in the computer room for the teachers, which was paid for by the Association. Yuwang College now has two computer rooms for the students, who have thus had their time of access to computers doubled, and one computer room for the teachers. And the computers work!
We were also able to inspect the computer room of the high school at Ma Gao Zhuang, the other school supported by us, which is situated at about fifteen kilometres from Yuwang. There, too, there was a kind of magic in seeing the children of peasants, who in their rural school would not normally have had any access to modern technology, handle an electronic piano, thus gaining a few more chances in the difficult lives awaiting them in a rapidly changing China. For our reception, the students had pasted English slogans onto the walls of the school buildings, reading, for instance, ‘never forget’…
The only problem with these computers is that there is as yet no internet connection. Such a connection would open up a new world to the students. The teachers at Yuwang use the only available internet connection exclusively for themselves. At Ma Gao Zhuang, there is still no landline telephone connection, although one has been promised for this year. A friend from Shanghai who accompanied us on our trip is now looking into the possibility of helping these institutions to get a satellite connection. If the costs are not prohibitive, we might be able to find sponsors – for the landline connection and for electricity required to use it, since the budget of the Ma Gao Zhuang school is so constrained that the schoold director already has to limit the time for computer use in order to save on electricity. In this matter, too, the Association could help this school which so much deserves help and encouragement.
At Zhang Jia Shu, we were able to meet the members of a Council of Elders which had been set up to tackle the problem of the well. These venerable old men with their grey beards have undertaken to identify the place where a second attempt to dig a well should be made, together with the company that is going to carry out the work. They have also agreed to look after the well once it has been dug, in contrast to the first attempt which ended in failure. Our talk with them was very encouraging.
Zhang Jia Shu’s blackest spot is its healthcare problem. Since the ‘miracle’ surgery performed on a young child with deformed feet, paid for by the Association, we have been solicited by a number of villagers who do not have the means of accessing a system of healthcare which, let me remind you, is privately paid for in China. Since that operation, each time we come through the village we are accosted by people who tell us about their untreated health problems. We are now obviously in a process of re-orientation after the Association’s first self-appointed task of helping with education has become less demanding [due to the recent annulment of tuition fees]; yet we do not have the means of resolving all the healthcare problems in the village. We will soon have to decide on a new policy in this matter: We have already mentioned the possibility of creating a ‘healthcare fund’ that could be used to provide funding in emergencies, as well as the possibility of sending a healthcare mission in co-operation with another NGO.
Finally, a big ‘bravo’ and a big thank you to those who have engaged in various initiatives to support the Children of Ningxia in recent months. In particular, let me thank the students of a cooking class of the Vocational School of Dives sur mer, western France. They have worked on The Diary of Ma Yan and on Chinese issues since the beginning of the academic year in 2004. In April, they arranged a Chinese meal and they made and sold cakes, donating the profit to the Association. And thanks also to the choir of the Conservatory of Vendée who organised a concert in an abbey in May for the benefit of the Association. These initiatives are so precious because they allow the solidarity we are showing to Ningxia actually to come to life outside China.
The Diary of Ma Yan continues on its fabulous course. On June 1st, the book came out in the United States (with the publisher Harper Collins) and it has been selected by 3000 American libraries for young people.
I wish all of you a very good summer.

 

Pierre Haski

 

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8 juin 2005 3 08 /06 /juin /2005 00:00
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The Diary of Ma Yan continues its world tour! It's just been published in the US by HarperCollins, the 17th foreign edition of this book that has moved mountains and changed lives, and not only Ma Yan's. If you live in the US, please let your friends know about it.

 

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1 mai 2005 7 01 /05 /mai /2005 00:00
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THE LETTER FROM NINGXIA/
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Letter 30, April 2005


First, let me tell you the story of a real “miracle” in Zhang Jia Shu, Ma Yan’s native village. We had already mentioned the operation on a small boy with a congenital deformity of his feet, paid for at one of our members’ initiative, in a previous newsletter. Hélène had taken pictures of the boy’s feet last summer, and shown them to specialists in France; they thought that a successful operation was possible, and she collected the 700 euros required for it amongst her acquaintance. The operation took place in February. There was a perfect chain of solidarity to make it go smoothly; the Association contributed logistical support, and Bai Juhua, Ma Yan’s mother, helped the child and his mother to travel from their home to the hospital in Yinchuan, the capital of Ningxia.

At the beginning of April, I travelled to Zhang Jia Shu and could see how successful the operation was. This child, who had until then been obliged to walk on the outer sides of his feet in a waddling, duck-like manner, is now wearing shoes and walking on the soles of his feet. He still has some minor problems with his right foot, which will be corrected in the hospital; but one only has to see the joy of this little boy who is now ‘like the others,’ and most of all the unlimited joy of his parents, poor Ningxia peasants, to understand the positive effects of this operation. For this moneyless family such an operation seemed impossible; healthcare nowadays has to be paid for in China and is therefore unaffordable for more than half of China’s 800 million peasants. Seven hundred euros to change a life - that is certainly worth it!

It was originally not the mandate of the Association to take care of medical problems, and indeed this would be an immense task far surpassing the means of our small association. But in this case, just as much as in another case also mentioned to you in an earlier letter, where the mother of one of our grant recipients had an operation paid for by a group of UK students, it would have seemed absurd just to let the children go to school but then allow medical problems to plunge their families into misery. So the idea of a ‘healthcare fund’ is taking shape; but we have to proceed with caution, to avoid raising expectations which we cannot meet.
This brief trip to Ningxia at the beginning of April also allowed me to consider the question of school fees. In the previous newsletter I reported on a recent official announcement that the school fees would be abolished for the children of the poorest families during their nine years of compulsory school education. Without being able to speak for the whole of China, I can now confirm that at least in that district of Ningxia in which we operate, this abolition of fees has been implemented in the second semester of 2005. This is excellent news and exactly what we were fervently hoping to happen for the poor families receiving help from us. And we can be proud of having made a modest contribution, by the publication of Ma Yan’s Journal, to the now increasingly vibrant debate about the dangerous gap that has opened up between the richest and the poorest in China, in the course of a decade which saw rapid overall growth. This debate has been the prelude to the recent official decision on school fees that immediately concerns us here.
For grants paid to our students starting in March, the directors of the schools we are supporting have indicated that we can reduce the amount. During the discussions we had in April, we were able to ascertain that the primary and middle schools now only require the costs of food and boarding, which still affect the vast majority of students coming from villages too far away for them to go back and forth every day.
We therefore decided, with the consent of our local partners, to modify the way in which we provide support: the Association will henceforth pay for the boarding for ALL of the boarding students at the middle schools we support, at Yuwang and Ma Gao Zhuang, which means a good one thousand students in total. The sum to be paid is reasonable: 60 Yuan RMB (about 6 Euros) per semester. And we will continue paying out grants, reduced by half, in order to ensure that the living expenses of those students whom we were helping already are covered. What remains unchanged is the grants for the Senior high school students, who continue to have to pay school fees and boarding fees, as well as of course our commitment to pay the fees for university students who will no doubt emerge from amongst the peasant girls whom we are now supporting.
The overall financial commitments of the Association will only be slightly increased compared to what they are now by this change; but the impact of our support will be so much greater, since it will now benefit all the students of the institutions supported by us. We are of course delighted about this development, which is going just in the direction we wanted things to go, and which helps us to make our support less of a privilege available only to a few, and turn it into a more comprehensive effort to give better chances to these children from disadvantaged and excluded families.
We have also just equipped the two middle schools receiving support from us, in Yuwang and Ma Gao Zhuang, with 80 more computers. Yuwang High school had already got 50 computers last autumn, but given the number of students there, this one computer room soon appeared insufficient. Now the college will have a second computer room. Also, at the request of the director of Ma Gao Zhuang High school, we will pay to have school uniforms made for his 450 students. We could see for ourselves how the uniforms and the computers gave the students of Yuwang middle school, who are at the bottom of the social ladder in China, a new kind of pride. It is enough just to go into a village on a Sunday, and see how the students keep wearing their uniform overalls bearing the name of their school.
Donations from the public, which remain important, as well as that portion of the royalties for the two books which has been devoted to the Association, will allow us to continue with this important project of providing the necessary equipment. But we must not limit our fundraising activities to this, and support from any available sources is vital. Several initiatives have been started in France and abroad to collect funds for the Association: we will report on some of these in a future newsletter.
One last point: it has now been a bit more than three years since we started our action of solidarity just after the publication of the first article on Ma Yan’s Diary in Libération, and before the subsequent publication of the book. For the sake of transparency and efficiency, it seemed important to us to have an audit. A young Frenchwoman who works as a consultant in Beijing has agreed to conduct an independent audit for free, and to indicate some avenues for future improvements in our work. She travelled to Ningxia at the beginning of April; and her assessment will be passed on to you for the purpose of information and debate. In the meantime, many thanks for your faithful continued support of the children of Ningxia.
Pierre Haski


 

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Published by Pierre Haski - dans Letter from the Ningxia
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