the story

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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.

Dimanche 7 mai 2006 7 07 /05 /Mai /2006 15:46

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
Par Minet - Publié dans : Letter from the Ningxia
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Dimanche 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
Par Minet - Publié dans : Letter from the Ningxia
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Mardi 15 novembre 2005 2 15 /11 /Nov /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"

Par Minet - Publié dans : NEWS/
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Mardi 15 novembre 2005 2 15 /11 /Nov /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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Samedi 15 octobre 2005 6 15 /10 /Oct /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.

Pierre Haski
Par Minet - Publié dans : Letter from the Ningxia
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