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.