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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.


7 mai 2004 5 07 /05 /mai /2004 00:00
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Letter 24 - may 2004

Dear all,
HONG KONG in NINGXIA. It was a truly astonishing sight : on 22 May 2004 fifteen students of the Hong Kong Lycée Français and four of their teachers could be seen retracing Ma Yan’s old way to elementary school as she had described it in her diary. They got off their bus at a few kilometres’ distance from the village Zhang Jia Shu and decided to walk the rest of the way, despite the heat and the dust.

This was one of many moments during this unusual trip, an encounter between students of Hong Kong’s Lycée Français and Ningxia, Zhang Jia Shu village, the villagers, and Ma Yan’s school, that will stay with us. The students from Hong Kong were welcomed by the families of Zhang Jia Shu, villagers who shared a simple meal with them, allowing them a glimpse of the simple lives they lead and of the daily difficulties they are having to struggle with : most notably, the lack of water. This year has been particularly bad. No snow in winter means that the cisterns are empty and that water now has to be bought at the exorbitant rate of 60 Yuan (6 Euro or about £ 4 ) per cubic metre, an extortionate price for these poor peasants who are among the poorest in China.
Later at Yuwang, the students met up with Ma Yan who is a student there now. A big ceremony was held, with officials making emotional speeches and the French students distributing the presents they had brought with them : books, sports equipment, an electric organ, and a notebook and pen for each of the 1150 students Then the French students split up into small groups to meet and chat with Chinese students in their individual classrooms. Then everybody came back again for big meal together. After that, they made use of the universal language of sport, improvising a Sino-French basketball competition. Despite their height the French boys lost against the Chinese, but then the French girls won : it would have been difficult to arrange for a more ‘diplomatic’ result !
As the French students’ bus was leaving the school director had tears in his eyes : never before had his small, rural school received this kind of oxygen boost. It had been an extraordinary experience for him, just as for his students. But on the part of the French, too, according to Anne-Marie Bordas, the teacher who had taken on the laborious task of carefully organising this visit, it had been ‘a great and enriching experience.’ It has been an opportunity for the French students who for the most part study Chinese and had been working with Ma Yan’s diary in class, to come in close contact with the real difficulties faced by students going to school in the deprived Ningxia countryside : difficulties like the water problem, for instance, which means that boarding students, hundreds of them together, cannot wash at school ; the poverty of the dormitories - Ma Yan and the majority of other students have to share their beds with another because there is simply not enough space - ; and the sparse, deficient equipment. - But at the same time the visitors from Hong Kong had met students determined to learn and lift themselves out of their difficult condition. Among them Ma Xiaomei, one of the young recipients of a bursary from the Association and also one of the heroines of ‘Ma Yan and her sisters :’ that day in class and in conversation with the French students she was smiling, gentle, spontaneous, and impressed her visitors very much.
For us this visit was a moment of human solidarity shown in a different form from the material support we can provide. The children of Ningxia certainly need bursaries ; but beyond this they also need to be taken out of their mental seclusion. This encounter with some young French students has managed to capture, better than anything else, the spirit in which we have entered this region - have, indeed, intervened there to help. We are greatly encouraged by the reception they got, and it shows how far we have come already since our project was first accepted there [by the authorities]. This shows that it has now really become entrenched in Ningxia. So we hope we may repeat this experience and - why not - perhaps also repeat it in reverse direction. Incidentally, this was the first time we saw Ma Yan back from her trip to France. She was radiant, though very busy preparing her entry examinations for Senior High School, in June...
PROJECTS. This trip accompanying the French students has allowed us not only to re-establish contact with our local partners but also to check on the progress of our projects :
At Zhang Jia Shu, the primary school at which we provide free tuition to 200 village children at school age, a small palace revolution had occurred, which led to the appointment of a new director as a result of some internal conflicts. Despite these shake-ups, which now appear to have calmed down, the contract which we concluded last December to ensure free tuition for all children of the village appears to have been honoured throughout : we ascertained this much from various families in the village who assured us that they had not been required to pay any money for the second term, to the villagers’ great satisfaction. We decided to extend this free tuition arrangement to 35 students who will move on to High School at Yuwang (a boarding school) for their fifth year at school. The one remaining problem now is that some families do not want to send their daughters to school even when it is free. We will have to of incentives that can make them change their minds.
We have also been able to bring up, in discussion with a district official, the well construction project for Zhang Jia Shu village, for which we have obtained a ‘sustainable development grant.’ This is a laborious and lengthy process, though, since the village leaders have been dismissed on account of having diverted public funds (the surge of corruption does not stop short even before the poorest of the poor, though, truly, the sums diverted in this way are meagre.). A new school management team will be appointed, which for us means a new set of local partners with whom to negotiate.
Some good news from Yuwang : work on the new school building has recommenced after an interruption of several months. Completion of the building work is expected this September. This will enable us to equip two of the new classrooms as computer rooms, a project for which we have already received special funding thanks to a special campaign last year. We are now discussing with the director of Yuwang High School how to help with building new dormitories. This is a project for which we might yet again try to enlist the help of some large companies, such as French companies with Chinese subsidiaries or branches.
Ma Gao Zhuang village : the old deputy director of Yuwang High School, after being appointed director of a school in the community of Ma Gao Zhuang which is situated at a few dozen kilometres’ distance from there, wrote to us last April informing us of his transfer but also about the desolate conditions at his new school in Ma Gao Zhuang. We had had an excellent working relationship with him and so we took the opportunity of visiting him during our last trip out. The school there, which is a combined Primary and High School, has 350 students altogether and they are visibly poorer even than those of Yuwang. We decided to provide some on the spot financial support in the form of twenty bursaries for children from the most destitute families, to be distributed when the students return to school for the new term. We also made a donation ‘in kind’ of some urgently needed material : the school is in need of practically everything. And beyond this, a significant quantity of clothes collected by the Lycée Français at Beijing will be sent to the school at Ma Gao Zhuang, to be distributed at the end of their school year. We will also fund a big end-of-year banquet, as we have done already at Yuwang, to everyone’s great pleasure and approval.
The widening of our commitment which all these new activities represent has been made possible by strengthened support for our Association. Our commitments remain economically sound, and the new ones will not threaten previously made commitments in any way. By September, a total of about 350 students will be receiving support from the Association. In addition, three educational institutions, all belonging to the region which Ma Yan has brought close to us, will be receiving our support in the form of teaching and other materials. So your support is needed more than ever...
All the best


Pierre Haski


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