Letter 19 - December 2003
I managed to spend five days in Ningxia in December, with my assistant, He Yanping, and we were able to meet most of the scolarship recipients as well as the local authorities. But before going any further, I have some great news : weve reached an agreement with the Principal and the teachers of the primary school in Ma Yans village - Zhang Jia Shu - and have decided to offer free schooling to every child in the village, approx 200 children, by paying for the entire school fees. This news was warmly welcome by the villagers who, once again this year, are facing a severe drought. The schooling fees, to be paid in cash, are such a terrible burden for them that a lot of kids, particularly girls, are taken out of the school.
During our discussions with the school Principal and the teachers, we were told that they were well aware of the villagers difficult situation, and had decided to vastly decrease the school fees. In spite of that gesture, half of the villagers were still unable to pay the fees. Thus, when we arrived in the village, the school itself was facing a very difficult financial situation. We made some quick calculation and concluded that, instead of offering 26 scolarships at the former higher rate, we could pay for the entire school fees. We therefore took over the villagers debt for the first semester and promised to pay for the entire second semester... approximately $1,500 ! This plainly shows how poor the whole place is.
This decision, aside from being a strong symbolic gesture, has allowed us to solve one of the most disturbing aspect of our action : by choosing who gets a scholarship we were excluding others, creating an inequality which was becoming more and more difficult to face, particularly in the primary school. A quick glance in the school classrooms was enough to prove that everyone in the village lives below the poverty level : the childrens clothes are thread bare, the classrooms are barely heated with coal and do not have any supplies. By offering free school for all we restore equality among the families.
We wrote a contract, discussing the fine points around the table in Ma Yans parents house, which in 2 paragraphs explains the obligation from the Association to pay for the approximately 200 childrens school fees and from the School to stop asking the parents to repay their depts and to regularly keep the Association informed of the childrens progress in school. This contract was signed by the Primary School Principal, the Imam, the Party Secretary, my assistant He Yanping and myself. A provincial governement official was present and he gave his word that he would closely follow the progress of the agreement.
This represents a fantastic step forward in our decision to help the villagers of Zhang Jai Shu, who, benefiting from the amazing response to Ma Yans story, are now better off than the neighbouring villages. This is probably going to become a sore point between the villages, and that will replace the previous unease between the scolarship recipients families and the families who did not receive such help.
With this gesture, we accomplished - on a small scale - what a UN report recommended in early December : The Central Chinese Governement must guarantee free school fees for all school children
We now have 200 children depending on us in the village school, but we are still offering scolarships to the secondary and higher schools. We are currently funding 39 other scolarships, mainly in the secondary school in Yuwang - where the Zhang Jia Shu schoolchildren go after the end of the primary education - and in the Tongxin high school located in the county seat.
We were able to meet most of those kids, and evaluate the impact of the scholarship funds on their lives and encourage them in pursuing their education. Part of our motive for the meetings was to check on the terrible situations that had been described in the letters sent by thoses kids and that had sometimes influenced our decision in allocating a scolarship. What we saw goes well beyond the situations that the children had described. Their lives are straight out of the most dramatic books, but receiving the scolarship has given them an indestructable optimism which enables them to confront all the problems in their lives and which - as Mao would have said- will enable them to move mountains !
In Yuwang we met Ma Xiaomei, a quiet 14 year- old girl with neatly braided hair. She had written us a sad story about her life : her father had died 10 days after having been diagnosed with a cancer which had not been detected earlier because they did not have the money to pay for the doctors visit (medical care is not free in China) ; her mother also had a tumor in her head and could not see a doctor for lack of money. We went to her house : her mother had left her farm because she could not work alone in the fields. In Yuwang, she had opened a tiny store - 3m x 4m - in which she lived with her daughter and 2 young sons. Shes skinny and weak. And this woman has a daughter who in spite of this life is an excellent student whith a head full of dreams about her future. Obviously, we immediately offered a scolarship to each of the brothers as well, starting next semester, and gave her some money to go and see a doctor.
Li Xiaoyan started receiving our scholarship in Sept 2003. We had met her last February in the Principals office, crying and pleading for him to take her back half way through the school year. We had not understood what was happening. In Sept 2003 she wrote us and reminded us of our meeting, and asked for a scholarship. We had accepted although we were skeptical at the time. How happy we are that she is one of the recepient : at 12 years old, Li Xiaowan stopped going to school because her parents had chosen to use their meager resources for the younger brothers education. She went to work as a waitress in a mining town restaurant, 100km away from home, with the goal of saving enough money to pay for her own schooling. She earned 100 yuan a month (around $10 dollars) . After eight months of work she had come back and encouraged by one of her uncles had asked the school principal to take her back half way through the school year, which is what we had witnessed. But the following September she had no more money and had decided to ask for our help. At 14, shes already lived through tragedy yet she is full of optimism and willpower to improve her life.
These stories and many others that we discovered during those few days will be published in a second book, to come out in France next spring by Editions Ramsay. Half of the authors rights will be given to the Association. My last trip was paid by the Publisher and did not cost a cent to the Association. We are always trying to limit our expenditures to postage, bank charges or photocopies costs. The Association does not have to pay for office rent, salaries nor are there any overhead. Everyone involved in the actions of the Association is a volunteer, whether in Paris, Beijing or elsewhere and we hope to be able to continue our work this way so that we may expand our involvement with the children.
In Yuwang, we met with the medium school principal. His office had collapsed since our last visit. The conditions in which the students and the teachers live and work are unbelievable. In front of his office is a brand new building, 4 floors high. Its the new school, financed by the state and for which we had pledged an investment in computers. But the construction was interrupted in March for lack of money and still hasnt started again. In Yinchuan, the provincial capital, an administrative civil servant assured us that construction was to start again soon and finished next year... He also assured us that the official declarations about a larger public action in the countryside would, next year, be translated in financial help. Lets see. In any case, this official person thought positively of our action , which added to the succesful launch of Ma Yans Diary in China, enables us to implement our actions more decisively.
In France our friend Emmanuelle Polack started an action in her class, using Ma Yans diary and this has now been officially approved of and is growing. Anyone interested in her project can read it (in French !) at : www.enseignants.com/partenaires/pg/glossaire
We have been asked if the diary in Chinese could be found in France, we do not think so but we will certainly ship it to anyone interested, the total price of shipping and book purchase will amount to 10 euros. Please send your request with a check and shipping address to the Association.
To conclude, we are asking for your support. The book is still attracting new supporters in many countries, but we rely on word of mouth. Please forward this message to those around you and encourage them to check out our Association. The amazingly courageous Children of Ningxia are counting on you.
Pierre Haski Enfants du Ningxia