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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 février 2003 5 07 /02 /février /2003 00:00
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Letter 13 - February 2003

Dear All,
On the night we arrived in the capital of the region we are assisting, we were greeted by the assistant director of the Yuwang middle School with the words “You are as welcome as a blazing fire in the snow”. These words remained with us during the three days of our stay in Ningxia, between the 25th and the 28th February, a stay during which we achieved important progress for our future activity in the region. I was accompanied by my assistant He Yanping and Nicolas Bobin, a teacher in the French high school in Beijing.
MA YAN. First of all, the first surprise of our stay : Ma Yan, whom we had seen every day with her parents, and who behaves herself remarkably well in spite of the several little drawbacks of her sudden notoriety, announced her decision to donate 25% of the royalties from her book to our Association. She made a very solemn declaration to formalise this decision, which was taken together with her mother, and following several discussions with us, as well as with the leaders in the School and in the region.
We started the discussion with her mother after having received several applications from members of her close family asking us for bursaries. We pointed out that she now had the means to help her family herself and that the bursaries had to go to families who were less well provided for. This idea took root, and gave rise to this spontaneous declaration which came as a very pleasant surprise on the second day of our stay. Her mother told us that she had been impressed by the number of French people who continued to help the children of Ningxia.
Here is Ma Yan’s letter :
“I am an ordinary student. I have received assistance from certain friends. Today, I also want to offer love so that more poor children can gain access to the ocean of knowledge and go to school ; so that they may gradually realise their dreams ; so that they may build a better future for our country, our nation. If everyone offers up a little love, the world will be a better place. I want to donate 25% of all the royalties from the book ‘The Diary of Ma Yan’ to the French Association for the Children of Ningxia.
“Ma Yan, 26 February 2003.”
BURSARIES. We met with almost all the bursary holders of the Association and some of their parents. They are children who are happy to be able to continue their studies, and who show us a deep gratitude for a gesture of solidarity for which they had not hoped. We have renewed their bursaries for a second semester. Worried at not having received their bursaries as the lessons were starting in the following week, they had gone to see the management of the school who had put their minds at rest saying they were to await news from us... Our arrival on the following day had been a great relief.
With prudence, we have appreciably increased the number of bursary holders, which is now 42 as opposed to the previous 30. In doing so we relied on the considerable mail we had received in Beijing, the help of the High School management who were very cooperative, and the meetings which took place during our previous visit. We have therefore taken on twelve extra bursary holders, five of whom were recommended by the School director, and whose families no longer had the means to pay for the second semester. As in the previous years, about 10% of the 1000 students in the Yuwang School were removed in the second semester by families who did not have the funds necessary to pay the tuition fees. Remember that these amount to 180 Yuan per semester, to which is added the price of a sack of rice for the boarders coming from the nearby villages, that is to say the majority of the students. Our bursaries go up to 500 Yuan per semester.
In the village of Zhang Jia Shu, we were confronted, as always, with the extent of the destitution. Three grandmothers came to plead with us for their granddaughters. They had gone to beg in town to be able to pay the tuition fees. One of them is not unknown to the readers of the book : she had crossed her arms and stood in our road at the time of our first passing through the village, to plead for her family. We had not been able to help her at the time, but after this visit her granddaughter became one of our bursary holders. The bursaries for primary school students are of 200 Yuan. By way of exception we also donated 500 Yuan to the sick mother of one of our bursary holders, whom we visited at the hospital - healthcare has to be paid for, and the family had got heavily into debt because of the situation.
The demand for help was very great this time, too, which placed us in a delicate situation. Clearly, we could not help everybody, and still less choose the bursary holders on the basis of which people approached us in the street. A brief moment of tension was resolved when the following day, the imam of the village came to visit us in our hotel in Yuwang, to present us with self-criticism in the name of villagers (Maoism is not far away...) for having harassed us the previous day.
The party secretary was also present, and together with these two village authorities we created a Student Committee, which will be charged with receiving and sorting the bursary applications which would then be decided together with us. From the beginning we had hoped for such an initiative on the part of the villagers, but it had seemed difficult to surmount the divisions and rivalries inherent in village life.
The ‘miracle’ occurred : the imam and the party secretary decided to work together, a reconciliation sealed by a photo of the two of them with me. This deal made between the spiritual and political powers was reminiscent of a Don Camillo and Peppone situation, but we hope that this will allow us to do our work in the village more serenely and effectively.
OTHER ACTIVITIES. At Yuwang, as at Zhang Jia Shu, we discussed with the authorities the new possibilities thanks to the support acquired by the Association : more than 200 persons will receive this letter, and several fund-raising initiatives have been launched. At Yuwang, the School director pointed out that the absolute priority in his eyes was the acquisition of computers for his students. “If our students leave school without ever having handled a computer, we would have produced technology-age illiterates”, we were told by this man who was forced to deal with penury. We are therefore going to try to put together the funds to create, by the start of the new academic year in September, an IT room containing 20 computers in the new school which is being built.
We also committed ourselves to building a basic library for the High School : we have brought them 20 Chinese dictionaries and six English-Chinese dictionaries, as well as an encyclopedia donated by the Beijing teacher who accompanied us, and some BD in Chinese (Tintin, Lucky Luke...) donated by a German student in the University of Ningxia. Having visited another time the miserable dormitories of the students, which will remain unaltered after the completion of the new building because this will absorb all funds up to 2005, we concluded that we could, having regard to the funds at our disposal, assist in the renovation of these areas which were fairly dilapidated and unhygienic.
At Zhang Jia Shu, the imam, who teaches on a voluntary basis at the public primary school of the village, talked to us of their local needs and of the possibility of obtaining subsidies from the state if the school itself raises 10,000 Yuan. This sum is charged to the parents, and is impossible to raise in this penniless village. We are going to examine the possibility of helping them. We also spoke again about the collapsed well in the village, which we are seeking to have financed by a sponsor. We offered the primary school a portion of the school supplies purchased at Yinchuan, the capital of the region, and of those sent from France by some of you.
THE AUTHORITIES. On our return to Yinchuan, the capital of Ningxia, we were invited to dinner by the director of the Weiban, the ‘foreign office’ of the province, an official organisation charged with controlling all activities of foreigners. Our relationship has not always been easy, and they even had our identities checked by the police last summer, when we were at Yuwang with Michele Fitoussi. This time, we received a pleasant and cordial welcome from the director who even declared our project exemplary. A journalist from a daily newspaper of Yuwang was also there to give a public dimension to this official support.
There was a slight sense of the authorities ‘reclaiming control’ (of the project), but this kind of official support is better than hostility on the part of the authorities, and it is certainly in the interest of the children we help. And for now it leaves us complete masters of the means and objectives of our activity. It is clear that after a moment of wavering on the publication of The Diary of Ma Yan in France in Autumn, the authorities have decided to take a positive attitude towards us, and we can only congratulate ourselves on this.
CONTRIBUTIONS. Besides an increasing number of persons who donate monthly or annual sums to the bursary funds (thanks go to those who completed the questionnaire, which has given us a better overview), we have several initiatives taking place. First, the company Hermès (yes, the luxury goods producer...) will organize special sales in Beijing for the benefit of the Association !
And support initiatives are taking place in the French high schools of Beijing and Hongkong, where I have held conferences and where the students were able to tackle the themes of the Diary of Ma Yan with their teachers. Nicolas Bobin, teacher at the school of Beijing, accompanied me all through this voyage, and expects to return in the spring with a group of students who will have already worked on the issues regarding education in China. Finally, a representative of the Association now exists in Hongkong, jointly in the persons of Diane Michaud and Evonne Col, who, for those interested, may be contacted on the following email address : hk_enfantsduningxia@yahoo.com.
MARRIAGE. To conclude, some news of Ma Shiping, the young girl mentioned in the preceding letter, married at 16 after having had to put a stop to her studies : she is well and truly married in the traditional manner (the legal age for girls is 20 years), and has moved to her husband’s village. We were not therefore able to see her. Her dowry was a motorcycle, a privileged mode of transport in this region of difficult tracks. Too late to do anything about it, alas. The children we are helping, we hope, will escape this fate.
Pierre Haski


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