Letter 11 - December 2002
Firstly, welcome to all who have joined us since the publication of The Diary of Ma Yan. You are numerous, and among you there are a number of High School students, even entire classes who have taken initiatives to help the children of Ningxia. More than a hundred people will receive this letter in the future, which we are trying to circulate on a monthly basis.
This new and increased support coincided with the formal creation of the Association in autumn and the coming into existence of a proper organisation, which is entirely based on volunteer work. Volunteers are taking care of the correspondence and managing the donations in Paris ; others, in Geneva, are now constructing a web site of the Children of Ningxia, which will contain all the documentation from the beginning of our adventure, numerous photos, and regular updates on the children whom we are helping to get schooling. Others, finally, are working on a pedagogical project around Ma Yan’s story, which will apparently be part of a brochure of the French Ministry of Education on the subject of getting young people involved.
We have also put in place a system of translation for those who would like to correspond with Ma Yan or other bursary holders of the Association : it is sufficient if you write to our address, and we will have your letter translated into Chinese in Paris before sending it off. And the same vice versa, of course.
News from Ningxia : two weeks ago, we had a visit from Ma Yan and her mother in Beijing. They were invited to come here by a Chinese television channel for a programme for which I was also interviewed. The journalist who interviewed me even proposed to work as a volunteer for the Association...I have not yet seen the interview, and therefore do not know what the presentation of the story will be like. One will anyway have to be patient, since the scheduled recording was cancelled and the television channel insisted that Ma Yan and her mother return to Beijing this Sunday, to re-record the interview...This time they will come here by plane, a first for them, the tickets having been paid for by the TV channel. So we will have to wait !
The director of Ma Yan’s School has called us about the visit : he was annoyed by all this traveling back and forth, but he could just as little oppose a national television channel as we could. He has asked Ma Yan’s teachers to help her catch up with her classes on her return...This ‘taking control’ on the part of Chinese authorities may be surprising, but it has at least one positive aspect : it protects Ma Yan and her family from negative side effects of the publicity her story is gaining abroad. It is a thousand times preferable to see them being rejected or attacked [by the authorities]. Seeing Ma Yan and her mother during their last visit in Beijing, one could feel reassured, at any rate, that they were not at all perturbed by all this agitation...Their life has been transformed so much from a year ago, in a largely positive sense, that they now take everything new that happens with philosophy.
By contrast, matters in the region of Zhang Jia Shu have not been so simple during the past weeks. While up until now we have been able to operate completely independently, the coming out of the book has somewhat raised the stakes. Certain authorities told themselves that it was necessary to channel us through official structures perhaps with the idea of profiting a little from our modest mount of financial manna, in the back of their minds. This was a somewhat tense moment, since an emissary came to see me in Beijing in order to pass on this menacing message.
One village clan opposed the other, and there was no small measure of agitation of minds. We succeeded in calming matters down : I sent a memorandum to all the authorities of the district, reminding them of the way the initiative came into existence, of the reason why Ma Yan has today some more money at her disposal than the others (her copyright in the book), and underlined that the publicity around the book as well as part of the right to the royalties would generate more means for the Association to help the collective. On condition that we could establish a consensus on how to proceed : it is out of the question for us, in particular, to delegate the handling of the funds to others.
This message was well taken, and the return messages we received, especially from education department, were entirely positive. So we can now view the further development of our initiative more serenely. I will go there in February after the Chinese New Year and before the beginning of the second semester, in order to see the present bursary recipients and in order to select some additional ones, thanks to the increased means at our disposal, but also to discuss with the several intermediaries in place there what future forms our support could take.
There is the possibility of the breakfast, which was first accepted, but then abandoned during those tensions (in Beijing, incidentally, I met a person in charge of a programme of the UN which finances meals in school in disadvantaged regions around the world, who is preparing to launch this programme for about 500000 children in China. According to their studies a child with full stomach studies 40% better than a child with an empty stomach. One was guessing this to be the case anyway, but the studies have confirmed it.)
There is also the possibility of helping the village to reconstruct its well, which dried up several years ago, or of helping with equipment for the new School building now under construction. All kinds of ways of bringing concrete help, including even help with finding sponsors who, however, would have to enter into agreements with those in charge in the village, as well as with us. It would be strange if all these things were happening smoothly and without difficulties, though for the moment the difficulties seem to have been overcome...
While waiting [for these larger projects to be realised] we continue slowly increasing the number of our bursary holders, on the basis of an abundance of letters which we keep receiving in Beijing. Every day the misery and destitution of Ningxia arrive in our letterbox. In the majority of cases, we will meet the letter-writer the next time we come through the region, as we consider it preferable to have seen the children and their families before we take a decision. In two or three cases, though, we took on a new bursary recipient or made a one-off payment to a student originating from these communities, who was having financial difficulties at his or her place of studying, acting on a recommendation. In particular, we have ‘taken on’ a young girl who was threatened with having to withdraw from school because her elder brothers finished their school education without, however, finding any employment, and her parents concluded from this that it was a waste [to let her continue]. She sent us a desperate letter, most of all dreading the prospect of having to stop school.
So in February, you will see a little more clearly in which direction our initiative should be heading : by continuing with the indispensable grant of bursaries which allows us to help dozens of girls who would otherwise be condemned to a bleak future, and by widening the scope of our action to help the more collective development of this community with which Ma Yan’s story has connected us.
If you wish, do not hesitate to write to Ma Yan on the occasion of the Western holidays, or of the Chinese New Year. One of our bursary holders, Wei Yonge, who had written to us last spring thinking she was dying of pneumonia, is now in good health but she is isolated in a vocational training school situated at a long distance from her home : she will surely appreciate tokens of friendship from Europe. Among all our bursary holders, she is the one most advanced with her studies. Another, Ma Hua, disabled by polio, is among the most brilliant, and certainly merits all encouragement. We have the list of bursary recipients at your disposal.
I wish everyone of you pleasant holidays, and hope that the initiative we started in 2002 in this particularly disadvantaged region will be able to develop further.
Beijing, 14 December 2002