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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 juillet 2002 7 07 /07 /juillet /2002 00:00
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Letter 9 - Summer 2002

Hello everyone - or everyone not on holiday -
Some information on our initiative :
Firstly, news about Ma Yan and other children we are helping : I have just returned from a trip to Ningxia accompanied by Michèle Fitoussi, a journalist working for Elle, who has been with us on this initiative from the start. She will provide her own account separately, but here are a few remarks from me.
We have met with Ma Yan who is very well, having come in second in her class this year (‘after a student who was repeating the year,’ she is anxious to point out !). We found her mother suffering, and took both of them to a hospital in Yinchuan, the provincial capital, so she could consult a doctor at the hospital ; for the medical facilities available locally are very limited. Ma Yan’s mother has been suffering from a stomach ulcer for years, it seems, as well as from other complications. We ensured that she got treatment. Incidentally, this was their first visit to a large city, and they were ‘discovering’...the hot water coming from a tap, the soap, the lifts, the big shops, the traffic jams...they opened their eyes wide and Ma Yan told us this was an unforgettable experience for her.
We also met some of the twenty children we helped during the second semester. This was very gratifying, for they all had attended classes through to the end, and apparently had earned good results. We will continue supporting them next September, along with with ten more children whom we chose during this last visit, our finances allowing us to do so. So there will be thirty bursary recipients in all next year, 28 girls and two boys.
Importantly, we met Wei Yong’e, a young girl from a very poor family (her father is a migrant worker, a miner working in a different province ; the older brother went to look for work elsewhere and disappeared without a trace a year ago, and her mother now finds herself alone with three daughters in a lost village on the top of a mountain). This girl had been sending us magnificent letters during the past months, believing that she was suffering from a terminal illness. We helped her, too, to get medical treatment, and the matter does not seem to be all too serious. She will enroll in High School in September, and she appears very determined to us.
There was no shortage of difficulties, of course, for the help we are providing to this very poor region obviously leads to many frustrations : why these thirty children, when they are all in difficulties ? This frustration experienced by ‘the others’ is difficult to handle in a region where, as an official told us, ‘people are prepared to kill each other for 50 Yuan’, that is less than ten Euros. We have begun to think about a collective project for the entire village, a project that would benefit everyone and not just a few families :
Since the procurement of water is one of the biggest problems (it is a two hours’ walk both ways to go to the only well, which does not even have drinking water), why not help with the construction of a well in the village, if conditions are favourable, by finding a sponsor or several sponsors, for instance, among the French companies with a presence in China (I thought of Vivendi Environnement, which has just gained important contracts for water supply in China, and perhaps stand in need of polishing its image) ? More on this later.
There are also some difficulties with some authorities irritated by our presence, since we are ‘free electrons’ in a country which doesn’t like this too much. We have already been favoured with a visit from the police, who descended upon our hotel, but this had no further consequences. The local authorities (the district and village party secretary, the village head and the Imam, as well as the school director of Yuwang High School, where Ma Yan is a student) reassured us of their confidence in us and encouraged us to go on.
So this is some news from the ‘frontline’, good news when one considers the children delighted to have bursaries and be able to continue school, though the picture is more complicated once one takes into account the general situation, as our initiative has had the effect of disturbing an established order, in itself miserable, but with its own logic.
During my brief stay in Paris, last month, I had the pleasure of meeting some of you, and we decided to found a [charitable] Association under the 1901 [Association] Law for fiscal reasons (a lawyer having pointed out to me that it was illegal for me to receive donations made to my personal bank account, or that in any case, I ought to pay taxes on these sums...). So we had to legalise all this without becoming overly formal, and without becoming an international NGO... An ‘Association for the Children of Ningxia’ (a name preferred to exaggerated personalisation around Ma Yan) will therefore be created, with a provisory office. A General Constitutive Assembly will be organised next time I come to Paris. I hope that you will be able to attend in great numbers, at a date yet to be determined.
Last point : Ma Yan’s diary will come out in book form at the beginning of October, with the publishing house Ramsay, and this publication will generate a copyright vesting with Ma Yan’s family. It seemed legitimate to me, given that Ma Yan will in the future have an income from this copyright which will secure her education for the next few years, that the money from the donations be henceforth used to help other children. When we announced this step - which to us seemed a positive one, since it spelled greater autonomy for them - to Ma Yan and her mother, the latter reacted very badly, not understanding why the Association was going to ‘drop her’. It was very difficult for us to make her understand in what way this change was positive for her, because she was going to have a small capital at her immediate disposal, which would allow her to improve her living conditions (by buying some livestock or land), while her daughter’s education remained secured by a monthly payment coming from her own money, and guaranteed for the next seven years ! We assured her, too, that Ma Yan was clearly going to remain the ‘mascot’ of the Association, that we would continue to take an interest in her life, and that Michèle and I were personally pledging to help Ma Yan, should her own money turn out to be insufficient. I hope that you are in agreement with this step we took.
This is it for the moment. All this is a delicate matter, and we do truly intervene here in a context of extreme poverty, and quite unprepared for all these challenges. But at the same time the satisfaction experienced by the children, some of whom are among the best in their class, and who without bursaries would be condemned to discontinue their school education, is worth, in my eyes, the fight to overcome all these difficulties. Best wishes to you, and have a good holiday

Pierre Haski.
Beijing, 18 July 2002


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