Letter 6 - 11 March 2002
We have just returned from Ningxia, and I will give you some news about our initiative, as promised. We have now reached the stage of concrete realisation of our project : from this week, sixteen Ningxia children - besides Ma Yan herself- will be going to school, or returning to school, thanks to your donations. But let me first give you some news about Ma Yan.
Our visit at her school took her by surprise. She was not aware that we were coming, and when we walked into her classroom she literally jumped from her seat ! She is radiant, as you can see from one of the photos attached to this letter, which was taken last Thursday. The support she receives from Europe has had an effect like a drug on her : she has formidable self-confidence now, and at the same time shows herself deeply grateful to all those who are helping her. All this despite truly challenging conditions, of which we could get an impression for ourselves : 60 students in a class without teaching aids, and dormitory rooms of three by four metres for fifteen students apiece...
After meeting up with Ma Yan we met the director of this rural Middle School. He mentioned a shocking figure : there has been a drop from 994 to 912 students from the first to the second term, due to financial difficulties experienced by the peasant families, which in turn are due to the droughts of the previous years. The children have to pay not only school fees of around 200 Yuan per semester, but also and above all, those who are from the surrounding villages and therefore are boarding students (that is, two thirds of the students) have to contribute sacks of grain for their own meals, and to bring a little ready money to buy vegetables to have with their rice (there is never any meat). In villages where the average income per inhabitant has fallen to 300 or 400 Yuan RMB a year, this means a considerable burden, which numerous families are no longer able to sustain.
The school director presented six young girls to us, who are among those excluded from school this semester, and whom we have decided to help by paying their school inscription fees, and giving them some money so they can buy themselves food (we are giving Ma Yan, thanks to whom this entire project took off, a more substantial sum of 500 Yuan RMB per month). Another photo shows Ma Yan with six bursary recipients, among whom one, sitting in the first row, is among the best students of the School, despite a physical handicap.
We then took Ma Yan back to her village Zhang Jia Shu in our car, taking the same sunken-in road which it takes her three or four hours every week-end to walk home on. The welcome her mother gave us was again very moving. This definitely very courageous woman finds it still difficult to believe that what has happened is true, and that her daughter is now guaranteed a degree of security which she has never known before, is true. In conversation with her, we also discussed the possibility that Ma Yan would transfer to a better school in the capital of the district at the beginning of the new school year - one where she would have better chances of making it to Senior High School and - why not - to university, whereas her rural High School is something of an academic dead end lane.
Ma Yan’s family home quickly became the centre of the village, showing how much attention our presence in the village generated. We already have the names of a number of children whom we want to help, among them a young girl mentioned in my article written in January, who had suffered the same fate as Ma Yan and was still being deprived of school education. For four additional children, we have asked the authorities in the village, the Imam and the Communist Party chief..., to make some suggestions. This led to long consultations held squatting in a field, at the end of which we were presented with a list that was clearly a wise compromise. We met with each child and their family, and whatever the considerations relating to them may have been, they are most assuredly in need.
It was clear that we could not satisfy all expectations, and our presence created as much frustration as it created satisfaction. Thus when we left the house of one of the families receiving aid, our car had to stop in the middle of the night to avoid running over a woman kneeling in the middle of the road. She had heard the car engine and knew who we were, and felt herself unjustly overlooked. We could do nothing for her, since yielding to her plea would have made the entire village make more pleas, when we had already fixed a limit. We were feeling really uneasy...
Principles of this kind are easier to define than to respect, though, for the next day when we stayed in a small hotel in the neighbouring community we found two families waiting on our doorstep, who had got up at four in the morning to make the three hours’ walk, with their children, to be there when we woke up. The children were freezing, and we could not do other than ‘adopt’ them as bursary holders... The same afternoon, when we visited another very poor family we came upon another family in quite desperate circumstances, whose children, clothed in rags, had scarcely known school at all (see attached photo). We added them to our list...
Results : Sixteen girls and one boy, of whom seven, like Ma Yan, are at Middle School while the others are at primary school. We asked the children that they write to us during the course of the coming semester to tell us about their progress at school and their lives. We will make this kind of correspondence a precondition of the continuation of the bursary, as this is the only way of achieving a minimum reassurance that the money is being used for its intended purpose. We chose to limit the number of children supported at this initial stage, although doubtless the sums we received would allow us to go a bit further. But we considered that we had better first allow our system to take roots, in the hope that we will be able to do more and do better come next September.
We were supported in the field by the photographer Wang Zheng, who had accompanied us and is 100% with us, as well as by various local authorities, who are thrilled at this initiative even though, evidently, they would like to be more in charge themselves...We have, I think, so far avoided being taken over in any way, and our gesture has, it seems, been well received and understood by everyone.
I think that we have for the present found a way of intervening in a smooth and, I hope, effective way. An initiative certainly limited compared to the district’s needs, even only considering these needs. But just seeing that Ma Yan and the other students had found back their smiles, made it worth the effort, I think. I will shortly send you a first statement of the donations received and the expenditures made. I will also communicate to you such new information as we have received ourselves, especially regarding these letters which we have asked the bursary holders to write, and which I hope they will deliver.
I hope that you will regard these first actions we have taken as being in the true spirit of this adventure. And that we may proceed with it for long enough to make a difference in the lives of a few disadvantaged Chinese children.
With best wishes
Beijing, March 2002