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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.

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7 février 2003 5 07 /02 /février /2003 00:00
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THE LETTER FROM THE NINGXIA/
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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.
Regards,
Pierre Haski


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7 janvier 2003 2 07 /01 /janvier /2003 00:00
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THE LETTER FROM THE NINGXIA/
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Letter 12 - January 2003

Dear All
The New Year has been marked by an influx of numerous enquiries, donations and offers to provide help in various forms, to the address of our Association in Paris and to our email address. Welcome to all those of you who receive this newsletter for the first time. This letter is now being sent to nearly 150 people in France and in Europe, but also in China.
This increased support will give us the means of doing more to help the children in this disadvantaged region of China in the future. I will go to Ningxia in mid-February, after the New Year holidays are over, in order to increase the number of bursary recipients significantly, and to see together with the people in charge in the village on what other high priority projects we could co-operate with them, whether it concerns the village of Zhang Jia Shu (the digging of the wells...) or the new High School buildings in Yuwang, where Ma Yan is studying. We will inform you in February of the results of this visit.
QUESTIONNAIRE. In order to understand a little better who we are, to gain a better overview of the funds the Association can command on the medium term, but also to get to know you better, we are asking you to give up a few minutes to fill in a brief questionnaire attached to this letter. It will allow us, above all, to understand the nature of your financial commitments toward our initiative. It is indeed important for us to know, when we increase the number of bursary recipients, that our resources allow us to follow through with these bursaries, so that we do not give rise to false hopes on the part of the children we help. The absolute confidentiality of all such information received is understood.
IMPROVED RELATIONS. As I had indicated in the preceding newsletter, we had a period of some tension with the local authorities. This has been resolved, and we had a visit from officials responsible for foreign relations at Ningxia Province’s Office in Beijing. They came to make us some presents, and to assure us of their continued support for our initiative. This was the first time their support was expressed in such clear and official terms and this is good news.
The story of Ma Yan and of our Association has continued to receive a certain measure of public attention within China. The national television channel CCTV broadcast an interview with Ma Yan and her mother at the beginning of January, the Cantonese weekly Southern Weekend published in the last issue of last year a report entitled ‘Ma Yan, happy but stressed’...in his report, the journalist emphasises that if Ma Yan and her family can lead a better life today thanks to the copyright of the diary, she has also come into the limelight of public attention, and now has no right to make mistakes : for those who envy her would profit if she did, and those who admire her would be disappointed. This is a lot of pressure to be sustained by a fifteen-year-old adolescent.
MAIL. We keep receiving a considerable amount of mail, in France as well as in China. In France, apart from enquiries and offers of help, we have had an enormous number of letters addressed to Ma Yan through the magazine Okapi acting as intermediary. It had invited its young readers to write letters to the Chinese schoolgirl. Frequently moving and emotional letters, to which pens have been attached because all were so struck by the story of Ma Yan’s pen bought after she had deprived herself of bread for two weeks. We will hand over all these letters to her in February.
Letters from within China are of a different nature. Partly, we are receiving warm and enthusiastic letter from the bursary recipients of the Association, from whom we ask as our only demand that they report regularly on their progress at school. For another part, we also receive a considerable number of letters asking for help, from the entire region. These letters will be useful for the selection of future bursary holders - a thankless task, for which there can be no ‘scientific’ approach, but only a flexible and pragmatic mix of criteria.
And in this context - we received a terrible letter from a young girl, Ma Shiping, a relation of Ma Yan’s, and a little older than her, whose younger sister we are helping. We had not taken her on as a bursary recipient because it is difficult for us to by too closely connected with just one particular family ; this could compromise our initiative. The letter we just received goes to illustrate to what point these families are craving for education, and that access to education decides whether these children can live, or whether their lives will close. This is the letter, addressed to my assistant He Yanping :
‘When you receive this letter I will already be in the palace of marriage, which is the grave of life. I am a reticent person ; I don’t normally open up. Usually, I keep all bitterness and pain inside me.
When I saw you the first time, I admired you. I had to break off my school education. I hoped you would listen to me, but then I could not speak to you. At that time I was still in the sanctuary of studies, the paradise of human knowledge. My mother went to see you in my name. I was reassured that you had agreed to help me. I was singing. One semester later when the others received sums covering for their school fees, I couldn’t pay mine. I gave in to the pressures form my family. All my young girl’s self-confidence and pride were set aside. I was ashamed. I hated everybody under the sky. But because I am such a reticent person, I bottled it all up within myself, and I just stopped going to school. My parents thought I was being ill, whereas I was thinking of dying and laying the blame upon my family. But I just couldn’t bring myself to die. So I did what young people my age do not want to do : to get married with a dying heart. I am not blaming anyone, only my destiny. I had believed to much in that phrase which says that man can vanquish the sky. Now, I am only awaiting the choices my destiny will make for me.
I thank you for the help you have given to my younger sister so that she does not have to follow me. But she is working without light and is ruining her eyes like this ; I am worried about her health. I hope that with your help she may become the first or second student in her class.
There are many more things I have to tell you. But I will keep them to myself to my death.
Written with the tears of a fifteen-year-old.’
We are trying to see how this tragic situation could be handled. It arose from a misunderstanding, since we had never agreed to help her, for the reasons stated further above. My assistant has written a long letter to her, to see what the real situation is now and if there is any way of getting round it. Those of you who have read Ma Yan’s Diary will remember that when we began our action, some people on the spot told us that it was futile, because one could not fight against fate in these villages, where the girls are married at age 16 (illegally, by the way) after having been withdrawn from school. We succeeded in avoiding this seemingly inevitable fate in the case of Ma Yan whose future is now open, and all the bursary recipients of the Association. But it is obvious that those cases are still exceptions to a normality exemplified by this case just described.
Make our initiative known among people around you, and thanks for your confidence and your support.
Best wishes
Pierre Haski



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7 décembre 2002 6 07 /12 /décembre /2002 00:00
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THE LETTER FROM THE NINGXIA/
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Letter 11 - December 2002

Dear All
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.
Best regards
Pierre Haski
Beijing, 14 December 2002


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7 septembre 2002 6 07 /09 /septembre /2002 00:00
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Letter 10 - September 2002

Dear All
The new school year has started, also in China, and we have sorted out the bursaries, for the children who were already receiving help last year as well as for the new ones chosen on the occasion of our trip out there last July with Michèle Fitoussi. We have already received letters thanking us from several families, among them one very touching one from a father, which we provide in translation below. In total, 28 children are now benefiting from bursaries, to whose number, of course, is added Ma Yan, whose bursary will in the future be drawn from the sum already paid by the publisher of the book shortly to come out.
The children can be divided up into the following groups : one in vocational training, 15 (among them Ma Yan) in Middle School at Yuwang, and 13 at primary school in Zhang Jia Shu. And with two exceptions, they are all girls.
This help amounts to nearly 1500 Euros, a net increase from the sum previously paid out in the form of bursaries, due to the increase in the number of Middle School, students (we pay 500 Yuan per middle school student, and 200 Yuan per primary school student per semester) and the payment of 2000 Yuan which we are providing to the student in vocational training, Wei Yong’e, a sick girl whose letters had moved us and whom we had visited together with Michèle Fitoussi. This very courageous girl from an extremely poor family was admitted to a specialised school at Urumqi, capital of the neigbouring Xinjiang province, even though her state of health remains precarious.
After paying out the bursaries, we still have a little more than 1500 Euros in the bank, enough to ensure without problems the payment for the second semester for the same students. But it appears wiser to us, at the present stage, not to take on new bursary recipients despite the pressing entreaties we continue to receive from Ningxia. We will perhaps be able to revise this policy once The Diary of Ma Yan [in French] have come out. These publications might stir up more people willing to contribute.
The book should come out on 4 October, with the publisher Ramsay. I will be in Paris at this time, and we could organise a constitutive General Assembly of the Association for the Children of Ningxia [Association « Enfants du Ningxia »] whose statutes were filed [with the state registry] this summer. I suggest Saturday 6 October around lunchtime or early afternoon. I hope that you will be able to attend in large numbers, so we can get to know each other (I already met some of you in June) , and have some discussions about our initiative, which is still conducted on a trial-and-error-principle and is going quite well. Would this date be convenient for you, and what time do you suggest ?
Among the events surrounding the publication of the book I would like to point out the publication of a report by Michèle Fitoussi in the (french edition of) Elle magazine of 29 September, a report from the village of Ma Yan by Philippe Rochot in the TV news programme of France 2 in the first week of September, and a conference which I will be holding at the Maison de la Chine, place St Sulpice, Paris, on 4 October at 6:30 pm.
Best wishes
Pierre Haski Beijing, 16 September 2002
Letter from Ma Zhiji, father of Ma Xiaomei and Ma Guorong, first year students at High School
‘I thank you for your help given so that my two children can return to school. You have taken a lot of trouble, you have traversed mountains and rivers to come to our arid region, to resolve our difficulties, to lighten our burden. “Man only has one life to live, as the grass only has one spring.” We will never forget the benevolence you have shown us. Without your help my children would be like me ; they could never leave the countryside and realise their dreams.
On 9 July, it was just the peak of the summer harvest. There was a lot of work in the fields and we missed the opportunity of meeting you. In the evening I learned that you had already left again, and the two children did not want to peak or eat anything. Seeing them in this state I, their father, so ill : I could not help the tears in my eyes. I cannot accept that my children must be like myself and do not get any schooling. I was therefore determined to find you, even if I had to go to Beijing to obtain a satisfactory response from you. That evening I left my son Ma Guorong at home because he could not walk, and accompanied Ma Xiaomei to Yuwang, where we finally found you at the Hotel of the Yellow River. When you offered to help us, my entire family cried with happiness.
Your one thousand Yuan allowing my two children to go to school next year have safely arrived. I thank you in the name of the entire family. And we hope to continue receiving you help in the future.
I wish you health and success. "



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7 juillet 2002 7 07 /07 /juillet /2002 00:00
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THE LETTER FROM THE NINGXIA/
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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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Letter 8 - June 2002

Dear All
The school year is coming to an end in China, too, and this is a good moment for a brief stock-taking on our Ningxia project which, it will be remembered, has only been in existence for a couple of months.
During the second semester of this school year, we helped 20 children from the South of Ningxia to return to school, either primary or middle school. All twenty (nineteen girls and one boy) have written to us, some of them several times, since the beginning of this action : this was the precondition we had imposed for continuing with the bursaries, so that we would be sure that the money was put to its intended use of paying for the school fees. Touching letters, containing details about their results at school, and all of them showing that the children are well back on track at school. Among them, of course, Ma Yan, who was at the outset of this initiative of solidarity, and who is writing and calling us regularly, giving us encouraging news on all counts. These are the first, positive results we have had.
We also received letters from 19 children who, having heard of what we were doing, asked us to help them. My assistant He Yanping answered each of them individually and promised to meet with them next time we were visiting in the region. All these letters draw accounts of dramatic situations in their families, for whom it is impossible to pay the school fees which in some cases surpass the household’s total annual income. A widely common situation in China for the poorest of the peasants, as I have only just seen confirmed in another province, Sichuan.
We now have more than 2.500 Euros in the bank, with our account being fed into by your regular donations, coming for the major part from France, to about a third from Italy and in two cases from Belgium and the UK. This may appear a small sum, but given the total absence of administrative costs, it will allow us to plan for a certain extension of our initiative in the coming school year. I think that without taking any risks, we can both continue to help the twenty current bursary recipients, increase the number of bursaries, and also give some teaching materials to Ma Yan’s high school and to the primary school of her village, neither of which have no such things at all. This would allow our initiative to reach all the children and avoid criticism which one can already sense coming, from those currently excluded, directed at those ‘privileged’ to receive help from us. The general deprivation is such that this is a very real problem.
I expect to go into Ningxia province at the beginning of July, which will allow us to decide about new bursaries and continue the old ones from September, and thus to to show that our engagement is not just of a transitory nature. As I did for my previous trip, I will send you an account of this coming one.
Some further news : the book should come out in September, published by the publishing house Ramsay. It will contain the entirety of Ma Yan’s diary as well as an accompanying text by myself, which tells the story of the diary, as well as all that followed once it was discovered, and moreover gives some socio-economic background about this part of China. It will also contain photos by Wang Zheng, the photographer who accompanied us from the start.
An article on Ma Yan’s entire history was also published in the Wenhui Bao, the big Shanghai daily newspaper, written by this paper’s correspondent in France who had heard people there talk about the project. It is a very positive article on our initiative, which ensures a certain degree of official protection for us - potentially useful in case of difficulties with the local authorities, something never to be excluded in China...
Finally, I will be in Paris between 22 June and the end of the month, and I will be delighted to meet all those who can and/or wish so. I have contacted a lawyer friend who works between France and China about the legal forms necessary for our organisation, to avoid continuing the current situation, in which we have to transfer money through my personal bank account. I will know more about this next week, and we will be able to talk about it in person I hope.
Best wishes
Pierre Haski


PS : I am attaching a very kitschy photo which Ma Yan sent us. I hope you can open the attachment.

 

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Lettre 7 - April 2002

Dear All,
It is some time now that you haven’t received any update on our initiative , so here is one at last. Firstly, we have received letters from all the children to whom we gave bursaries when we went to the village last month. As I had already indicated, this is the one requirement we had imposed on them as a precondition for continuing the bursaries in the following semester : they are required to write to us after a certain time at school, to confirm that they are going to classes properly. They have all of them done this, warmly thanking us.
We have also received a very moving letter from Ma Yan’s mother, written by one of her sons because she herself is illiterate. The letter is addressed to my assistant and to myself (‘elder sister and elder brother’) and indirectly, through us, to all of you who are helping her daughter. Here is an excerpt from it :
"How often I think of you, of the evening we spent together. You are like my elder sister ; I told you all my worries, and am very glad that I did. It is as though I had only dreamt about it. Elder Brother and Sister, I entrust Ma Yan to you. I am her mother, but I could only give her life ; I could not give her a great ideal. You have given her everything, Elder Brother and Sister. Ma Yan is my daughter, but she is also your daughter. I beg you to raise her so that she becomes a useful person. Elder Sister, you said that Ma Yan could perhaps study in France ; if there is any such opportunity then she must go, to have a good education. We will be very happy with such a development.
"After your departure, that day, Ma Yan was quite petulant and kept asking me why you did not stay one day longer. I told her that Uncle and Aunt had a lot of work to do. She said, “Yes, they work hard. That evening while you were talking, I could not sleep. I lay on the bed thinking about so many things. I can see this time that they have lost weight, and this makes me feel ill myself. They are worrying about me.” I understand Ma Yan’s feelings, I know to what point you are important to her.’
Ma Yan’s younger brother added a few words from himself at the end : ‘Dear Uncle and Aunt, that day when you came to the school I was very happy. You asked my sister to call me so you could take a picture, and we could return to the village together. Uncle and Aunt, I will certainly study well : when I am grown up, I will make a contribution to my country. My studies are not going as well as those of my sister. My mother has not learned to write well so I am writing for her. My sister says I don’t write well ; what do you think of my writing ? If you encourage me, I’ll be very happy.
Ma Yi Chao, 31 March 2002
Some news, by the way, on the publishing front, for the entirety of Ma Yan’s diary, with a text presenting the diary by myself, will be published by Ramsay publishers in France next September. This is good news for her family, who will be duly remunerated, and have a real prospect now of substantively changing their lives. So the Ma Yan’s ‘fairytale’ is being continued...
We have also received a number of letters from children or their parents in the district, asking for help. We decided to send money to a schoolmate of Ma Yan’s at High School, who is in quite a serious situation, financially and healthwise, as was confirmed by the High School’s director. Here is an excerpt from her second letter, in answer to a first letter from us.
‘On 8 April I got your letter. It was a Monday. In the first afternoon class, the teacher brought me your letter. When I saw the address on the envelope, I knew that you had received my letter and that you had answered it. You can imagine what my joy and my emotions were at that moment. The tears streamed down my face all by themselves. I do not know with what words I can thank you. What I can do is to throw myself into studying despite everything, with great determination, in order to thank you with good results ; to become a new person qualifying for the 21st century ; to master the knowledge of modern science ; to keep step with our time ; to fight for my ideal. Every day that I live in this world, I must use my intelligence for realising the Four Modernisations. I would like to be someone like you, to help the children who cannot go to school, to show them my loving heart and let them go back to school ; to save my comrades. I thank you for the attention you have shown myself and my family ; I take a bow before you.
I remain the same as usual, I have to vomit once or twice a week, I suppress it and hide it ; I don’t know for how long it will be like this. But I continue. As the saying goes, perseverance is victory. I live with a mask, bitter in my heart, but with a smile on my lips when I face any of my teachers and schoolmates, so that they do not notice anything. Uncle and Aunt, do not worry yourselves. I will persevere to the end.’ We also decided to help two children whose case we were informed about, which will put the number of children receiving bursaries thanks to you - including Ma Yan - at twenty. The money intake to be expected in the future should make such a commitment possible, and it should be possible even to widen our commitments by next September.
A financial account : the donations received up until now from France, Italy, Belgium and Great Britain amount to about 3.000 Euros, of which around 1.000 Euros have been spent already (we have kept receipts of each centime spent, and these receipts can be inspected by anyone who wishes to do so). We have been progressing with prudence so far as expenses are concerned, in order to be able to ensure that the initiative could be carried through for however long it took, and to learn to discriminate between those who have sent a one-off sum, those who envisage sending donations each month, or every three months or six months. In any case we certainly have enough to continue, in the foreseeable future, with this initiative. Though modest, it does have a real impact on this particularly poor Chinese district. The letters we are receiving testify to this.
I will be at your disposal in case you have any enquiries to supplement the information I have provided here. Thanks to those who have offered to help : for the time being, there is nothing much that could be done from a great distance.
Best wishes to all of you
Pierre Haski
Beijing, 17 April 2002



PS : I am attaching a very kitschy photo which Ma Yan sent us. I hope you can open the attachment.

 

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Letter 6 - 11 March 2002

Hello
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
Pierre Haski,


Beijing, March 2002

 

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Letter 5 - 26 February 2002

Hello,
Some news ! On Monday we received a letter from Ma Yan. She has received our first payment, and she thanks all those who decided to help her. This is her letter :
« Dear Uncles and Aunts :
How are you ? [in English, though the rest of her letter is in Chinese]. I received your letter on 17 February 2002. That day my father had gone to town for the market and he found the letter at the post office. He opened it right away, but there were a few characters he couldn’t recognise. Back at home he asked me to read it. When I had finished the reading, I don’t know why, but I broke out in a sweat, as if all my strength had gone...Maybe it was because I was just too moved, too, too happy.
Father said, when he had finished reading the letter, that he no longer knew if he was walking on earth or in the sky, because he felt as if his body was floating. Mother added, ‘Finally, the heavens have opened their eyes. I didn’t cry for no reason while I was up in the mountains. My tears, then, were the result of pain and sadness. Now, they come from joy. I wish you a very good year and convey all my gratitude.’
After reading your letter, I really understood what joy means, and what friendship and the meaning of life are in this world. I thank all the people who have set out to help me. I am thrilled that young French people want to be my friends. I would like to write to them, phone them immediately, but I have neither their address nor phone numbers. Then, too, they don’t speak Chinese. I hope that you’ll give them my address : I would like to be their friend, their best friend. I say ‘Thank You’ [in English] to all of them.
You said that you could help other children from families in need. I’m so very, very pleased at that. For me, my problems are now behind me. Let them, too, complete their schooling and fulfill their dreams. All my thanks.
Soon I’m going back to school. I shall work very hard not to disappoint all your expectations. (The money you sent me has safely arrived.)
I wish you great success in this year of the horse.
Ma Yan, 19 February 2002 »


And moreover, my report on Ma Yan was published in the Italian magazine « Internazionale », and I have already received four emails from Italians who also want to show solidarity with Ma Yan and children of her village who can’t go to school. Two more French people have also written to me wanting to become part of our initiative. As I told you, I will make a trip to the village shortly - from 8 to 12 March - to make support available to more children in the village, and I will inform you about this when I am back.
Finally, a Parisian publisher has contacted me, who would like to publish the entire diary and my accompanying report. We are still in discussions about this, but if it works out, then it would doubtless give Ma Yan’s family a real chance to escape from their present misery forever.
So, we have had some good news. But even so, we are still at the beginning...
Best wishes
Pierre Haski


Beijing, feb. 26, 2002

 

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Letter 4 - 7 February 2002

Dear All
An update on our project, before the [Chinese] New Year, which this time falls onto 12 February.
Our bank account was opened only ten days ago, but it has already received nearly 1.000 Euro in donations, from ten out of the twenty-five people who came forth after the publication of the report on Ma Yan and said they wanted to help her. Some people have made a one-off donation, some have made a donation for this year, and some have put their names down for monthly donations. Among the latest arrivals in our ‘club’ are two High School classes, whose students decided to express solidarity with Ma Yan.
We have made a first transfer of 500 Yuan to Ma Yan, to let her know that we mean to help her, and do so before the Chinese New Year which is China’s biggest holiday. We have written to her to tell her that the article has already been published and that several people wanted to help her to continue her studies, and that it was therefore important that she study really hard... A letter from her crossed with ours. In her letter, she gives us some news about school (as I had told you, my assistant and I had already paid her school fees for the term that has just ended). She is also sending us a picture of herself wearing the shirt which she has been able to buy for herself with some of the money she got [from us].
There is also a very moving letter from her mother, thanking us, and speaking of the ‘personal sacrifice’ we must have made to send her the money. This gives us a measure of how poor they are. The mother’s letter was written by Ma Yan, because her mother cannot write. We have also had the village head on the phone - quite an adventure ! We are informing him of our initiative, for reasons to do with local diplomacy, and will also let him know when we go to the village again. He was very positive about it, and was looking forward to welcoming us on our next visit.
We are still expecting to return to the village at the end of the month, to see what Ma Yan’s needs are for continuing her education in decent living conditions, and whether perhaps she could transfer to another, better school in a neighbouring village ; for education in rural China is very poor. We also want to see how to go about helping some more children to return to school. The second term will be starting just then and so it will be a good time to enroll a couple more children, as the money we have received or have been promised will allow us to do.
Incidentally, I have had a telephone conversation with a French woman based in Guangxi Province in the South of China, who has created an organisation called Colours of China [Couleurs de Chine]. Just like us, they are trying to support school education for children from ethnic minorities, of which this province has many. She is helping 1300 children through a system of individual sponsorships arranged with people in France ! Unfortunately, she has no plans of widening the scope of her work to other provinces, but she has explained to me how she is operating : she pays money directly to the school in question, which she supplies with a list of the children being sponsored. She says that this is the only way of ensuring that it is really the children who benefit from the donations. I am planning to adopt the same system for helping other children from Ma Yan’s village.
So this is my update. I think we have now taken a number of decisive steps, and within a short time, a symbolic sum should have been received by Ma Yan, in just a few days (it takes eight days for money to be transferred from Beijing to Ningxia, whereas it was so simple to open an account in Paris via the internet, from here). We have also translated and sent off [your] letters addressed to Ma Yan ; but again, the lengthy process of postal delivery and the impending New Year holiday means there won’t be a quick answer. The second step, to be taken after the holiday, will be to go to the village. From now on I will not be in Beijing, where everything will come to a halt for eight days, but I will still be on email.
Best wishes
Pierre Haski.

 

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