Anne, one of our sponsors, came with us on a routine field mission to Ningxia in November 2011. Here is her account:
‘We took a night train from Beijing to Yinchuan, the provincial capital… 13 hours to cover 1200km… this ride went smoothly as the hard sleepers are quite comfortable enough to sleep in… we arrived in the morning, then took a taxi to the bus station where we hopped on a bus to Tongxin, a small town two hours and a half away south of Yinchuan, on the road to Xi’an. In Tongxin, Bai Juhua, the association’s local assistant and Ma Yan’s mother, was awaiting for us.
Shortly after, I discovered Ningxia’s traditional houses: long brick buildings surrounding a small courtyard. The freezing temperature was easily forgotten thanks to the vivid blue sky – Beijing’ s pollution seemed far away. I recognised the Hui physiognomy which I had discovered in Xi’an; although married women here wear a small blue hat.
We spent the afternoon visiting the students’ families in Tongxin and its surroundings in order to update their data and to verify if their actual situation matches with their declaration. I discovered the small rituals of each field mission: the family’s welcoming greetings, chatting, the house visit, the generous meal that they offer us and that we cannot refuse, firstly because it would be very rude and secondly because we are stunned by their generosity, knowing how much it represents to them.
I realise that this “verification”, although legitimate vis a vis the association’s functioning, becomes quickly superfluous when entering a recipient’s home: one room for an entire family, a single stove as unique source of heating, sometimes a distinct sink, a big brick bed covered by thin mattresses on which the whole family sleeps and eats, a small table being punctually set on it. Doors stay open (if there is a door!), with thick sheets to protect from the icy wind. In brief, these people possess nothing, they subsist on their meagre crop harvest or micro trade, earning about 10,000 yuans a year for five people (minorities are not subject to the one-child policy).
The two next days were dedicated to paying visits to families in smaller and remote villages, two hours away from Tongxin. We also stop in two schools built or furnished by the association.
I suddenly realised how barren this region is, characterised by high plateaus and canyons, with barely a single tree left since the deforestation caused by the Great Leap Forward. Agriculture is the main source of income for these family, even though not much grows spontaneously here. It rains one week a year, but paradoxically, people grow corn and watermelons by diverting water from the Yellow River, which will probably be dried up within 50 years. There are also some vegetables growing in greenhouses. Mountains of corn are drying (rotting?) next to houses and on the side of the roads.
I also discovered the zones of ‘new’ housing, lined up by the hundreds, ‘colonies’ that are the result of the country’s displacement policy which the province is eagerly implementing. The official reason is to provide appropriate housing to people in order to allow them to escape the poverty of the villages, offering them better living conditions near public facilities, such as schools and hospitals, or work. Paying families a visit in these new compounds does not really give the impression that anything has changed, or that their situation has improved in any ways.. same surface, same rustic character. In addition, the colonies we visited were located in the middle of nowhere… for example, a mother worked at the market situated 25 minutes away by car, but had no vehicle. Families do not move voluntarily, as we can imagine, they have to abandon their old home, often rented, and buy this new one for 17000 yuans.. thus mortgaging their children’s future a little more.
In short, China is developing ever more quicky, the province’s capital Yinchuan is already a forest of buildings under construction, as every Chinese city experiencing a swift urbanisation process. The difference between the East coast and the countryside at the heart of the country is representative of a dramatically widening wealth gap …
If you wish to learn more about this association who is doing a remarkable but unknown work, please visit their website: http://www.enfantsduningxia.org/. As for me, it will remain a link with China, a very attractive country not reducible to its cliché.