Over a decade, Zhang Pingyi fundraised, tackled authorities to set up China's first formal school within a leprosy village and became a teacher, mother and friend to the Sichuanese children.
She could never forget the children and "the emptiness in their eyes" after her first visit to Sichuan and Yunnan leprosy villages 11 years ago on assignment.
She decided to bring them hope through education, even if that meant getting out of her comfort zone and challenging old mindsets.
There are about 800 leprosy villages in China, which are secluded and have been isolated for a long time. It is hard for children from these villages to attend formal schools, partly due to social discrimination.
Jinghua Daily: Your first visit to leprosy villages made you think you will not go there again? Why?
ZP: I expected to see patients getting treated and I thought that the children would be fostered outside.
The villages were secluded and the people practised slash and burn. The elderly patients were homeless. Some were blind and had other disabilities. Some could only crawl and had rotten bandages. There were houseflies and blood trails.
I was most saddened by the children's fates. Most kids were naked and filthy-looking. All I saw was the emptiness in their eyes. Although they are not diseased, there was no way they could leave the village as their place of birth is ostracized. Some of them concealed their identities and left for faraway provinces just to study.
JD: So what made you return again and again, even up till now?
ZP: It's the children. I was already a mother of two when I first went there. My youngest son was three months old. It's my motherly nature.
The childern are engaged in agriculture and dependent on their parents' social welfare, but without proper identification and other rights of an individual. Since they are not registered, the food aid provided is barely sufficient. They are "forgotten" and without hope since birth. It makes you want to protect them. I couldn't bear to leave.
After my first trip, I read up on leprosy and my sympathy for the patients grew. Misconception about the possibilities of infection has further ingrained society's fear and discrimination. The diseased generation has their fate set in stone, but what about the kids? They do not deserve to shoulder burdens from the past and receive unfair treatment. I wanted to give them a new lease of life.
Setting up the School
JD: You wish to change the children's destiny through education?
ZP: Their parents' disease should not decide their fates. I strongly believe that education is their best way for them to get back to normal life. A real problem exists and that is after the death of the lepers, the village would become history. What about these children? They have been isolated from the rest of the world for so long. It is arduous for them to leave the mountains. With education and hard work, they can rejoin society and be self-sufficient.
JD: Why did you choose Dayingpan village?
ZP: I knew about the strong discrimination towards lepers in the Liangshan Yi Autonomous Prefecture. Some even get beaten to death. Their children do not get to go to school. In 2000, I heard of Dayingpan Primary School, set up for children from the leprosy village.
When I first came here, I was apalled. Both classrooms were next to the reservoir. The ten square metres room had more than ten old and broken desks. There were holes on the blackboard. There was only one teacher for over 70 students.
Since the founding of the school in 1986, no one graduated formally because the teachers could only teach up to Primary Four level. The only teacher was just about to leave to sell fruits when I first got here. I tried all ways and means to ask the teacher to stay. I did not want to see the school close down and thought of raising funds in Taiwan.
JD: How were you intending to raise funds? Is the use of these funds publicly known?
ZP: I tried every method I could think of, from charity sales of candles to joining dream making contests, photography competitions, publishing books and lecturing. In 2000, I left my job at the newspaper but remained as a special correspondent before quitting completely in 2003. I decided to focus on rebuilding the school and founded The Wings of Hope that gathered a group of long-term donors.
I specially wish to thank a Taiwanese private preschool organisation for donating more than 300 million yuan [EDIT: correction: 3 million yuan] over a few years, as well as some entrepreneur friends, who were in it with me together. In ten years, we put in nearly ten million. Several million were spent on water diversion and land acquisition for the school compound. Annual operation and management costs for the school is about RMB250,000. We are an officially registered society in Taiwan, so our use of funds is definitely publicly known.
JD: How did the school change over the decade?
ZP: Now we have water, land, dormitories and toilets. It's a beautiful garden campus. The facilities persuaded more parents to let their children attend school. It is free and we have unified syllabus and examinations. In 2005, we saw the first batch of students graduate. To date, there are around 100 students who have graduated.
We have grown from having one teacher for 70 students to be a formal school with 12 public school teachers for over 300 students. The children from five nearby leprosy villages study here. A tenth of our students are not from the leprosy villages.
JD: What difficulties did you encounter?
ZP: Communicating with the local authorities and changing traditional mindsets mostly. When we were fundraising, we were asked "Why take money from the Taiwanese to help the Chinese?" In China, we were misunderstood to have bad intentions to expose the flaws in their system. We told them there are no geographical boundaries in relief work. Who I see are just people, and who I wish to help are people too.
I approached many local officials but none wanted to sit and listen. Sometimes I went with gusto just to see them playing mahjong. I would wait and when I was really angry and disappointed, I vowed not to go again. Still I pleaded with them for the children's sake about building the school.
We made countless requests for water, electricity, land and teachers. Sometimes when I feel that I can no longer carry on and every ounce of energy in me has been exhausted, I would stay in the village with the children. Being around them helps me forget the sadness and struggles. The process was tough but worth it.
Studying is a gift, and it does not suit everyone. But everyone has a right to basic education. What the children learn in these nine years will be enable them to lead more dignified lives for the next 30 years.
JD: What's next? Do you face any challenges?
ZP: I wish to set up a high school. Two years ago, the government built three blocks for the campus but we don't have teachers. After primary school, some of the children stopped studying while others walk a long way to attend high school. They are often bullied and discriminated. Coupled with their weak foundation, many stopped schooling. Some of them were accused of "being problematic" by their high school teachers. In our primary school, the older students who start school later than the usual age are not discriminated.
JD: In order for the kids to finish school, you often have to "snatch" them?
ZP: People marry early here, mostly at 15 or 16. Some parents think that studies are pointless and tell their kids to stay home, help with the chores or get a job outside. Now, there're televisions and temptations from the outside world become stronger. Some students think of dropping out to work when they see those who left come back with nicer clothes.
Whenever any student is missing, I will urge him to come back, even if I have to "be the bad guy". I will rush to their homes to beg them to come back. I will reason it out with the parents and try to make them think in the long-term.
Character building and personal hygiene
JD: What do you hope the kids pick up?
ZP: Character building is our priority. Every child has to memorise the Dizigui (Standards for being a good student and child). We hope that they have basic manners and good habits. I will not tell them that "studying is everything", but I hope they feel some warmth and love here. They like to sing and dance, they love having their photos taken and will smile to the cameras. They are rarely inferior or fearful.
When I first got near the children, I would get fleabites. Most of them did not wear underwear. The school gives out two sets of underwear to boarding students. It is a rule to brush their teeth and wash their faces daily and bathe weekly. They have to wash their hands and get their nails checked before meals. They cannot get married while studying here too.
JD: How do you help these kids re-integrate?
ZP: I hope they can live amongst others, be self-sufficient and socially competitive. It is hard for other places to accept them, so I let the first batch of high school graduates join my younger brother's factory in Qingdao, as apprentices.
There were 26 students under the training scheme that I formulated. They get to learn English, computer skills and some practical basics. There are also intermediate classes on international trade, accounting and more. In the factory, they do not conceal their identities. Some of the workers get into fights with my students. Some of them do feel "lost" or "disillusioned" with their "new life". I talk to them and encourage them to plan their own lives, sometimes giving them film and dance lessons. For their graduation dance, we did Rumba together.
Some of them left halfway. After two years, 11 graduated and chose to be formal employees. If they perform well at work, monthly remuneration can be up to RMB4,000. I'm proud of them.
JD: What has the local government done?
ZP: With media coverage and public opinion following the school's establishment, the local government is now more concerned about the village's matters. I'm most heartened that Liangshan's leprosy villages are no longer "phantom villages". In 2005, they became administrative villages and were included in census for the first time. The children are eligible for registration and proper identification.
In 2007, the local government used poverty aid to build concrete roads, obtain water, repair homes and increase subsidies for the villagers, improving their lives greatly. A students' cafeteria and the high school blocks were constructed too.
JD: How do the villagers view you?
ZP: The elderly might think that "Zhang Ah Yi is a crazy and fierce woman" because I become agitated when I go to their homes and "snatch" the kids. I would like to be nicer, but I have to be firm.
To the kids, I'm their teacher, a mother and a friend. I have stood by these children, watched them grow up and developed close ties with them. I am more aware of their difficulties and I cannot bear to leave. Accompanying them in their journey of life sets my mind at ease.
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