By Brenda Li
“I’ve heard about these people, but I never imagined that being a fact.” shockingly, I gasped. That was the type of shock that I never experienced, but was quite interested.
On October first, I went from Beijing to Guizhou Province (southwest China), China to do research regarding rural education.
Prior to this trip to Guizhou Province, I have been informed about the educational challenges in rural China, but the information was distant to me who has been living in big cities and never been to rural area.
However, after this trip, I learned how to communicate with others, how to do effective research, and most importantly, the schooling situation in Guizhou, China.
Banwan: one of the last Buyi traditional villages
Banwan village is located in Yata town, Ceheng county, Qianxinanzhou, Guizhou province. This destitute area is filled with approximately 1600 people, 400 households, and more than 70% of the villagers are ethnic minorities called Buyi.
It is known as the most traditional Buyi village in China. Even today, the villagers communicate with each other in their traditional language, live on traditional farming, make their own clothing, have their own celebrations.
Banwan village used to be one of the poorest villages in China, as the whole county of Ceheng used to be one of the poorest counties in China.
However, it undertook a lot of economic development over the past years, especially the past ten years during which China implemented “Lifting People Out of Poverty” policy. Now it has some industrialized agribusiness and tourism. Indeed, it has been modified into a beautiful village mixed with tradition and modern convenience.
Another major factor to enrich this village is that the majority of young people would leave the village to work in big cities, especially in the coastal provinces such as Guangdong, which brings back significant incomes for their families. But this also brings challenge to those children who are left behind by their parents who leave for work.
Education challenge: left-behind children
Not being able to afford tuition is no longer a major educational challenge for villagers in Banwan after economic development. However, a new issue has emerged: left-behind children.
I heard a shocking story from a volunteer teacher in Banian village: a few years ago, a mother in her twenties left her three-year-old son alone at home and went to Shenzhen for work. Consequently, a few years later, her son forgot about her and seemed like he does not know his mother because his mother did not come home for a few years.
From one of my interviews with volunteer Li, she mentioned that many left-behind children are insecure, unconscious of the things going on, and often abusive.
I experienced it personally. When walking on the road, I saw a 10-year-old boy doing some farm work, I walked up to him, attempting to ask him questions. I asked him some basic questions, he seemed bored and did not want to talk to us. Then I asked him what school he attended, he replied with,” Why do I need to answer your question? Can you stop asking trash questions? Ask some meaningful questions!”.
His response left us dumbfounded. Later, we realized he is also a left-behind kid.
“The weeds in the fields where no one is plowed grow more luxuriantly. And the number of left-behind children in the village increases year by year.” says Su, who is running a NGO in Banwan.
Hope from NGO and social enterprises
Some NGOs and social enterprises are working on addressing such educational challenges in Banwan and nearby areas, in which Big Mountain & Small Love (BMSL) is one of the most influential ones. Li Zheng founded the NGO with a group of college students on March 14th, 2012.
BMSL has built a system of volunteering on teaching to improve students’ academic performances. They gained some success: A fourth-grade volunteer teacher told me she raised the average fourth-grade score from 51 to 78 out of 100.
Apart from bringing volunteer teachers to schools, they provide scholarship for outstanding students, health care for children, and community education for children after school in the form of building libraries: they have constructed four libraries for children, the newest one was built in Banwan village in August of 2020.
It was not easy to create a change. Initially, villagers thought that libraries were unnecessary because no one went there. Thereafter, BMSL proceeded with the door-to-door promotion. Finally, more and more primary school students go to the library to study.
Over the past eight years, BMSL assisted eleven schools in the area, and 64,000 children received help from 589 volunteers, but the founders want to achieve more than that.
They built a sugar factory to keep the parents from leaving this place. The factory now employs around 40 temporary workers and a dozen permanent staff.
They soon realized creating job was not enough: From the story above, the mother returned to work in the factory, but, left the factory again because she has adapted to urban life and the village is too boring for her.
To make this village more urbanized and appealing, BMSL is now trying to transform this village with cultural and entertaining spaces with bars, coffee shops, and so on.
A new perspective about “helping others”
“You gain more than you give when you try to help others.” Su from BMSL told me her reflection after years of work. I agree.
Before, I thought I could just go to rural schools in China to help teaching. Now I know sustainable development work is much more complicated and professional than that: we need to conduct the solid research to understand local situation first, and then design solutions, and adjust them again and again for new problems identified, like what BMSL did.
I also experience how we would learn to be a better person in trying to help others, therefore we should not see helping others as “one way giving”.
During this trip, I learned the necessity to ask questions for things I was unsure of; I learned how to come over anxiety in asking questions; I learned how to come up with a lot of questions for better understandings of the situation. All these would help me with my academic activities in the future.
All in all, now I don’t see “helping others” as something easy that I could just go and practice, nor do I see it as a “noble act from a savior”. With this understanding, I believe I would explore the sustainable development much more in the future.