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An Ancient Culture Confronts New Challenges

China, September 21, 2007

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps  </span>
    At student Jike Nixi's (age 16) house near the center. Her parents are 58-year-old Jike Ergu (father) and 49-year- old Ami Rizuo (mother). Very supportive parents. "We sent our daughter to school to learn, to gain knowledge. What she studies is up to her." Photo: Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps
  • 
  <span class="field-credit">
    Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Photo: Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps
  • 
  <span class="field-credit">
    Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Photo: Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps

Family life in China’s Liangshan Yi Autonomous Prefecture is often isolated. “Liangshan” itself means “cool mountain” in Mandarin Chinese. Indeed, family farms of the Yi ethnic group are scattered among the rolling mountains, often several hours’ walking distance from the nearest town.

Throughout the prefecture, which is roughly the same size as the state of West Virginia, thousands of children live too far from the nearest school to pursue an education. This is particularly true of girls and young women, who are expected to stay home and tend house and fields.

As a result of missing out on opportunities to learn, Yi youth often fall prey to temptations that they encounter when away from home. Thousands of Yi migrate every year to burgeoning major cities to try their luck at catching hold of China’s economic dream but more often fail to find gainful work at all. Instead, unskilled and naïve, these youth succumb to societal ills like drugs and prostitution — issues they carry back with them when they return to the Yi homeland.

The Liangshan Yi are an ethnic group at risk; faced with the challenges of a rapidly changing Chinese economy, they need the optimism, ingenuity and action of their youth more than ever. The Chinese government has committed significant resources to improving physical infrastructure such as roads and public buildings, but the Yi are in need of something else: a resurgence of the human spirit.

This project, funded by a generous grant from the Nike Foundation, is giving girls aged 10 to 18 years the opportunity to attend, free of charge, an innovative school where they are taught traditional subjects such as language, health and math, as well as vocational skills that will help prepare them to earn a living wage.

They also study their own language, Yi, and learn more about their culture’s songs, dances and history. The hope is that these young women will help preserve and pass on colorful, vibrant customs that are eroding because of widespread poverty and migration from the area.

Despite the isolation that most of them have been used to all their lives, the young women at the school are quickly adapting to days spent together with classmates, especially in the close quarters of classrooms and dormitories.

“They are working hard to form a caring community that accomplishes tasks together,” said Luw Gian, the school’s director. “They are making a difference not only for themselves, but for all Liangshan Yi people.”

Project GLOW is also training young men and women to serve as peer educators who will spread HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention messages to the surrounding villages. The current goal is to reach at least 2,500 youth over the next three years.

Through the education of its young women and outreach to at-risk communities, Project GLOW aims to help the Yi people not only survive, but thrive.