The 56-year-old woman stood and stared at the makeshift stage in Zhuhe Township’s market. Hundreds of other spectators watched the performance alongside her, but to Lee Tuluo, the actors spoke only to her.
Songs, traditional costumes and heartfelt words brought to life the story of a young Yi man who joyously weds the woman he loves but then, with no job to support his young family, turns to drugs. He steals from his family and friends to support his addiction and soon finds his health failing: he has contracted HIV/AIDS from sharing needles. The man spends his last remaining days close to his grieving family — including a young son — and passes away.
The curtains closed. Funereal violin music wafted over the village. The spectators shuffled away to their homes or market stalls, pondering what they’d just seen.
Lee walks slower than most, sadness possessing her entire body.
“How did they know the story of my own life?” she asks, tears in her eyes. “How did they know how to put my own feelings up there for all to see?”
The door that remains closed
Back in the family compound where she’s lived for more than 30 years, Lee sits on a tiny wooden stool outside a door bolted shut by a heavy iron lock. Her youngest daughter, 15-year-old Aniu Axi, has come home from school for a visit and sits beside her.
In August 2005 Lee lost her only son to HIV/AIDS. He was 30. Like the young man in the play, he had been unemployed and fell in with people who frequented local heroin dens. Shooting up became his sole life purpose; he stole nearly all of the family’s meager belongings, including livestock, to feed his addiction. He returned home, to the forgiving arms of a mother, to die.
After his body was removed from the house to be buried, Lee locked the door. It remains so today. Neither Lee Tuluo nor her daughters will ever open it again.
“It is where my son died,” Lee says quietly.
Aniu Axi wraps a comforting arm around her mother. For a moment, grief lifts from Lee’s shoulders and a gentle smile lights her eyes.
“My daughter’s going to school, you know,” Lee says. “She’s learning to make a good living for herself.”
Learning close to home
When her older brother died, Aniu Axi had an opportunity to leave the lingering sadness far behind and pursue an education in another part of China. Her oldest sister, who married a businessman and moved to a large city, asked Aniu to come and live with them. She even offered to pay all of Aniu’s school fees.
“I couldn’t go,” Aniu says nervously, picking at the straw that litters the dirt courtyard. “I needed to stay and help my mother. I didn’t want to leave her alone.”
But soon, another opportunity came to Aniu.
In autumn 2006, staff from the Liangshan Norsu Women and Children’s Development Center came to visit Aniu and her mother. They explained that, with the help of a humanitarian organization called Mercy Corps, a school had opened in Zhuhe Township. Mercy Corps’ Giving Leadership Opportunities to Young Women program — Project GLOW — had come to help equip and empower young women like Aniu with the education and skills they needed to make better life decisions.
The GLOW project site was only a half-hour walk from Lee and Aniu’s house in the tranquil village of Leze. And, because it was sponsored by Mercy Corps, everything — tuition, room, board — was free. Mother and daughter soon decided to accept the offer for Aniu to attend. She started classes on December 24, 2006.
Today, Aniu spends her days learning and having fun alongside 86 other middle school-aged girls. Many of them have suffered tragedies like that of Aniu and her mother, but all are determined to achieve a better life.
Aniu walks home a few times every week to visit and help her mother. Their bond is strong, and leaving is always hard for both of them. But Lee Tuluo is confident that GLOW is the right place for her daughter.
“She tells me that the other girls at the school are her friends, and that the food is very good as well. She especially talks about the pork,” Lee laughs. “But, most of all, she likes the teachers. She says they’re like her parents.”
When asked about what tomorrow holds for her — a career, more education — Aniu says nothing, just smiling shyly and looking to her mother. The future, though already brightened by the opportunity to learn, seems far away from this moment.
There will always be memories and signs of grief for Lee and Aniu. But, today, mother and daughter are learning together about hope.