When I visited Zhuhe Township, I had the opportunity to meet, interview and visit the homes of a half-dozen young women at the school. One thing I noticed was the absence of middle-age men nearly everywhere we went; there was a father present at only one of the family houses. I later found out that, because of drugs, HIV/AIDS and a poor standard of living, the life expectancy for men here has plummeted in recent years.
Life in the villages of Liangshan is harsh and difficult, yet there is grace, zest for life and enormous beauty here. Those things became especially apparent when I sat down to talk to the young women assisted by Project GLOW.
Aniu Erma, 16
Like many young Yi women, Aniu is painfully shy. While we’re talking, she frequently hides her face and gazes at her fingernails.
She comes from the village of Dawenquan, which is more than two hours’ walking distance up one of the mountains that surround Zhuhe Township, where their school is located. Aniu lived with her uncle’s family. When Project GLOW staff came to the village to talk about the school, her uncle initially refused the offer; he wanted her to stay and work in the fields. Eventually he changed his mind, but he still reminds her of the work that she would be doing if she’d remained on the farm.
Her family’s lack of support weighs heavily on Aniu’s mind. She was one of the first students at the school, beginning classes late last year, but she left not long into the school year because she found it hard to study. She eventually decided to return to classes in February 2007.
Aniu’s favorite subjects are Chinese and Yi, and she’s steadfastly working to learn characters for both languages. She was illiterate before attending school here, so writing is a challenge for her — but one she’s determined to master.
Besides her love of learning, Aniu stays here for the camaraderie of her fellow students. On most afternoons between classes and dinner, they get together and dance to Yi music in the courtyard of the school.
“I’m not so good at it,” Aniu admits. “But it’s fun.”
Mahai Keru, 14
It doesn’t take long to find out Mahai Keru’s favorite thing about the school.
“When I was at home, I didn’t have good food to eat,” she says. “But here, I like everything I eat every day.” She likes fried potatoes the best.
It’s also no surprise when Mahai tells us what she wants to be after she graduates from school: a cook.
She began attending the school in late 2006, after staff visited her mother in their home village of Leze, about a half-hour’s walk from Zhuhe Township. Mahai lived there on a small family farm with her mother, three brothers, two sisters, and a disabled uncle. They barely made ends meet by selling the corn, potatoes and rice that they grew on their tiny plot of land. Mahai’s mother, 46-year-old Qumo Jikemo, is enthusiastic about her daughter’s decision to attend school.
“I am very happy for Mahai’s opportunity to go there,” Qumo says. “She can live in a nice place, have friends and learn."
Mahai leans over to whisper something in her mother’s ear. Qumo laughs.
“Oh, and eat good food,” Qumo adds.
So it comes back to food. I ask Mahai what her specialty will be as a chef. She thinks for just a moment, her eyes full of possibilities, and then whispers two words: fried pork.
Jike Nixi, 16
Jike Nixi probably has the shortest walk of any student from her family’s house to school: her parents live in a weathered mud-brick house only about a hundred feet from the classroom building.
However, when it comes to her future, Jike definitely has longer distances on her mind.
“My favorite subject at school is Mandarin Chinese,” she explains. “It’s the key to getting around China, and it makes me feel good about traveling around my country when I’m older.”
Jike wants to be a waitress and, during her lifetime, to have the chance to live and work in many parts of China. Her parents, 58-year-old Ergu and 49-year-old Ami Rizuo, are supportive of their daughter’s dreams.
“We sent Jike to school to gain knowledge,” Ergu says. “What she studies and what she does with her knowledge are up to her.”
Jike quietly contemplates a picturesque scene on a magazine page hung on the wall; her portion of the family house is covered with pictures of faraway places. While her mind — and future — might lay thousands of miles from Zhuhe Township, she has all the support she could ever hope for just a hundred feet from her school desk.