A spark of hope in the mountains of Hunan

by Martin Lachmann

- Amity's School Rebuilding Project Part I -

A glance out of the car window revealed rice fields, terraced between the green mountains of Hunan and painstakingly cultivated by farmers - sometimes with the help of an ox or with hand-operated mechanical ploughs.

Rural areas of China contrast booming cities

and urban areas

It could happen that oxen, goats or straying dogs were blocking the way or debris, caused by landslides through heavy rainfalls the weeks before, had to be circuited. Quite often, we passed kids on the roadside, who carried school bags and who were only occasionally accompanied by adults or their grandparents.

Poverty and lack of transportations are still common in

rural areas

This is the scenery that fills my memory, on a trip into the mountainous villages of Hunan, where I joined a team of Amity staffers heading to visit rural schools in need for support. Compared to China´s booming mega cities the trip witnessed that China is still a country full of contradictions and contrasts.

Starting in 2013 the Chinese government has changed its policy regarding rebuilding schools in remote areas of the country. Only one decade before, the official policy still focused on the transfer of schools from the countryside to bigger cities in order to improve the quality of education and to make better use of the existing resources. But over the years, it became evident that this purpose could not match the reality and ignored some of the living conditions that the rural population is facing. In remote areas of China, most people are farmers, who depend on exhausting fieldwork and are still living at the poverty line. So the policy was hard to carry out. The sheer mass of China´s rural population still numbers more than 640 million. This is the main reason for the dilemma. Many families are not able to cover the costs of the daily transportation to the school or of the accommodation and catering - although it is subsidized by the government. Furthermore, the exodus into the cities, especially by the younger generations, accelerates the aging of the rural population and leaves villages in a more and more deserted and unhealthy state. Additionally, the more children leaving the villages, in order to live in city schools that provide dormitories, the more villages suffer from the loss. All these reasons convinced the government to reconsider its policy and to make efforts to rebuild schools in selected villages.

For a period of six days, three Amity staffers visited fifteen schools, which were chosen by the local authorities, in the need of support. Amity´s local partners in this area provided transportation and supplied Amity with arrangements and all necessary background information. For the first two days the group was accompanied by school principals of Hong Kong, who are supporting Amity in funding new school buildings. As a term of endearment Amity staff is calling them the “Mountain Dog” group, due to the nickname of the group's initiator, who helped to rebuild several hundred schools in mountainous areas of China over the last decade. Located in remote and mountainous terrain most school buildings we visited on the trip were quite difficult to access.

One of the first schools we saw was a school that had been rebuilt with the support of the “Mountain Dog” group. We had to get off the car and walk the last section on a muddy path to reach the school campus. On the last meters to the campus we experienced a surprise. School children standing in line holding balloons up to their head and cheering to welcome us.

After crossing a muddy road our group were cordially greeted by

the students

When we finally made our way to the school building, accompanied by hundreds of kids shouting, 'Huanying, Huanying' ('Welcome' in Chinese), it stirred our blood. After inspecting the new academic building we had lunch together with the teachers and the kids. Moved to tears one of the teachers thanked Amity’s staff and the “Mountain Dog” group. For the children, our visit was a welcome relief from the daily routine. The presence of foreigners and the festive atmosphere caused a lot of excitement. As they were presented new school bags and dictionaries, the cheerful mood reached its peak.

Teachers were moved to tears and students

and they showed us proudly their new school rooms

Eating together provided a festive

 atmosphere

Thoroughly, the kids wrote their names into their brand-new dictionaries and proudly showed their new school bags. When we left the place and the kids waved us goodbye, they filled our hearts with the joy and the feeling of having done something really important and meaningful.

Receiving new dictonaries and school 

bags was the highlight for the students

The students were weaving us 'goodbye' when we left the school compound

Read the follow up story Amity's School Rebuilding Project Part II: An unhealthy school