Saturday, 07 June 2014 00:00

Somaly Mam. If that is her real name


Clare Tan was a volunteer for AFESIP, the Cambodian organization which protects vulnerable women founded by Somaly. In this article, orginally published on her blog, she talks about feeling torn between the inspiration which this woman once was for her, and the revelations which have emerged over several years about who her hero really may have been.

There are many articles flying around, I have lost track of what I have read in recent days because they are all basically saying the same thing about Somaly Mam in different ways. They have attracted huge international media attention, since as most things, when something well known and American gives it attention, in this case Newsweek, the rest of the world then gives it attention. A quick Google News search shows articles from the last week or two about Somaly's 'lies' and resignation in Spanish, Vietnamese, Chinese, German, Russian to name but a few. However, articles casting doubts on the credibility of Somaly Mam have been appearing in Cambodian local papers for the last couple of years or so, discussing false kidnapping claims and inaccuracies at a UN speech, girls trained to lie on camera and her reputation amongst the NGO world, and in general here in Cambodia, has not been of someone so saintly here for a while now.

I became a huge supporter of Somaly Mam a few years ago. If you'd have asked, I'd have said she was my hero. I was a huge supporter. I didn't know anything about, or to be honest, care too much about Cambodia before her book, yet now I live here and have made my family here. Somaly Mam opened my eyes to the world of sex trafficking, which led me to read more books, talk to more people and discover the whole world of modern day slavery I was completely oblivious too. I then did what I could in my limited power to try to make a tiny difference. Her book,the book that contains stories that are allegedly fabricated, started that. I learnt as much as I could about human trafficking worldwide, worked as an advocate against it, raising awareness in Singapore with Emancipasia, and I cycled 500kms across Cambodia to raise money for a certain foundation, of course, The Somaly Mam Foundation (SMF). Had her book not caught my attention, which it may not have if it had read, 'I was well-known and popular in the small village, a happy, pretty girl with pigtails' as Newsweek's article claims she was, I may not have followed the path I did that brought me to my life now.

The bike ride across Cambodia changed my life, it was hellish, both physically and emotionally. I approached friends and family, filled my Facebook page with videos and stories and quotes, and I managed to raise over $5000 for the foundation, and the cause... or was it just for the foundation? Forgive me for feeling a little bit duped now, when I think back to the most emotional lunch of my life, where we met many of the girls from Voices for Change, the girls who have come to work as advocates for Somaly's work, themselves trafficked, and having come to AFESIP, the Cambodian, on the ground organization that Somaly founded initially, supported, (I later learned) in part only, by SMF. The girls stood in front of us, supporting each other, tearfully telling us their stories. All of us were in tears listening. Even though some of us doubted whether telling their stories was good for them, they all claimed it was part of their healing process. Many of their stories were true. But now, such a huge shadow of doubt has been cast over one of the girl's, Somana's stories, that of course, it makes you wonder? At the time and since then, I have wanted to know what happened to all the money that was raised, because the girls in the shelters, as lovely as they are, in my opinion, even if in keeping with local culture and standard of living, could be living in much nicer conditions.

After spending some time in Cambodia, I learnt that 'sister' and 'brother' is the way Cambodians refer to their elders, whether they know the person or not. The word 'bong', the same for male or female, is used to address not just your actual sister, but waiters and waitresses, tuk tuk drivers, anyone you speak to who appears to be older than you or in a position of seniority. Us, ignorant westerners, at the time, mistook this as the girls thinking of us 'as sisters.' We got all touched and gooey thinking we are so important to these girls that they think we are their sisters. In fact, they referred to us as such because it was out of respect, also, they didn't know our names. I also wondered why these girls from VFC, now 'free', did not have their own phones, were not allowed Facebook pages, and whilst they all hugged so hard and said they missed us and called us sisters, trying to spend time with them out of their working hours was virtually impossible. In the last few months they've slowly been appearing on Facebook. They refer to Somaly as 'mum'. If we as supporters feel disappointed in her, imagine how those who did not know about any of this, will be feeling right now.

I don't care to say that Somaly has lied. There is no proof of it and for many of the papers to slanderously start claiming so is a little premature, bearing in mind there is a law firm doing a full investigation, that I hope will get to the bottom of this once and for all so that us loyal supporters can get some clarity one way or the other. However, I cannot take the stance that many of her supporters are taking that is: it doesn't matter whether she lied or not, she has made such a huge difference, it is the cause that is relevant. In my opinion, that's neither here nor there. Of course it is about the cause, the problem I see is, it always should have been. It is about the cause, not Somaly Mam, not The Somaly Mam Foundation, but sex trafficking, human trafficking, slavery.

Can these potential lies or truth stretching be justified because of the greater impact she has had? In my humble opinion, not at all. That does not justify anything. Anyone who thinks that is more or less saying it's not how you got there, it's what you achieve. I might be thinking this because I'm a teacher and a new mother, but who wants to teach that to their children? It's also a little insulting in my opinion to suggest that had Somaly not had a dramatic story published into a book she could not have achieved what she had done? There are many women, like Somaly, with similar backgrounds and without who are fighting and making huge waves in the battle against sex trafficking, Rachel Lloyd, Sunitha Krishnan, Anuradha Koirala, to name a few of the more well known advocates, but then there are I'm sure plenty of others working tirelessly day in day out fighting or preventing the cause in their communities who may not get a hashtag with their name attached and their own foundation, but who are affecting hundreds of thousands of lives as well. If it is really about the cause, let's support and raise awareness of these other women and other foundations.

Unfortunately, the introduction of a lie, however big or small, belittles anything that has been done and casts doubt on Everything that has been said. It leads people to think, well, if she lied about this, who is to say she didn't lie about that. And that is only talking about within the foundation. But what about 'the cause?' A big concern is that these allegations could make a laughing stock of the whole cause that is sex trafficking. Does this not put at risk those many girls who really have suffered and have horrific stories to tell. How can people ever start to trust they are real if someone so well known was possibly lying to us all this time.

If the allegations turn out to be true then I see them realistically and most like just as very naïve and misguided choices at the time, when Somaly was much younger, more easily influenced, and also unaware of the greater implications which might lie ahead. These then caught more momentum than expected as they were told and retold, and then when the lie was heard by too many people, it was impossible to turn back. I don't think that makes her a bad person, but it makes what she did extremely bad, especially because of the way the sex trafficking, human trafficking, or any other cause could now be affected.

I'd be lying if I said I wasn't disappointed by the lukewarm, if that, response from Nicholas Kristof in regards to the whole fiasco. He and I shared the same hero, and I guess I was hoping that he, as an accredited, well informed, well researched, well respected journalist would provide me with some educated view on the situation or something I hadn't already heard. Kristof sang Somaly Mam's praises, featured her in his documentary Half the Sky, even tweeted live as they raided a brothel; he brought attention to Somana's case, and in both cases probably brought a lot of attention to the cause and the Somaly Mam Foundation. Now that the truth is uncertain, it brings doubt to the credibility of his story, which as a renowned journalist, I'd say, is somewhat, well, embarrassing, to say the least, and detrimental to his credibility as a journalist and his career at the worst. I am glad to say the editor of the New York Times shares my opinion and I hope to see something read-worthy on the topic before long.

Supporters of Somaly Mam claim she doesn't deserve all this media attention, why don't the papers pick on someone else? In response to that I say; Somaly's celebrity status and lifestyle has been visibly sky rocketing over the last few years. Her travelling and work schedule has been insane. When I was working at AFESIP for 3 months, I saw her all of maybe 3 times, she was busy flying around the world- and don't ask me who pays for it, but a little bird told me she doesn't fly economy because flying hurts her ears. Each time I saw her, she was thinner and thinner, visibly exhausted and stressed, but I remember noting the beautiful and expensive clothing she was wearing, and as an unpaid volunteer I was certainly envious to say the least. But every time she came back from a trip, be it Australia, Korea, New York, or all three in a month, she would take the time to talk to me and lament how exhausted she was, and how she missed her girls in the shelters, and her son and daughters. Before working at AFESIP she would Facebook message me directly and made time to meet me when she traveled to Singapore. Perhaps she thought I had money or was more influential than I turned out to be. I didn't suck up to her while I was there, or hang on every word she said as many people did do there, and maybe it's because of that, or because I'm not a celebrity or high end donor, I haven't heard two words from her since and she's ignored any messages I've sent.

Many a photo has appeared on her Facebook page in glamorous situations: red carpets and events, but also a lot of partying, having fun and jetting around. I'm not saying she can't have fun, but most people know if you have a public online image, you should manage it carefully or people will get the wrong (or maybe right) idea and not everyone will be happy about it. One particular post, which finally led me to block her posts from my newsfeed because, to be honest with you, they made me feel uncomfortable; was her on a private jet, donated by a generous donor, who must have felt better about himself after hosting this hero, with her status, 'I miss my girls in Cambodia', or something along those lines. I believe that this statement was true, I'm sure she did miss them, but why didn't she not politely refuse saying that's really not necessary, or did she have no choice but to accept the donated flight? I have to question how a flight on my private jet would help 'the cause' or benefit anyone other than the person riding on the jet itself. Her birthday party was always held somewhere celeb filled and glamourous in New York. Why not at the shelters with her girls, or at home with her family? The foundation justified that her worldwide travel was necessary for the cause, but in my opinion, one or two appearances a month less would not have hurt the cause (but perhaps the foundation), then she could have spent time with the girls which I do believe is really where she'd rather be, and spend time with her young son, who I knew barely got to see her and missed her a lot.

What I'd like to know is, if she really wanted that, why did she not put her foot down? Did she have someone making the decisions for her? Did she have no choice? Or did she really, actually prefer the glamorous jet set lifestyle but felt the need to defend it by saying she'd rather be with her girls? Talk of being free and empowering women; it seemed she herself was not really free, or was this a sacrifice of her own personal choices for the greater good of the cause? Okay, I'll ride on the jet, even though I'd rather be at the shelter, because I know it will lead to a huge donation to the foundation.

Allegedly, Somaly went from earning nothing in 2008, to earning in excess of $100,000 a year in 2011. For $100,000 a year (which, correct me if I'm wrong, comes from donor money??) I too could sacrifice a few personal preferences for the greater good. I believe any director of any non profit organization deserves a decent, competitive salary that can provide them a good quality of life to ensure they can do their job well, which in turn often leads to much more monetary support, but in a country where garment workers are fighting and some have lost their lives in a bid to earn a meager US$160 a month as opposed to the $80 they earn now, and most of the girls coming out of her shelters are at that level of the food chain, I cannot see how you could sleep at night taking home that amount of money.

The fact is, she has brought on the media attention herself, or at least by her foundation. She has not shied away from the camera when it has meant she has been able to hob knob with stars such as Susan Sarandon, Hilary Clinton and a trail of other celebrities who have probably read her book and genuinely see the hero in her, as we all did, but I'm sure they are also not unaware that being chummy-chummy with a sex slave survivor will certainly not hurt their celebrity status either. How could you not get caught up in the lifestyle and the attention? Somaly herself has become a celebrity, whether it was her doing or not, and celebs take the rough media attention with the smooth, good press and bad press. Had she wanted to shy away from the media or slowed down the glamorous lifestyle, she could have done so, way before now. Truth or lies, resigning from your own foundation days after such allegations are publicly made against you, is going to do you no PR favours. I have no regard for the Somaly Mam Foundation, but I do have a lot of regard for everyone who thought of Somaly as their hero, who is now confused and disappointed; for the girls in the shelters who she has helped and depend on her and for the Voices for Change girls, who although 'independent', will be lost without their 'mom'. Somaly owes us an explanation and an apology. It shouldn't be written by someone else, edited for grammar mistakes and vetted to make sure it is politically correct and can't do her any more damage, it should be, as her many speeches around the world have been, unscripted, from the heart, with her bad English and all. Somaly Mam, as a hero to thousands, you owe us this.


Friday, 02 March 2012 17:11

白袍不合身,那就脫掉它! ─浪跡秘魯的叛逆醫生李尚儒

自我維新的力量,往往源自對現實的反叛。活在社會期待的角色扮演中,反叛的代價有了輕重之別。況且,大破之後,更得大立,即便懷抱名利可拋的豪氣,改變的究竟是怎樣的自己?

採訪.整理|林佳禾

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李尚儒 簡介


七年級前段班的醫科畢業生。待過業,混過幾家醫院,荒唐過後毅然出走,目前在地球另一端找到暫時歇腳之處。除了革自己的命,也正在改變一群秘魯小朋友的人生。

(攝影/林佳禾)

醫者夢,因暸解而清醒

我來自宜蘭南方澳的一個傳統大家庭。爸爸是獨子,而我是長孫,又是平輩中最會念書的小孩,所以「好好讀書,將來當醫生」這種聲音,從小就不斷在我耳邊迴盪。高中時我確實夢要當神經外科醫師,不過,那時念的雖然是數理資優班,我的功課並非頂尖,橫豎看來不像考得上醫學系。沒想到,聯考成績比預期好,錄取了中國醫藥學院醫學系。

在醫學系的前五年,跟醫院幾乎沒有接觸。相較之下,社團對我的影響比較大。當時我參加基層文化服務隊,寒暑假都要到偏遠地區的學校辦營隊,非常累,但學到了醫學系沒有教的團隊合作、統籌規畫,也很有成就感。因為社團經驗,加上我想回北部,所以大六見習和大七實習,我選擇到比較「操」的林口長庚醫院,做為開始認識醫院實際作業的起點。

見習還只是當觀光客,只要「看」,然後寫報告;實習等於開始「當學徒」,得做很多雜事。我喜歡長庚體系重實務操作的取向,也自認實習階段做過的事情、學會的東西比其他醫院的實習生來得多。但是,這一年我卻也過得非常痛苦。

因為,我開始體驗到醫學院的知識只是很小的一部分;實際的醫院工作有更多的應對進退和人際相處。除此之外,高壓的工作環境下,衍生出一些共同的價值觀、運作知識的潛規則,以及對金錢的態度,都讓我感到不安,覺得沒辦法把自己放到「醫生」這個位置上去。


轉個彎,竟是如此不易

畢業後我撐了整整一年,不肯進醫院工作。我爸媽一開始很擔心,但家族親友之間很快找到說法,認為「讓他休息一下也好,反正應該只是一年……」這段期間,我認真思考自己到底想做什麼,最後決定往醫療衛生相關的非營利組織(NGO)去投石問路。

沒想到,斷斷續續應徵了一些工作,卻沒有人要我。一方面是我沒有社工專業,不符合許多組織的需求;另一方面大家普遍有共同的疑問:「為什麼醫學系的學生會跑來這裡?」一位面試者甚至直接告訴我:「醫生沒有必要『屈就』這樣的工作。」

眼看生計就要出問題,剛好林口長庚神經外科的朋友問我有沒有意願回去,無奈之下,我只好去參加甄選,然後也順利錄取。一年之後竟然繞回原點,雖然成為高中時夢想的神經外科醫師,但心情卻是不情願的。當時我媽曾經說了一句:「你終於決定回去過『正常』的生活……」為此,我跟她翻臉,狠狠大吵了一架。

巨塔裡,那隻迷失的孤鳥

回到醫院,幾乎是我人生中最黑暗的一年。並不是醫療工作的分量讓我無法承受,而是心情上跟這個環境非常疏離。住院醫師要扛的責任,的確遠比實習醫師沉重,但我的工作表現其實還不錯:技術對我來說不是問題;醫病溝通我也做得來;甚至我與護士的配合也很好。

但是,跟醫師同事和上司的相處,卻是我很大的罩門:我完全無法與醫師交際。醫院對我來說只是工作的地方,而沒有歸屬感。按理說我也可以當一隻孤鳥,但是在那個環境裡,跟其他人無法建立私交,不做多數人會做的休閒,只顯得自己是個怪胎。

更讓我恐懼的是,醫生的工作壓力和豐厚報酬,會讓人不把錢當錢看。回想起來,那一年我做了很多瘋狂的事:買一件近兩萬元的外套,毫不手軟;從台大直接搭計程車上林口,只因為爽;和家人吵架後,立刻訂機票出國,不願回家過年。在長庚工作一年,離開時我的存款竟然是零。疲勞改變了我的消費態度和價值觀,讓我變成自己害怕的樣子。

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在緊挨著採砂場的貧困社區一隅,Flora Tristan School寄望用英語豐富孩子們的人生。

狠下心,往未知裡闖去

於是我開始思考:如果工作量減輕,有空間找別的方式釋放壓力,情況會不會變好?隔年我就轉到台北萬芳醫院的麻醉科。結果,即使到了公立醫院,又是相對不操的科別,但除了比較不累,疏離的狀態還是沒有太大改變。

在醫院裡,我找不到自己五年後、十年後想變成的樣子。身為醫者,不少主治醫師對後輩、同事、病人都很好,可是他們的人生不是我想要的典範。我心裡的聲音不斷告訴自己:「那不是我,『醫生』不是我。」

走到這一步,我打死也不想繼續下去了!所以在萬芳待到半年左右,我就開始尋找到國外NGO工作的機會。我沒有設限非醫療工作不做,也不覺得要有薪水;只是想去台灣人完全不熟悉、沒有前例可循的環境。所以打定主意,只要對方認為我可以,做什麼都好;將來有經驗和條件之後,再來思考自己的定位。

幾經輾轉,終於談定到秘魯南部大城阿雷基帕(Arequipa)一個社區組織的兒童英語學校,當一年的長期志工。而為了要順利成行,我在萬芳醫院的合約期滿之後,還先到另一家私立醫院當了三個月的短期住院醫師,才存夠在秘魯生活一年的旅費。

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大學時代的服務經驗,幫助李尚儒更快融入社區學校的經營工作。

資源少,忙碌卻感充實

我所服務的組織,主要是在市郊一個貧困社區為學童開設免費的課後英語學校。學校裡除了少數的長期志工,大多依賴通常只待幾個星期、來此做公益旅行體驗的各國年輕人。經過了前幾個月,上手之後,我就成為學校大小事務的負責人,說穿了是校長兼撞鐘。每天從早上進學校就停不下來,一天工作加上通勤時間經常超過十二小時,並不比當醫生輕鬆,但我卻覺得很充實。

秘魯是一個社會資源缺稀的國家,大部分在地NGO規模都很小,能做的事情也少,所以我們能夠合作、諮詢的對象不多;此外,媒體很少探討社會議題,公部門連基礎資料都很殘破,更談不上協助。

在這種情況下,做事情只能從有限的經驗中發想、摸索。我們只能確保任何計畫都不是一群外來的人關起門來做決定,而是不斷跟本地人做討論;盡可能暸解在地的情況,而不是跑到一個地方就說:「我們來做這個吧!」

改寫命運,從少數人開始

這一年來,我和其他幾位長期志工為學校確立了許多規模和制度,設法讓學校變得名副其實,而不只是有四、五個房間的遊樂場。此外,我們也開始反省學校成立的初衷。

創立組織的人,原本希望英語能力能成為社區下一代脫貧的工具。然而秘魯公立學校的教育品質低落,即使順利念完中學,也不足以找到好工作,上大學的可能性更低。所以,反覆與社區確認需求、溝通想法並徵詢意願之後,我們提出了一項獎學金計畫。

從今年開始,我們每年預計支持至少一名學業表現優良、父母也有配合意願的小朋友進入談妥的私立中學就讀,直到畢業。藉此,我們希望至少有一些人能得到更好的就業條件,改善家庭經濟並回饋社區。這個計畫並非全然沒有問題,但相較於沒能力推動的結構性社會改革,它至少是短期內我們能帶來的最大改變。

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憑著一股衝勁,李尚儒帶著三位小朋友飛到祕魯首都利瑪(Lima)向台商簡報,爭取獎學金贊助。

對家人,只能抱歉回不去

我在台灣的朋友,大部分都在醫院工作。對於我正在做的事,他們其實很漠然,畢竟距離自身經驗太遙遠,聽聽也就算了。每當聽到那種公式化的反應,稱讚我「好了不起!好有勇氣!」我總心想:「你們有勇氣過我沒辦法過的生活,也是一種選擇,我覺得更了不起。」

相反地,我的抉擇對家人的衝擊當然大得多。我爸媽一開始半信半疑,卻也不以為意,總覺得我只是說說,不可能放著醫生不幹。直到我真的要出發了,他們才完全慌了手腳,但因為我的堅持,也只能無奈接受。雖然,我爸還是想著:「你就去個一年,然後回來好好把住院醫師當完……」我只能反覆用不同方式跟他們溝通:「兒子不可能再變回『你們想像中的醫生』。」

更大的阻力,來自高齡逾九十歲的爺爺奶奶。前陣子我回台灣過年,他們一直叨唸,想方設法要阻止我再過去。這當然令人掙扎,但我的人生妥協過幾次,從來沒有好結果;我不想再經歷一次,只能咬著牙繼續做。

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脫下白袍,李尚儒在異文化的洗禮下,重新找尋自己的方向。

腦內革命,未完待續

獎學金計畫源自我的發想,因此我至少會在秘魯待到計畫順利開始執行。短期之內,我不會回台灣,哪裡可以籌到生活費就去哪;將來計畫到歐美攻讀國際發展或公共衛生,希望拿到另一個學位之後,能找到更多發揮的空間。

現在的我,就算真有什麼自我維新或創造的能力,也是來自和社區這些孩子的互動。我常常跟他們說:「Piensa más. Piensa bien.(想多一點;想好一點。)」這些小朋友不像我在成長時期總是有父母陪伴,得要在十歲的年紀就開始設想人生。正面思考,並且努力改變,對他們,對我,都是重要的功課。

這是一場殘酷的「腦內革命」,假使我現在停止前進,那些死去的腦細胞終將無人悼念,在安地斯高原上化作沒人看見的灰。更何況,我不想停止。背負著不斷循環的自我詰問,以及他人的正面建議和負面質疑,繼續書寫人生故事,也挺有意思的。

英雄式的「我要改變世界」,一開始就不存在。驅動我的只不過是對現實的叛逆和義無反顧。但骨頭反過來放都放到秘魯去了,人生耍帥也不能當飯吃,走到這麼遠只是因為:就算是餓肚皮也想寫上一本獨一無二的人生書。過去一年,充其量只能算是前言吧!

 

圖片提供:

1.     首圖  攝影/Koh Guhoko

2-3(組圖)照片提供/李尚儒

4.     照片提供/李尚儒

5.     照片提供/李尚儒

6.     照片提供/李尚儒

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三月 - 青年 創造 台灣新時代

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Wednesday, 15 February 2012 14:25

Darkness in the City of Light

Let’s go beyond the glamour of Paris. Last summer was for me the occasion to rediscover the splendour of the French capital and to meet Françoise Gardes who cares for those travelers without return tickets who run aground on the banks of the river Seine with nothing in their pockets but the hope of asylum.


Monday, 28 June 2010 19:39

Another China...

Already 5 years of expatriation in Shanghai! When I left my little village in the Provence, I didn’t think I would melt so easily into this megalopolis. Of course the first months had been filled with questions and hesitation but with the passing days and the encounters made, I can say now that I love this country and the mystery that it still possesses to me.

The Miao Mountains
Once, as I participated in a tea-party organized by the French-speaking circle of Shanghai, I had the chance to meet volunteers from the association called “Couleurs de Chine” (Colors of China) which aims to sponsor a school for little girls in the Rongshui district of Guangxi province.

This mountainous region is characterized by its rice terrace fields and plantations of fir trees. In order to subsist, the families also farm pigs, cows, poultry and river carp but many peasants still have barely enough food to live on.

Every day women wear the traditional costume made of a dark blue woven cotton (dyed several times with indigo); the clothes are enhanced with embroideries that are transmitted from one generation to the next, thus carrying on the memory of the Miao people.

The roofs of the wooden houses are covered with black tiles or fir bark panels. One or several wells supply each village with drinkable water. Far from the cities and their racket, days peacefully go by in these secluded hamlets, protected by the surrounding mountains.

The other side of the picture
AUTRE-CHINE---photo-3---Petite-fille-et-son-frereMagical landscapes, smiling faces, melodious chants, sparkling colors… these are the common images of the Guangxi province but behind these clichés, there is also another reality. If you travel more attentively, you might be surprised by the number of old people going around with young children or you’ll see at the bend in the path a little girl carrying on her back her baby brother hardly much younger than her, or this other kid carrying on a yoke heavy baskets full of manure…

In theory, school is free and compulsory but it remains out of reach for many children, so most of the women are illiterate. The incomes of the families do not always allow them to pay school fees and when parents have to choose, they give priority to their sons[1]. Furthermore, only a few schools are left in the countryside because of the government’s policy of recentralizing them.

Gaoliang, a hamlet of 900 inhabitants, counts 124 pupils divided into 4 classes of primary school and 1 kindergarten class. Mr. Pan, a school teacher, explains to us that “Some children have to walk through rice fields and mountains paths three hours everyday to go to school and come back, whatever the weather… but without education, we are worth nothing”. He tell us this while accompanying us to the chief of the village. And the reality of this part of the region is merciless: some ‘touts’ tell peasants’ children that they can work in the textile factories of Guangdong and earn in a month what their parents make in one year; teachers with tenure, graduated from university cannot set up in these remote areas because they do not speak the dialect; some children drop out of school because it is too hard to walk such long distances, sometimes even carrying their siblings on their back; and parents have to live far from their children to find a better job, and so on.

The story of a woman
Fascinated by this ancestral culture, Françoise Grenot-Wang, also called Fang-Fang by the locals, dedicated herself to protecting the traditions. In 1990, she and a few friends created “Couleurs de Chine” whose original aim was to promote in France the culture of ethnic minorities of China. Very rapidly, this purpose took on a humanitarian dimension. In 1998, when Fang-Fang settled in Guangxi, none of the girls were sent to school. In 2001, thanks to the association and to numerous sponsors and donors, 1200 children were sent to school; in 2010 more than 5600 children now benefit from the support of “Couleurs de Chine”.

In December 2008, Françoise was on the eve of leaving for Paris where she had planned to celebrate Christmas with her family, when a fire broke out in her big wooden house. And this fire that she feared so much finally took her away.

Deeply saddened by Fang-Fang’s disappearance, friends, donors and sponsors sent supportive messages from China, France, Indonesia, the US, Australia and Brazil. In her memory and in the name of all the children, the association had to go on.

AUTRE-CHINE---photo-4---Cours-de-recreationDo you believe in miracles?

Marine Vitre, a young French woman, started to work for the association in October 2008 but she didn’t have the chance to know Francoise personally as the accident occurred one week before their meeting. When she was aware of the disaster, she went on-site ahead of schedule. Warmly welcomed by the local authorities and the villagers, Marine has now settled down in Danian. Her enthusiasm has already won the peoples’ hearts and the local authorities also have committed to carry on their support. Do not let yourself be taken in by this woman’s frail appearance; she proved her strong character and firm will by keeping the course of “Couleurs de Chine” in the right direction. One can say that she is an exceptional woman!

This is ‘My China’
Here are some of the many encounters I have had the chance to make since I arrived in Shanghai. Far from the Bund and its glitters, at the bend of the alleys, in the shadow of a block condemned to destruction, just lift up your head and you might meet the eyes of someone and start a wonderful story…
(Photos by Ann.S)

 


[1] Ethnic minorities in China benefit from a special law which allows parents to have a second child if the first-born is a girl. In fact, many families have more than two children, usually non-declared.

Read Anne Segura's original article in French

 


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