When I volunteered to teach at a public primary school in the remote mountains of Hainan Province, China, I was fully prepared to face poverty, mosquitoes, disease and germs, and even a language barrier. People that live there belong to the Li nationality and have their own language, and some of them do not speak Chinese. However, when I walked into the school, I was still shocked.
The charity project in this school was organised by the China Pacific Insurance Group (CPIC), which has been sponsoring poor schools all over China for many years. As part of that work, CPIC sends volunteers from their staff to run interesting courses in these schools.
This year, CPIC Property invited its reinsurance and brokerage partners to join their volunteer project in Hainan. Ten volunteers from eight reinsurers and brokers, including Cathy Lin and myself from Swiss Re, joined the one week project from 13 to 18 October 2013. The courses we taught to the kids included music, painting, reading, geography, science, safety tips and sports – courses which the school didn't have enough teachers to cover.
The whole trip turned out to be an eye-opening journey for me. Without it, I could have hardly understood the situations people face in regions like this. And if we can help the teachers and parents to open their minds, it would improve life for the children.
After landing in Haikou, the capital city of Hainan, we drove for 2.5 hours to Qiongzhong county. To reach the school, we needed to drive for another hour.
"Can I stay in the school to share a dormitory with the kids or the teachers?" I asked, in the hope of avoiding the daily two hour round trip.
Bo He, a key organiser from the CPIC Hainan Branch, looked at me, paused, and said, "Let's discuss once we are there."
I came to realise why he had paused after I walked into the school that afternoon.
The five two-storey buildings, which were newly built with government funds, were pretty impressive. But as we were getting closer, we noticed more and more things that kept reminding us how remote and poor the place was.
The picture shows the top of a desk in one of the classrooms. Some of the desks were better – newly bought with government funds. However, most of the desks were like this or even worse.
The dormitory rooms were packed with double decker beds, each used by four kids, meaning that two kids needed to share a single bed.
Straw mats seemed to be the only bedding they had. A school teacher told us that when the temperature drops to about five degrees Celsius in winter, some parents would bring better mattresses and quilts for their children. However, most of them wouldn't, either because they couldn't spare them from their homes, or simply because they didn't want to go to the trouble of carrying them across rivers and hills, said the teacher. For some kids who live in really remote mountain areas, it takes hours to walk to school every week.
It was in the toilet that we were really stunned. Girls living in the school did not dare to get close to them at night, as they said they saw giant rats running around.
"For months we had no running water because we had no money to repair the broken pipes," said the school’s headmistress, Ms. Wang, to explain the embarrassing toilets.
When asked what the first thing was she would fix in the school if she had additional funds, she said, to everyone's surprise, that it would be the playground. The toilets were bad, but still usable. The bumpy playground, however, was not safe at all for her students. Ms. Wang had been planning to fix the playground for a year and her faculty members agreed to volunteer during weekends and vacations. All she needed was RMB 36,000 (USD 6,000) to buy proper materials.
Naturally, the first meeting the volunteers had was to discuss how to help Ms. Wang and her students, starting with the toilets and the playground.
Each company had set aside donations for the school. For Swiss Re, our Social Committee in Beijing invited all staff to donate money. The company matched these employee donations, resulting in RMB 5000 (USD 800) we brought to the school, along with a card with best wishes from Swiss Re staff.
All the donated money was used to buy a good quality toilet with shower facilities suitable for all seasons. It will soon be set up in the girls' dormitory.
The companies and CPIC are currently discussing how to raise more money for the boys' toilet, which is in similar condition, and for a new playground.
Even though I was surprised to hear that some parents don't want to carry quilts to the school to keep their kids warm during winter nights, I was less surprised when the headmistress said she wished the kids could have one egg a day, yet most parents didn’t want to pay extra for lunch. As a result, the three meals in the school were only rice with a little vegetable.
"Nutrition is a new concept here. Many parents just don't think their kids need eggs, although they are able to afford it," said Ms. Wang.
A small grocery store about 200 metres from the school enjoys good business. Students are often here to buy cheap snacks containing artificial hibiscus flavouring and colour. Parents are willing to give their kids pocket money for junk food. You could tell which of the children were better off by the amount of snacks they bought.
Despite the bad nutrition and poor living conditions, many students were doing very well in their classes. According to an official from the county education bureau, the school produces one or two outstanding students who move on to key middle schools in the county every year. This is very unusual for primary schools in such remote mountain areas.
"The students are like unpolished jade hidden in mountains," was a common remark from the volunteers, quoting a traditional Chinese saying.
The volunteers were highly impressed by how smart the students were and how fast they learned. The volunteers were also impressed by the traditional singing and dancing the students performed, as well as the traditional Li style of embroidery work they completed.
Both the performance and the embroidery have made UNESCO's list of intangible cultural heritage. With sponsorship arranged by CPIC, the school now has two local artists to help the students learn and practice their traditional arts.
"It doesn't cost much, but it helps a lot," said He from the CPIC branch in Hainan. He has been trying to do everything he can to help the school since last year, when the charity project began. Mr. He is now working on creating more subprojects for partners to join.
"If we keep our minds open enough, it doesn't really matter if this is your charity project or mine. Together, we are doing something good. And together, we are able to do it better," remarked a volunteer.
1 and 2. toilet and the water basin in the toilet
4. top of a school desk
5. paintings from the kids
6. kids at the painting class
7. kids learning Li Style embroidery with a local artist after school
8. Kids and local artists performing traditional dancing and singing at a party at the end of the one-week volunteer teaching project