16 November 2008

Dangerous Path to Education

Gulu village (Tim Shaoting)
The Gulu Village is a mountain village located under an overhanging cliff of the Dadu River Canyon,in a National Geopark in Sichuan Province. The residents are the Yi ethnic minority group.

People in the village have to walk on the narrow Mule and Horse (Luoma) Way, which zigzags along the overhanging cliff, to get to the remote Gulu Elementary School. The story of Shen Qijun, a substitute teacher who’s held the school together for 26 years begins here.
Children taking the treacherous journey to school. (Tim Shaoting)

According to the Huaxi City Daily, the Luoma Way is the only path to get to the Gulu Village. Among the numerous zigzag turns that are almost 90 degrees, the narrowest turn is 16 inches wide.

A local resident of the village said the village did not have any outside contact until after the Luoma Way was dug out in 2003.
A long, winding road. (Tim Shaoting)

The Elementary School has the best construction in the village. Built from concrete, it has five classrooms and a restroom. The classrooms are situated on top of the restroom, and are surrounded by wooden fences. In front of the school, a basketball court was built with an abandoned blackboard, and two wooden posts. Boys would play carefully with the basketball, not daring to shoot, otherwise they would have to spend half a day bringing it back from the foot of the mountain.
Many children make the perilous trek to school each day. (Tim Shaoting)

Children Might Lose Contact with the Outside World

Shen Qijun is 45 years old, and he came to the school when he was 18 years of age. Back then, the classrooms were built with mud, the rooftop leaked, the walls were cracked, and there was no restroom. A student had a bad fall and sustained injury while looking for a restroom. Shen gathered the villagers to help rebuild the school the old fashioned way.

Shen only received primary school education, and thus could not become a formal teacher. There were times when he would become so frustrated, he’d plan to leave and find another job. But the villagers would beg him to stay, “If Mr. Shen leaves, the school is gone. No teacher will come to the mountain to teach, and even if they did, they wouldn’t stay.”

Schoolchildren (lower left) walk through dangerous, but amazingly beautiful, scenery on their way to class. (Tim Shaoting)

Two of Shen’s students were accepted into college. However, Shen humbly claimed, “They got help from other teachers.”

Shen said that after so many years teaching in Gulu, there wasn’t anything to be proud of. He often worries his teaching quality can not stand up to the standards of other schools, and the children in Gulu, the souls of the Dadu River Canyon, will gradually lose contact with the outside world.

Volunteers Arrive

In the middle of July this year, a young man in his twenties, named Bao Tangtao, came to the school. He told Shen he wanted to volunteer as a teacher and stay. Bao graduated from Hubei University of Education, and was from Wuhan City. Bao started his teaching career at the school, sleeping in an office Shen cleaned out.

Bao’s cell phone ran out of battery two days after he arrived at the school, because there was no electricity. He decided to go to neighboring areas and look for help. On his way out of the mountain, he met a writer who donated 4,000 yuan (US$570) to buy a power generator. The water fall in the mountain creek drove the generator, and the school had its first light bulb lit. The generator was only enough for the light bulb and cell phone.

Walking through the mountains. (Tim Shaoting)
Shen only teaches the students language and math. Bao decided to add geography and nature to the curriculum. Bao also asked the students to memorize Lunyu, the words of Confucius.

Twelve students graduated this year. In order for them to go to middle schools, Shen and Bao had to travel up and down the mountain repeatedly, eventually enrolling them at schools.

Yang Fei, a friend of Bao’s from the university, also volunteered to teach at Gulu Village in September. Yang was not used to life in Gulu at first, especially when she was forced to take bathes in the dark corners of the classrooms at night. Nights in the mountain can reach very low temperatures.

Shen was very grateful to the two young volunteers. They lifted a lot of weight off his shoulders. However, Shen said, “Mr. Bao and Ms. Yang will eventually leave, I know this in my heart. I hope there will be more volunteers to come and help the children.”

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