On the road with Unicef

PUBLISHED : Monday, 01 September, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 01 September, 2003, 12:00am

Mud houses, raggedy-clothed and shoeless children and flies, flies and more flies. These are some of the images and memories from my trip to Puge County - one of the poorest rural areas in Sichuan province.

But above all, what took me by surprise the most was how unbeaten the villagers were - it was an eye-opening experience.

Young Post was among the three Hong Kong newspapers invited by Unicef to cover the six-day trip through Puge County, which took in Yongan and Tebu townships. With us were 29 Hong Kong students aged between 15 and 19, selected by Unicef as 'young envoys'.

The aim of the visit, sponsored by the Hongkong Bank Foundation, was to examine how Unicef's social service programmes - Social Development Programme for Poor Areas in China (SPAA) and Local Planning and Action for Children (LPAC) - were operating since starting in 1996.

Yongan township was among the first to benefit from this programme.

However, despite their gratitude towards programmes and the improved livelihood, those I have interviewed said they found the interest rate of 9.6 per cent on loans too high, the three-month repayment period too short and the charges of 20 yuan (HK$18) for late repayment too punitive.

One villager told me: 'It takes time for the pigs and chickens to grow. It is very difficult for us to repay the loan when the pigs are still small.'

Tebu township came as a rude awakening for those who have been pampered by the comforts of Hong Kong life.

All around were children with coal-black hands, brown, scratched faces and dull lifeless hair. Women in their 30s looked 20 years older and children are undernourished.

Students spoke of their love of studying, but all have an uncertain future. The lucky ones will return to school: the others, unable to pay the necessary fees, will go to the fields.

Here a child can walk for as long as four hours to attend school. Why? The answer is simple. 'I like studying because it gives me knowledge,' one child told me.

Baoqi Zixia, 15, thinks knowledge will protect him from being cheated.

A 14-year-old girl, Yangku Rixia, who has never been out of her county, wants to be a reporter after leaving school so she can see the world. But it will be a struggle because she has to skip half of each semester's classes to take care of her ill mother and work in the field.

'Even though we lead a poor life, I believe that if we work hard for our studies, everything is changeable,' the teenager said.

My trip to Puge County has certainly made an impression. On my way back, I could not help but wonder what life was like up in the mountains, where the inhabitants are yet to be aided by charities such as Unicef.