Left Behind: One Boy’s Story
Yesterday I wrote about my visit to rural Guizhou this past summer. The final day of our time there happened to coincide with the annual Miao dragon boat races, one of the largest Miao festivals held each year. Over twenty different villages come together for this special day, each arriving in their own unique traditional dress, so of course we wanted to go.
Right as we arrived to the town where the festival was being held, we noticed a little boy walking slowly up a dirt road with his great grandmother. She was bent completely over at her waist, dressed in the traditional Miao clothing. I had seen so many people in this region who were permanently stooped over at an almost 90 degree angle, and I learned that it was from working the rice fields their entire lives.
The little boy had stopped to talk to his grandma, and it was clear that they had come a very long way and were trying to figure out how to make it the remaining mile to the village. There was a large bundle in the dirt road next to them, and it seemed like the little boy was struggling to know whether to carry their possessions or help his grandma walk on the bumpy road.
We approached them to see if we could help in any way, and the little boy looked up at us and suddenly burst into tears. His entire face was filled with such despair that my heart immediately fell. The grandmother then looked up, and suddenly she began to cry as well. She reached out to grab my hand while speaking to us in the Miao language, which none of us could understand. We didn’t need to grasp her words though, as it was clear they were filled with complete sorrow.
The little boy told us through his sobs that his father had left home many months ago to find work. They had recently gotten the message that he had died somewhere in the east, but no one had told them how or what had become of him after his death. His mother had also gone east to find work, and so he was left behind in his rural village to care for his grandmothers. On the day we met him, he was trying to get his great grandmother from his tiny mountain village, almost ten miles away, to his aunt’s house in the larger river town. I think the burden of responsibility on his ten-year-old shoulders was just too much for him to bear that day, and so when we had asked if he was okay, he finally broke down.
We picked up the cloth sack he had been carrying, which weighed at least thirty pounds, and then slowly made our way to the center of town, holding tightly to the grandmother’s arm to give her support. The grandma spoke no Mandarin, only Miao dialect, and the entire way she continued to cry.
We finally arrived to the aunt’s home, and after we got his grandmother settled, we asked the boy if he would like to spend a few hours with us to be our guide. He was very happy to come along and teach us more about the Miao culture that day.
He told us that every year, the men in each village carefully take down their sacred dragon head and carry it to the river where it is attached to their ceremonial canoe. After the boat is assembled, there are fireworks set off to bless the river journey, and geese are killed and draped across the dragon head for good luck. We learned that the older the dragon boat, the fewer geese which are needed for good fortune. But for villages who are racing a newly built canoe, every family in the village is expected to make the gift of a goose to bless the boat. This made it quite easy to tell how new a boat was by the number of geese across the front.
Each village then sends their boat down the river to the starting point, with the men dressed in their ceremonial indigo-dyed outfits, with golden hats and silver belts.
As each new village arrived, it was quite exciting because they would be met with fireworks on this end of the river as well. Our new friend told us that each village needs a young boy to represent them on the boat who beats the drum as they race. He had been invited to represent his village this year and wear the ceremonial silver, but because his grandmother was too afraid of losing him, she said she forbid him to do it. As he told us this story, you could see the longing in his eyes to have been that honored boy.
When his village canoe arrived to the race, we all cheered loudly, but then very soon a loud groan went up in the crowd as the canoe capsized! (Okay, so maybe his grandma was right on not letting him aboard). All of the men were plunged into the river in their heavy indigo outfits. It took a long time for them to get the canoe upright again, and then they were racing against the clock to get the dragon head reattached in time for the event.
With just minutes to spare, we suddenly heard a huge roar of laughter, and we looked at the river to see that the men from his village had stripped down to their underwear in order to make it to the race in time. The ceremonial outfits are very heavy and cumbersome if they get wet, so they had decided to save precious minutes and just race without them. The cheers of the crowds were enormous, and as the men paddled by they were laughing themselves as well.
By now, the river area was wall to wall people, and so we crammed ourselves tightly together on the shore. I found myself sitting next to one very angry duck in a cloth bag, who seemed to know he was going to be someone’s dinner that night at the after-race celebrations. I loved looking at all of the different Miao head coverings on the women next to me, which I was told signified which village they were from.
While we were waiting for the race to start, our medical director Cindy had taken the little boy to the nearby street market to get him some food. When they came back, he was so excited to show us that she had bought him a fishing pole as well. He told us he would be able to catch lots of fish now for his grandmas to help with their meals. I told her I would love to buy him a toy, but Cindy explained that he was now the man of the home with the death of his father, and toys would be an insult. He had chosen the fishing pole to provide for his family, and my heart was heavy to think about the responsibility he knew he had to shoulder at just age ten.
Cindy had written her cell phone number on a piece of paper for him, telling him to call her if he ever needed anything. He was sitting right in front of me on the river bank, and I watched him take out that piece of paper a hundred times during that afternoon. At one point I heard him slowly saying the numbers to himself over and over again. I realized he was committing Cindy’s number to his memory in case he ever lost the tiny scrap of paper. I tapped Cindy on the shoulder to show him what he was doing, and both of us got tears in our eyes as we watched him trying his best to memorize the phone number which could bring him help in an emergency.
Soon the sun started to go down on the horizon, and we asked the little boy how he would get home. He told us he would walk back up the mountain by himself, but we of course insisted on taking him in the van. As we drove the ten miles up the winding roads to his village, I kept thinking of him making that journey every time he needed to go into town. When the road ended, we climbed up a steep path and stairway to finally reach his wooden home, which overlooked a winding river.
As the little boy talked more about his mom being gone and learning of his father’s death, he began to cry again. He was trying his very best to control his weeping, and it was obvious he felt caught between being a scared little boy needing reassurance while having to be brave as the man of the home now. So much sadness.
We did our very best to assure him that people would help him if he needed anything at all. His loneliness was so raw though, that it honestly hurt to look in his eyes. He finally was able to control his tears, and very, very reluctantly we knew it was time to say goodbye.
Our driver told us it wouldn’t be safe to be on the mountainous dirt roads in the complete dark, so all we could do at that point was to get the address of his village (which we have since learned does not have mail service). It was very sobering to say goodbye to him, wondering what the future held in store for this intelligent, kind, and responsible little boy. Would he somehow get a higher education, or would he stop after middle school to work the fields? Would the deep sorrow and longing for his parents we so clearly saw on his face somehow be able to be eased?
As we walked down the path from his village to the road below, we were completely silent thinking of how much we all need people in our lives to support and encourage us. It can be so very hard to do life when you feel so alone. I was of course also thinking of the young kids who had chosen to take their own lives in Guizhou just a few weeks before, when the hardships of being on their own became too much for them bear.
As we drove away from his village, I tried to wrap my mind around the fact that there are 60 million children “left behind” in the rural areas just like he was. Countless times in my travels, I have met children to whom I want to give the same opportunities my own kids have – enough food to eat, warm clothing, a chance at education, and of course someone to always be there for them. I know that the complexities of their situations can make helping very difficult at times. But I also know from doing this work for the last twelve years that it is often through reaching one child at at time that the most profound impact can be made.
Every child counts. That’s been LWB’s motto since our inception, and we will continue to do everything we can to help change the lives of those who need help the most.
Today I send my deepest gratitude to everyone who makes our work possible. We truly can’t do it without you.
~Amy Eldridge, Chief Executive Officer