Nomads embrace changes brought by education

Updated: 2014-04-08 06:59

By Erik Nilsson (China Daily)

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Nomads embrace changes brought by education

Educators traveled across Yege township’s mountainous grasslands to convince parents to allow their children to attend school rather than herd yaks in the nomadic community. 

Public facilities

The increased government investment has not only built houses, but also provided public facilities.

Last year, a roofed latrine on stilts was constructed next to the school. The concrete slots spill into a dump brimming with yak bones and instant noodle packets, and, somewhat incongruously, an abandoned bed frame.

The townspeople previously relieved themselves in the open air, and the students had no option but to defecate in an open trash pile near the town's edge, while yaks nosed through the garbage.

However, the children don't use the latrine at night because feral mastiff dogs prowl the dark, along with wolves and bears lured by the kitchen waste in the pit.

"The new buildings are a huge change," Tseringben said. "Our town looks so different, but it's like skin without meat. The school buildings are finished, but the government says they're not up to standard. They must be renovated. The other buildings were damaged by the quake, but they aren't so dangerous."

The school's two multimedia labs remained unequipped until StepUp installed several computers last summer. The government later provided a further 50 machines.

But while rooms are adequate and the number of computers has grown, the area lacks qualified teachers.

The teachers raise the children: They cut their hair and even wipe their noses, which drip constantly because of the yearlong cold. In July, when the water is warm enough, they take the kids to the river to bathe.

Now, the first water pipes are being laid in Yege, although it's far too cold to bathe or wash clothes from August to June.

"Some of the instructors teach all subjects, including those they don't really know," Tseringben said. "We're stretched too thin and that affects the students. Some teachers didn't graduate from college and they don't understand pedagogy."

Indeed, some of the teachers finished their education after graduating from middle school. For example, most of them are unable to use PowerPoint presentations, Tseringben said. He added that although they have been learning more about them since the computers arrived, the main challenge is finding time to practice.

Sixth-grader Renzembdorlgyee believes computers will help counterbalance the teacher shortage. "The computers and projector will teach us more than before, especially Chinese," said the 16-year-old, who dreams of becoming a scientist, even though the school is unable to offer science classes.

That's where computers can help, he said.

Technology is key to providing a decent level of education for Yege's kids, according to a former teacher called Jiaxi Dawa. "The biggest changes are the laptops, iPads and projectors," he said. "They have revolutionized education. Computers show the kids the outside world - things they'd never imagined."

Two years ago, the school had one computer - now broken - and a tablet donated by StepUp.

Last year, the nonprofit organization donated five computers, an iPad mini, two e-book readers and a projector. Now, the school authorities are attempting to work out the logistics of training about 200 children in basic skills, from typing to surfing the Web, with so few devices.

'Magic paper'

However, the situation is a huge improvement from just a few years ago when nobody in the area knew what a computer was, according to Tseringben.

"One boy saw me typing on my laptop and asked how I could pull the 'magic paper' out of the screen," he said.

"Before, we had to crowd dozens of kids around one laptop in a small room. I tried to let the kids learn to type on my computer, one by one. But too many of them came. Now the students use computers in groups and use the projector to study."

But the value of the computers extends beyond simply teaching children how to operate them.

"Now we have a source from which we can collect materials to teach the nomadic kids," Jiaxi Dawa said. "For example, they didn't know what an elephant was. Now we're able to download photos to show them. And we can show the photos via a projector, so all the kids can see. This not only enables them to learn more, but also makes learning more interesting."

Jiaxi Dawa was by far the most tech-savvy teacher in the township, but he left for a more comfortable job in the county seat soon after the computers arrived. His departure exacerbated both the teacher shortage and the dearth of technological know-how.

Sixth-grader Nimatsomao believes that studying with computers will help him become a teacher. "I can help people learn many things," said the 13-year-old in halting Chinese. "The computer and projector will help us improve our Chinese."

Improved nutrition

But while technology is improving the lives of these nomadic students, an increase in nutritional standards has also helped.

Because the high altitude makes it impossible to plant crops, food, with the exception of yak meat and dairy produce, was scarce when I visited in 2011.

Tseringben recalled bringing fruit and eggs to the children when he first arrived in Yege in 2009. "They'd never seen those things, so they didn't know how to eat them. They tried to eat bananas and eggs without peeling them," he said.

Vegetables are brought to the school from Xining, the provincial capital, about 1,000 km away - the nearest terrain in which they can be grown - via the county seat.

However, the weather often renders the dirt roads impassible, making it impossible to transport the food. "We try to travel every two weeks to buy vegetables in the county. But we can't always make it," Tseringben said.

Prices multiply en route, peaking during the fierce winter months. For example, a half-kilogram of potatoes costs 1 yuan in Xining, but 2 to 3 yuan in Yege.

When a couple from the Hui ethnic group opened a modest fruit and vegetable shop, the locals were intrigued and delighted.

"(Most) locals have never tried watermelon before," Ahzhub said, slurping on his first slice of the fruit. "Its arrival has caused quite a stir."

Watermelon rinds were strewn everywhere on the day the shop opened. The stock quickly sold out, but the owners are indicative of a growing trend - as Yege develops, more outsiders are moving in, especially near the school.

The town's modernization radiates from the school campus.

"There are two kinds of people - those who work with their hands, and those who work with their brains," Ahzhub said.

"People who've attended school are brain workers. Their lives are more comfortable. I never went to school, but I want my son to go to college. If he can become a teacher and educate the next generation, then he can be a good person," he said.

The boy smiled and responded: "I want to become a doctor, monk or teacher to help others. After all, I already teach my father."

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