For all the stereotypes floating around, elementary schools in China are undeniably happy places. As we walk around, children flock near our group. They keep a short distance, as if to get as close as possible without having to have any direct interaction. Even here, at a rural school plagued with parasitic infection, the children are far from lethargic.
We’re in the remote western part of Sichuan province researching the risk factors for Neurocysticercosis, a brain disease caused by the parasitic worm Taenia Solium. The population in these areas are subsistence farmers, and their pig raising and sanitation practices have led to a high prevalence of infection. We’ve been visiting schools to observe the sanitation habits of the children and school staff and identify possible paths of transmission. In between interviews, we watch and are watched. Sitting outside a classroom, I’m entranced by the hoards of students running around the muddy yard. The sentiment is returned; excited little foreheads peek over the railings and around corners, observing my every movement.
From the school it’s a bumpy drive over to the mountain villages, in all odds the source of the infections. When we visit the households themselves, the adults are excited to see us too. Every time we enter a house they warmly gesture for us to sit down, smiling as our clumsy posse attempts to squeeze into their living room. They giggle when we ask silly or embarrassing questions and are eager to share their traditional methods of cooking pork. But underneath all of their gestures and facial expressions there is a fatigue, and as we get into the second hour of interviews it starts to show through. These people are exhausted. It’s not just the physical burden they carry daily; it’s the psychological one as well. The amount of stress on the villagers must be immense. One bout of plague, one harsh winter, one sick family member and suddenly you are pushed the the brink of starvation. A bad harvest means that you eat less. A sick pig means you eat less. There is no buffer, no force that will step in and take care of you. We preach self reliance and individualism here in the states, but most of us don’t know what it means to truly support ourselves. We are ignorant of the mental health strain comes with that kind of life.
The kids at the school don’t live in this state of mind quite yet. They still have support. But it worries me to think that most of these children, who spend 5 days a week learning at school, will end up scraping out an existence on farms for the rest of their lives. It seems a great waste.
It doesn’t have to be like this. These children have the potential to escape poverty. As China’s economy develops, the number of high wage jobs is increasing. However, these jobs require more education and skill, and without schooling the next generation will have no place in the new Chinese economy. Health projects like ours seek to eliminate the barriers that stop kids from learning at school. These areas have many problems, and I am not naïve enough to think that eliminating Taenia Solium with fix them all, but this is how we can actually make a difference; carefully, step by step, one problem at a time.
Written by Tom Kennedy ’19, B.A. candidate in Math and Computational Science at Stanford University. He was an FSI Field Research Intern in China with REAP during Summer 2016.