01/15/2004, 00.00
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The little girl without shoes

by Gianni Criveller
The following is a story of a village and poverty  in deep rural China.

Guizhou, one of the poorest provinces in the enormous land of China, is located in the south-western part of the country. It has relatively few inhabitants, roughly 37 million. A third of its population belongs to ethnic minorities, especially those living in the province's mountainous areas.

Together with friends of mine from Hong Kong, I visited the district of Rong Jiang, a remote area in the southeast of the province more than 10 hours by bus from the capital, Guiyang. We were received by a minor non-governmental organization promoting the building and aid to elementary schools of poor and isolated mountain villages. This area was well off the beaten track, being remote and far from roads and having little or no transport services. Missionaries had never stepped foot there before.

Last December we left quite early from where we had stayed overnight. We rented a private car and were followed by a small truck loaded with our "gifts" for the village's children. Our trip lasted about 4 hours along a stretch of road which proved quite difficult and still under construction. We entered a vast green valley having a few indigenous villages of traditional low, wooden homes leaning against one another. Yet the most beautiful leg of the journey was still to come. That last stretch, about 3 hours, could only be made on foot.

And so we set off, us four men loading up our backpacks while our guides hoisted upon their backs packages of winter clothes, shoes, books, food, etc.

We crossed a rushing river twice, while walking on water-level wooden planks. The path we had taken went up and down, putting our sedentary lifestyles to a test of physical endurance. Yet our pain was distracted by the beautiful, pristine natural surroundings. We were surrounded by a silence which we had forgotten existed while living in Hong Kong. The green mountain slopes were formed in just a way to create a system of terraced farmland, seeming like huge staircases, with steps facilitating giants to scale the mountainside. Here and there small villages appeared, with a few homes popping up through the clouds. It is difficult to describe the emotions we felt. We seemed to be traveling back in time or to the far ends of the earth.

Around 2 in the afternoon, we finally arrived to our village, home to the indigenous Miao. There were 60 or so children lined up in front of the schoolyard, some hailing from other nearby villages. We exchanged greetings the school's teachers. A few people came up from the village, as well, the women in traditional dress, but not the men. But they didn't look like the indigenous people you find on postcards, joyously dancing in their brightly colored costumes while singing and playing their charming songs. These people were poorly dressed, in their shabby, torn and dirty clothes. We had the feeling they were miserable, at least this was our first impression. 

After a few more exchange of greetings, we started handing out the gifts. The winter coats and books were enough for all. We also had several shoes, but unfortunately not for everyone. I then saw 3 small girls and 1 boy standing barefoot. The temperature was not freezing, but at any rate, it was quite cold outside.

Spontaneously, I took the first barefoot girl I saw and make her sit on a table where we had placed our gifts to handout. I slipped some socks on her and then a pair of shoes. The upper part of her foot was slightly infected. One of the socks had a small lump of material in it, making her wound hurt, as I noticed that she was reaching her foot.

"Does it hurt?" I asked. So I took off her sock and stuck it in her pocket. The little hard rubber and canvas shoe, without the sock, didn't hurt her. I was moved when I held her cold feet in my hands, while taking on and off her sock.

The people from the village who ran to meet us stared at me strange and curiously. My companions took some photos as  I repeated the operation on 3 other barefoot children. I couldn't help but think of Jesus who went to visit villages, healing people and showing his affection to children.

And when I  saw these children jump down from the table with big smiles on their faces and laughing as the get back in line with their other friends,  I thought of Jesus's words: "When you do this to children, you do it to me..."  For me, these small children were Jesus, and yet they were totally unaware of it. It was they who allowed me to touch Him in a new way, as had never happened to me before in my life.                  

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