Jisu Erxi is 70 years old, poor, and living with her husband Leer Wujia and her three grandchildren in Gudu community, Zhaojue County, Sichuan Province. She’s missing some teeth and there’s no doubt that the years have not been easy on her. Her eldest son is in jail, having left behind his two children with Jisu & Leer when they were infants. Her second son married a nice girl from the village but he is a migrant worker miles away. And when Jisu’s youngest son disappeared, his wife fled the drug-filled marriage, leaving another baby behind for Jisu & Leer to raise.
The Wujias definitely don’t follow writer Amy Chua’s Tiger Mom rules for perfect Chinese mothers: (1) schoolwork always comes first; (2) an A-minus is a bad grade; (3) your children must be two years ahead of their classmates in math; (4) you must never compliment your children in public; (5) if your child ever disagrees with a teacher or coach, you must always take the side of the teacher or coach; (6) the only activities your children should be permitted to do are those in which they can eventually win a medal; and (7) that medal must be gold.
But whatever Jisu lacks in forcing her own children to achieve, she more than makes up for in kindness: the entire time she was telling us the sad story of her children’s failures, she was stroking, caressing and hugging the grandchildren they left behind. Her diligence, caring and hard work is what brought her to the attention of Abi Shiha, leader of the Gudu Women’s Self Help Group.
“These women lead really harsh lives,” says the relatively affluent Abi, “but they were working so hard, I felt like I should help them find new channels to succeed.”
And those new channels led to Heifer and some really great pigs.
Established in March 2009 with the help of Heifer International, the Self-Help Groups Project consists of about 80 female-headed families in Zhaojue County who agreed to participate in livestock trainings, group savings accounts (each woman contributes $1/month and from that fund any member can borrow), and in community- and income-building activities like hog-breeding and community clean-ups that teach group responsibility and achievement (Tiger Mom maxims).
It’s step-by-step learning for women whose daily lives are a struggle against deprivation and despair.
Zhaojue is an outlier community: peri-urban, beset by AIDS and drug abuse, and predominantly female, as the vast majority of males have left for work in the cities. Typical income is less than $300/year and there is very little land to farm. But with the gift of Heifer pigs, the women’s income increased more than 3,000 RMB in a year, and some families increased 10,000. (Abi & her husband raised these prize winners:)
Gudu women have learned to be self-reliant, help each other, and establish hygienic habits in their houses and the community, even petitioning the government to build clean, healthy biogas stoves. They also adopted Heifer’s Farmer Field School trainings to plant pasture for their animals and vegetables for their children, and by November 5, half the women had Passed on the Gift of animals to another 80 needy families– a full six months’ ahead of schedule.
As we sat in the yard talking & admiring Jisu’s 3 Heifer sows, 1 fattening pig and 9 piglets, the grandchildren, who were rather withdrawn at first, reverted to their feisty adorable selves. They are all in school now (the better township school Jisu proudly told us) and they finally have enough food to eat and clothes to wear. “Before, we had nothing to sell so we couldn’t even buy shoes,” she explains. “But now we have pigs.”
And in Zhaojue, pigs are better than tigers any day.