Deng Yingxiang stands before the tunnel she has lobbied for and been involved in construction. [Provided by ACWF Publicity Department]
Mahuai and its two neighboring villages of Tianba and Jiashao are home to more than 400 families, many whom have lived there for generations. Before the tunnel was built, villagers used to wake at 4 a.m. to climb over the mountains and make it to market to sell their farm produce.
At harvest time, many fruits were left to rot at farms because villagers were unable to carry them on the arduous journey. Children spent about two hours traversing the mountains to attend a primary school located three kilometers away.
In 1999, China began upgrading its power grid in rural areas. In order to allow infrastructure to be built, local village official Li Delong approved construction of a tunnel through a mountain slope near Mahuai.
Li mobilized 27 families to carry out construction of the tunnel, including Deng and her husband Yu Ruilin. Lacking proper tools and machinery, the work was much harder than expected.
A mountainside cave used as the tunnel's entry was narrow, meaning Deng and fellow villagers had to dig on their knees with pickaxes and remove rocks and dirt by hand.
By early 2001, they had finally dug through to the other side of the mountain, allowing equipment to be brought into the village that would upgrade the power grid and provide a regular source of electricity to villagers.
But the tunnel was so narrow that only people and not vehicles could pass through. Without funds to upgrade the tunnel, the village had to abandon work on its expansion.
As villagers migrated to cities to seek higher-paying jobs, Deng asked them to promise they would eventually return to help expand the tunnel once sufficient funding could be secured.
Inspiration through Leadership
Tragically, Yu was killed in an accident in 2004. Deng remarried two years later to village official Li.
In 2010, Deng told Li that it was time to make the tunnel high and wide enough for trucks to use. The cost of expanding the tunnel was estimated at around 1 million yuan (US$165,300), which wasn't available.
Undeterred, Deng began working on the tunnel herself. Her effort inspired Li and around 20 other villagers to join her. In recognition of her effort, the village Party committee appointed Deng as local family planning commissioner.
Although initially unwilling to accept the job, Deng soon found it gave her a stronger platform to lobby the township government for funding to expand the tunnel.
However, not all villagers agreed on expanding the tunnel because they were still in the dark about its benefits. Deng called a meeting attended by all villagers to shed light on the project. She told them how trucks would be able to access the village if the tunnel was expanded, allowing villagers' farm produce to be transported more efficiently to market.
Unanimity was soon reached to expand the tunnel. Every family contributed their part to its further construction. To lead by example, Deng asked her daughter to work in her place in expanding the tunnel when she was unable to do so herself.
Li, team leader of the project, took charge of demolition work. His hearing was damaged from exposure to blasting.
Although Deng had earned the trust of her fellow villagers, the project was delayed several times because of a lack of drilling equipment and explosives.
In desperation, Deng called the county's Party chief to ask for help. After learning about her story, the chief granted her 30,000 yuan (US$4,959) to help fund the tunnel's expansion.
She also received cash donations of more than 100,000 yuan (US$16,530) and more than 80 tons of cement and other supplies from people eager to help. Her own daughter contributed 10,000 yuan (US$1,653) to the project.
Encouraged by the support and donations, Deng and her team were joined by more villagers who sped up construction.
In summer of 2011, they finally completed the tunnel and increased its width from 3.9 meters to five meters and its height from 3.5 meters to five meters, allowing a small truck to pass through.
Over the following two weeks, Deng led fellow villagers in building a road connecting the tunnel to the highway.
Benefiting from the tunnel, Mahuai Village completed a sanitary toilet program and many villagers bought vans, cars and motorcycles to take advantage of their newfound accessibility to the outside world. More importantly, the average annual income of each villager increased from about 700 yuan (US$116) to 2,000 yuan (US$331).
Awarded for Poverty Alleviation
In October 2013, Deng was awarded the Most Touching Award at the China Poverty Alleviation Awards for her efforts. Chinese Vice Premier Wang Yang presented her with the award.
The China Poverty Alleviation Awards have been held four times since 2006 by the China Foundation for Poverty Alleviation, a government foundation under the State Council Leading Group Office of Poverty Alleviation and Development.
"The award has been granted to many acclaimed organizations and individuals, including Yuan Longping, Deng Fei and the United Nations' World Food Program," said Deng Yingxiang.
Yuan is an agricultural scientist and educator best known for developing hybrid rice varieties in the 1970s, while Deng Fei is an investigative journalist who founded the Free Lunch for Children charity to improve rural children's nutrition.
Deng Yingxiang said in future she plans to continue upgrading the tunnel to allow bigger trucks to use it and increase villagers' income by developing vegetable and animal farms.
(Source: gongyishibao.com and qnz.com.cn/Translated and edited by womenofchina.cn)
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