A world away, Stanford researchers attempt to curb anemia among the 503 boarding students at a school in windy rural China

Anna Cobb Map of China highlighting Guizhou, Gansu and Ningxia provinces

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Our series: Stanford's Rural Education Action Project in China

China is the world's fastest-growing and second-largest economy, but it's the country's poverty that keeps Scott Rozelle coming back. As co-director of Stanford's Rural Education Action Project, Rozelle is looking for ways to give those struggling in the country's most remote areas the chance to make a living in the booming cities. REAP is one of many programs that has benefited over the last four years from The Stanford Challenge, a fundraising campaign dedicated to supporting people and programs seeking solutions to global problems.

For the past three summers, Rozelle has led what he calls a "mobile board meeting" of REAP's researchers, collaborators and donors who get a chance to review some of the group's projects and think up new ones. This year, the entourage focuses on REAP's work to eradicate childhood anemia and intestinal worms, and introduce computer-assisted learning in schools.

The field trip covers some of the country's poorest areas in the Guizhou, Gansu and Ningxia provinces. Adam Gorlick of the Stanford News Service traveled with the group and reports on their experiences.

Adam Gorlick Stanford's Rural Education Action Project in Guizhou Province, China

Slideshow

Part 5: Thin soup, mattresses of wood and a chance of ghosts

YU WANG, CHINA  – It's dinnertime for the 503 students living at this township's primary school, and dirt starts swirling in the wind just as they're getting ready to eat outside.

After washing with water from an outdoor hose, the kids dash to the building where their radish soup simmers in a giant cauldron. They cluster by a window and thrust their empty bowls to the cafeteria workers cooking inside. The bowls are quickly handed back, heavier now with a scoop of rice and the watery main course.

The food disappears into their mouths and the meal is over in minutes. There's never enough for seconds.

These are among the poorest children in what's been called the poorest place on Earth: the Ningxia Autonomous Region. Shallow canyons and looming mountains offer contrasting shades of brown here, and even a slight breeze is enough to coat your clothes with sand. If China has a dustbowl, this most certainly is it.

The REAP researchers are visiting Yu Wang to see how their experiments and ideas are curbing anemia at the school. While they're inside speaking with the principal and superintendent, the 700 students who are here only during the day get ready to go home. The others settle into their nighttime routine.

Many of the 503 boarders – kids in grades three through six – come from homes in the hills more than an hour away. They go back on weekends to see their families and get their only shower of the week. For most, that means seeing just their mother or grandparents.

Almost none of them see their fathers. The men spend most of their time away from home as well, returning just a few times a year from their jobs in China's cities. The wages there for unskilled workers add up to about $3,000 a year – good money for those whose only option is to try harvesting this barren landscape.

After dinner, the kids head to their dormitories for homework, then sleep.

Li Pengniao, a sixth-grader living here for two years, said he doesn't like the food, but loves living in the dorms.

It's hard to see why. The air inside the buildings is choked with the stench of urine, sweat and damp towels. About 30 children sleep in each dorm on mattresses of warped and broken wood supported on metal frames. Three or four students share a bed, and each has a sheet and blanket brought from home.

"There's not enough room," said Ma Weilong, a science teacher who's in charge of the dormitories. "Thirty kids are too much for a room this size."

Ma said he motivates the kids to keep their rooms tidy by heaping praise on those who fold their blankets every morning and place them neatly on the wooden boards.

And he sees to it that they're OK during the night, making sure there's always an adult on duty to escort anyone who needs to use the outdoor bathroom a few hundred yards away.

The kids are grateful. They say to walk alone in the dark of this bone-dry land is to risk coming across a ghost haunting the dusty air.