"Stones into Schools:" Greg Mortenson's story of hope in Pakistan and Afghanistan
"Stones into Schools" is the inspiring new book by Greg Mortenson, author of "Three Cups of Tea," his account of his efforts to spread literacy in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Mortenson will discuss his book Tuesday at Seattle Pacific University.
Special to The Seattle Times
Greg MortensonThe author of "Stones into Schools" will discuss his work at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Seattle Pacific University's Royal Brougham Pavilion, 3414 Third Ave. W., Seattle; free. Sponsored by the Elliott Bay Book Co. and Seattle Public Library (206-386-4636 or www.spl.org).
In his mega best-seller, "Three Cups of Tea," Greg Mortenson gave a moving account of his efforts to build schools for girls in the rugged mountains of Pakistan. He returns with an equally inspiring (and perhaps more elegantly written) follow-up volume, "Stones into Schools: Promoting Peace with Books, Not Bombs, in Afghanistan and Pakistan" (Viking 420 pp., $26.95). This new offering relates experiences he gathered while striving to realize the same goal of female literacy, this time in neighboring Afghanistan.
As H.G. Wells has been quoted in the book: "History is a race between education and catastrophe."
Mortenson, a winner of the Star of Pakistan, one of Pakistan's highest civil awards, could have had it easier. He received a request from Afghanistan's Minister of Finance to build schools in the capital city of Kabul. However, Mortenson and the organization he co-founded — Central Asia Institute (CAI) — stuck to their dream of opening educational institutions in the remotest, most austere regions.
One such region turned out to be the Wakhan Corridor in the northeast. Originally settled by Kirghiz nomads, it is ethnically complex and totally lacking in infrastructure. Traveling by horseback or on foot is quite often the only option.
Mortenson dubbed it The Last Best Place (his native Montana's motto), not just the end of the road, but "the end of the earth itself."
In Wakhan as in the rest of Afghanistan, things seldom go according to plan. At one point Mortenson has construction material moved through miles of harsh terrain, only to be told that a bridge needs to be built first. Although this sets the project back by two years, it is eventually completed.
Throughout, Mortenson receives enormous help from locals — councils of elders, school teachers, refugees, even a former Taliban member. The locals donate land, provide labor and manage the logistics, all with exceptional zeal. They deal with bandits, gunrunners and corrupt bureaucracy, and often exist in fear of being kidnapped. Many of them later become CAI employees.
Empowering the locals in all phases of development, rather than staffing these projects with expatriates, has had enormous payoffs. As the Taliban re-emerges and destroys other NGO properties, they leave the CAI schools untouched.
In addition to delays and frustrations, projects become hampered and lose their priority status when a natural calamity, such as the massive 2005 earthquake in Kashmir, strikes. Such an event diverts the attention of CAI, which becomes the recipient of money and goods from numerous sources, to dealing with the emergency.
Mortenson's vision remains wide. He not only builds schools, but also provides women's vocational training and aids in other humanitarian efforts. Most important of all, he advocates peace. His method is based on building relationships, the "three-cups-of-tea" approach of sharing tea, spending hours together and carrying on negotiations. (The phrase derives from a Balkan proverb, signifying that only successive interactions between individuals can create the trust necessary to overcome centuries-old conflicts.)
The process can be glacially slow. In one incident, a particular Islamic cleric needs persuading that girls should attend school. It takes nine years to change his mind but, eventually, the cleric becomes a staunch supporter of women's education.
The essence of many of Mortenson's ventures can be summed up in a quote from the book. "Every leaf of the tree becomes a page of the book, once the heart is opened and it has learnt to read."
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