Book tells of one man’s mission to establish schools in a war zone


Call me a cynic but I am always deeply suspicious when it is claimed that  governments  businesses or  individuals  are  really transforming peoples’ lives for the better, however noble their intentions.

Too much hyperbole and spin breeds cynicism in all of us, I suspect.   But just occasionally something crops up that is self-evidently both transformative and uplifting to the human spirit.

In 1993 Greg Mortenson a climber was the exhausted survivor of a failed American attempt to ascend K2.  He wandered lost (having been separated  inexplicably from his  Balti guide and porter) through Pakistan’s Karakoram Himalaya .He was nursed back to health by the people of an impoverished Pakistani  mountain village. Mortenson promised to return one day and build them a school. This grew into a one-man mission to counteract extremism by building schools, especially for girls, in the extremists back door.  Climbers had come and gone promising locals all sorts of support but Mortensen was different. He meant it.

True, Mortenson was  somewhat disorganised and a trifle naive to begin with, he was an infidel among devout  Muslims, after all,  but  he  survived kidnapping, repeated death threats,  vital supplies going missing and wrenching separations from his wife and children.  But he quickly learnt to actually listen to local people  and  to hear what they were  saying to him, developing essential  relationships with local fixers to get things done, and to  overcome obstacles both  logistical and cultural.  His  ultimate  success speaks for itself.

At the last count, his Central Asia Institute had built 151 schools serving 58,000 pupils (55 in Taliban territory). His book, co-written with award winning journalist David Oliver Relin, Three Cups of Tea is a best seller in the States. One review says that it is ‘at once an unforgettable adventure and the inspiring true story of how one man really is changing the world—one school at a time.’ Most local religious leaders have supported Mortensens efforts , although one Imam issued  a fatwa against him.

A sequel to Three Cups of Tea, titled ‘Stones Into Schools: Promoting Peace With Books, Not Bombs, In Afghanistan and Pakistan’   was released on December 1, 2009. It follows the progress of Mortenson’s seventeen year effort to promote female literacy and education, with an emphasis on the expansion of his efforts into Afghanistan, and his expressed admiration to help the U.S. military to promote peace and build relationships with the Afghan shura (leaders).  Improving female  education has a significant knock on effect on economic social and  health indicators. The  American military we are told  has been eagerly reading “Three Cups of Tea”  but may not yet have  absorbed the central lesson: building schools is a better bet for peace  and winning hearts and minds than  blowing up Afghan  civilians (what is it that attracts drones to wedding parties?). Real education can actually transform a nation.  One reason, maybe, why Bangladesh is calmer than Pakistan, and Oman is less threatening than Yemen.

Mortenson lamented to a New York Times columnist   that for the cost of just 246 soldiers posted for one year, America could pay for a higher education plan for all Afghanistan. That would help build an Afghan economy, civil society and future — all for one-quarter of 1 percent of US military spending in Afghanistan this year.  Although one couldn’t describe Relin as an outstanding writer, the story almost speaks for itself and is illuminating for anyone involved in education in seemingly hostile environments. Mortensen has claimed that none of his schools has been destroyed by the Taliban.  Let us  hope  that the recent devastating  floods in Pakistan have not done the Taliban’s dirty work for them.


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