Stones Into Schools - By Greg Mortenson
The muddled war in Afghanistan is now in its eighth year, and has become the most urgent foreign policy challenge facing President Obama. Against a backdrop of rising conflict, respected think tanks like the Atlantic Council have published reports calling Afghanistan a failing state. The country indeed faces enormous problems: a violent, spiraling insurgency that is hampering the rule of law and developmental efforts, the growth of record crops of poppies, extreme poverty, criminality, homelessness, joblessness, lack of access to clean water, continuing problems with the status of women, and a central government that has struggled to protect its people and provide basic services.
But there are success stories as well in post-9/11 Afghanistan, and the most meaningful of them is education. If we accept the premise that education is the key to achieving positive, long-lasting change in Afghanistan, then it is impossible to overstate how encouraging it is that this year nearly eight and a half million children will attend school in Afghanistan, with girls accounting for nearly 40 percent of enrollment.
No one understands this better than Greg Mortenson, the founder of 131 schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan that provide education to nearly 58,000 students. No one grasps better the profound impact and ripple effect of even one child’s education. And, arguably, no single individual or organization has done more to advance the American cause in Afghanistan than Greg Mortenson, a courteous, soft-spoken man who with his genial smile and warm handshake has shown the U.S. military how the so-called battle for the hearts and minds is fought. And how it is won.
Greg’s philosophy is not complicated. He believes quite sincerely that the conflict in Afghanistan will ultimately not be won with guns and air strikes, but with books, notebooks, and pencils, the tools of socioeconomic well-being. To deprive Afghan children of education, he tells us, is to bankrupt the future of the country, and doom any prospects of Afghanistan becoming someday a more prosperous and productive state. Despite fatwas issued against him, despite threats from the Taliban and other extremists, he has done everything he can to make sure that this does not happen.
Very crucially, he has spearheaded efforts to educate girls and young women. Not an easy task in a region where parents routinely keep their daughters out of school and where long-standing cultural traditions have deprived women of the right to education. But in village after village, Greg has reached out to religious leaders and elders to help convince parents to send their girls to school. This is because Greg believes, as I do, that if Afghanistan has any chance to become a more prosperous nation, it will require the full engagement of its women as part of the process. And for that to happen, women have to be given access to schools, and their education has to be one of the corner-stones of national reconstruction and development. As he says repeatedly, mantralike, “If you educate a boy, you educate an individual, but if you educate a girl, you educate a community.”
Lastly, Greg has done all this with charm, grace, patience, and unfailing humility. He has listened carefully, built relationships with village leaders based on trust and respect, and involved people in shaping their own future. He has taken the time to learn the local culture—courtesy, hospitality, respect for elders—and to understand and appreciate the role Islam plays in people’s daily lives. No wonder the U.S. military has recruited Greg as a consultant on how to fashion better relationships with tribal leaders and village elders. They have a lot to learn from him. We all do.
Tashakor, Greg jan, for all you do.
Author of the international best sellers
The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns
Every leaf of the tree becomes a page of the Book
Once the heart is opened and it has learnt to read
—SAADI OF SHIRAZ
Nasreen at home in Zuudkhan village, Pakistan
In September of 2008, a woman with piercing green eyes named Nasreen Baig embarked on an arduous journey from her home in the tiny Pakistani village of Zuudkhan south along the Indus River and down the precipitous Karakoram Highway to the bustling city of Rawalpindi. The three-day trip—first on foot, then on horseback, and later by jeep and bus—took Nasreen, her husband, and their three small children from the sparsely populated Charpurson Valley, in the extreme northern part of Pakistan, directly into the heart of the Punjab, home to more than eighty-five million people. With the exception of a few farming tools, most of their worldly