01 July 2010


In Bozeman, Montana lives a man named Greg Mortenson. In 1993, after a failed attempt to climb K2, the world's second-highest mountain, he ended up in a small Pakistani village, where he was cared for until he recovered. In gratitude, he promised that he would build a school for the village -- in a remote and rugged part of the world where schools are scarce and mostly only admit male students. Mortenson followed through on his promise, and school-building for those most in need became his passion. He co-founded the Central Asia Institute, a non-profit humanitarian mission headquartered in Bozeman. In the years since, Mortenson has been instrumental in building literally hundreds of schools, with a special focus on education for girls. His Pakistan story is told brilliantly in the best-selling book Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Fight Terrorism and Build Nations ... One School at a Time.

One of my book-reading clubs is currently reading of Mortenson's subsequent immersion in school-building among the cultures of neighboring Afghanistan. His second book is called Stones into Schools: Promoting Peace with Books, Not Bombs, In Afghanistan and Pakistan. One need not have read his first book to be swept up by his second -- in fact, each book stands alone in its narrative. Mortenson spent months at a time in the Wakhan Corridor, a narrow arm of northeastern Afghanistan tucked between the Hindu Kush and the Pamir Mountains. Places which are exotic to many of us -- Kabul, Peshawar, the Khyber Pass -- evoke the wild last places on earth. Yet for Mortenson, they are merely the jumping-off points to destinations even farther removed from our reality, places where the valleys lie at tortured elevations higher than most of our mountains -- Baharak, Sarhad, Bozai Gumbaz -- places of desolate beauty and intricate tribal politics and traditions dating back for millenia.

In both books, Mortenson intersperses the story of his own travels with a clear and lucid explanation of the ancient and modern histories of the region -- in particular, the history of the past several decades of war. The Mujahideen, the Russian invasion, the Taliban, the American invasion, all coalesce into the wars within which native peoples must try to survive. Mortenson goes to great lengths to understand and convey to the reader the distinction between the atrocities committed by terrorists in the name of religion, and the true, peaceful teachings of the Koran. The Taliban no more represents Islam than the Ku Klux Klan represents Christianity.

I was struck by two key, guiding premises which have contributed to his success in establishing schools in countries which hunger for education, even amid war. One is that we as outsiders cannot hope to simply walk in and impose our values on the native culture. We are better served by approaching with humility, and making respectful contact with individuals and groups in the hope of helping them to take control of their own lives. This realization is expressed in a Balti proverb -- "The first time you share tea with a Balti, you are a stranger. The second time you take tea, you are an honored guest. The third time you share a cup of tea, you become family."

The second premise relates to the author's focus on educating girls, in a part of the world where girls are so often excluded from school. "Teach a boy, and you educate an individual. Teach a girl, and you educate a community." It is a remarkable sign of promise that so many Muslims in this seemingly medieval part of the world embrace with enthusiasm the education of their daughters (and wives).

In support of equal education for girls, consider these facts, borrowed from the appendix of Stones Into Schools --

~ Girls' education leads to increased income for the girls themselves and for nations as a whole.

~ Educated women have smaller, healthier, and better-educated families.

~ The better educated the women in a society, the lower the fertility rate.

~ The better educated the women, the lower the infant mortality and maternal mortality rates.

~ The children of educated women study as much as two hours more each day than children of illiterate mothers, and stay in school longer.

~ Educated girls and women are more likely to stand up for themselves and resist violence.

~ Educated women channel more of their resources to the health and education of their children than men do.

~ Educated women are more likely to participate in political discussions, meetings and decision making.

~ As women are educated and approach parity with men, research shows that governments and other institutions function better and with less corruption.

Key ingredients in successfully building girls' schools (also from the appendix):

~ Build schools close to girls' homes. This increases attendance and parental involvement.

~ Insist on community involvement. Community-based and community-supported schools (which tend to meet culture norms and use local language) have higher enrollment and quality and lower dropout rates.

~ Build "girl-friendly" schools, even separate schools for girls, until their education becomes the norm.

~ Provide female teachers. Recruit locally, providing training and support.

~ Focus on quality education, with enough teachers, ongoing teacher training, emphasis on math and science, and adequate books and supplies.

As-Salaam Alaaikum. Peace be with you.

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