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Stones Into Schools

The inspiring sequel to "Three Cups of Tea" follows Greg Mortenson into remote Afghanistan where he continues his quest to build schools.

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Mortenson’s learning curve has also included the realization that education goes beyond book learning. As his young daughter reminded him, children need to play. Her plea resulted in shipments of 7,000 jump-ropes and the construction of playgrounds.

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Mortenson himself is a fascinating study in contradictions. He describes himself in self-effacing terms as a “profoundly bewildered man,” as an “incorrigible introvert,” and as “awkward, soft-spoken, ineloquent, and intensely shy.” Yet by the measure of his own accounts in his books, he ranks as incredibly brave. He thinks nothing of leaping into battered minivans and dilapidated jeeps, rattling along rutted, axle-breaking roads for 30 or 40 harrowing hours, dodging danger and going without sleep or food for extended periods – all in the interest of building one more school.

He understands the importance of forging ties with American military personnel. He also exhibits a talent for finding savvy locals who can wheel and deal on each project. Chief among them is the intrepid, tireless Sarfraz Khan, an ex-commando who serves as project director for the Central Asia Institute, Mortenson’s non-governmental organization that oversees these schools. Mortenson calls Sarfraz “the perfect point man” and “the greatest friendship of my life.”

Sarfraz and others have set a brave goal to build a string of girls’ schools through the heart of Taliban country. They face a formidable opponent. Out of hatred for girls’ education, the Taliban have destroyed, damaged, or threatened many schools. Two of Mortenson’s own schools have been affected. Undaunted, he soldiers on. For his humanitarian work, he has received the Star of Pakistan, one of the country’s highest civil awards.

At 400 pages, the book sometimes feels long. Keeping places and people straight can be hard, although maps and a 56-person who’s who list help. Yet many of the stories he tells make for engaging reading.

As Americans face the sobering reality of sending 30,000 more troops to war-torn Afghanistan, Mortenson offers a cautionary note. Americans, he states, “have far more to learn from the people of Afghanistan than we could ever hope to teach them.”

Estimating the cost of one Tomahawk cruise missile tipped with a Raytheon guidance system at $840,000, he writes, “For that much money you could build dozens of schools that could provide tens of thousands of students with a balanced, nonextremist education over the course of a generation.” Then he poses a provocative question: “Which do you think will make us more secure?”
Marilyn Gardner is a former Monitor staff editor and writer.

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