Until this year, children living in one of the remotest corners of eastern Afghanistan could only dream of getting an education. No schools existed to nourish hungry young minds. But now, a simple wooden structure in the heart of a valley stands as a beacon of hope for a brighter future. Outside, its red door frame and windows extend a cheerful welcome. Inside, four classrooms with earthen floors can accommodate 200 students. Many will be girls. Perched at an altitude of 12,480 feet, this schoolhouse sits on the “roof of the world,” where transporting construction materials is virtually impossible. It represents one of the proudest achievements of Greg Mortenson, an American mountaineer-turned-humanitarian. His passion for educating girls has led to the building of 131 schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan, often against daunting odds and amid considerable danger.
Mortenson’s unexpected career change began in 1993. After failing to scale K2, the world’s second-highest mountain, he became lost. Exhausted, he eventually stumbled into the impoverished village of Korphe. There, residents shared their meager provisions and nursed him back to health. During his recovery, he watched as 82 children scratched their lessons with sticks in the dusty soil. In gratitude to the villagers for saving his life, Mortenson promised to return and build a school.
That pledge in Pakistan forms the heart of his runaway bestseller, “Three Cups of Tea,” which has sold 3 million copies around the world. Now his equally inspiring sequel, Stones into Schools, describes the challenge of building schools in Afghanistan. Calling young women “the single biggest potential agents of change in the developing world,” he describes this phenomenon as “the Girl Effect.” It echoes an African proverb he often heard as a child growing up in Tanzania, the son of teachers: “If you educate a boy, you educate an individual; but if you educate a girl, you educate a community.” He adds, “No other factor even comes close to matching the cascade of positive changes triggered by teaching a single girl how to read and write.
In military parlance, girls’ education is a ‘force multiplier’ – and in impoverished Muslim societies, the ripple effects of female literacy can be profound.” Statistics tell the story. According to the World Bank, a single year of primary education can increase a woman’s income 10 to 20 percent later in life. Other studies find that when girls receive a fifth-grade education, infant mortality drops. They also marry later and have fewer children.
But as Mortenson has discovered, simply giving girls a primary education is not enough. Almost no jobs exist for rural women in these developing countries. Some of them need higher education so they can become teachers, doctors, and maternal healthcare workers. As one shining example, Mortenson points to 22-year-old Shakila Khan, one of the first to graduate from his school in Hushe, a village south of Korphe. She will be the first locally educated female physician in an area of 300,000 people.
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.
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.