'Stones into Schools'
The Hunger for Learning in Pakistan & Afghanistan

By Alan Shapiro

Seventeen years ago in Pakistan, Greg Mortenson came two thousand feet short of reaching the summit of K2, the world's second highest mountain (behind Everest). Disappointed and lost, he eventually stumbled into a small village, Korphe, where he found shelter, hospitality, and experiences that transformed his life.

Recuperating in Korphe, he visited the village school one afternoon. Eighty-two children without a teacher sat outside writing in the dirt. In the book Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace…One School at a Time, Mortenson described that experience and what followed. Mortenson overcame many obstacles to fulfill a promise to the villagers that he would return and build a school. In the process, he found a life calling, returning again and again to Pakistan and then Afghanistan to build more schools where people hungered for learning.

"In each community we made a point of consulting with the elders and the parents in order to find out what they thought they needed," Greg Mortenson writes in his new sequel, Stones Into Schools: Promoting Peace with Books, Not Bombs, in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

"In a way, even though we had come…in order to build schools and to promote education, we were inviting the people of the area to become our teachers," Mortenson writes. "And in so doing, [we] wound up relearning the lesson that had originally been imparted to me, all those years ago, by the silver-bearded Haji Ali in the village of Korphe." (The "we" includes Safraz Khan, the remote areas project manager of the Central Asia Institute, the organization Mortenson founded.)

Haji Ali, a village elder, had told Mortenson:"We may be uneducated. But we are not stupid. We have lived and survived here for a long time." Haji Ali also told him, "The first cup of tea you share with us, you are a stranger. The second cup, you are a friend. But with the third cup, you become family--and for our families we are willing to do anything, even die."

"When you take the time to actually listen, with humility, to what people have to say, it's amazing what you can learn," writes Mortenson. "Especially if the people who are doing the talking also happen to be children."

Listening to Farzana

In the autumn of 2005, Mortenson and Safraz Khan were listening to Farzana, "a beautiful ninth grader with deep brown eyes and dense black eyebrows who lived in the village of Nouseri." The people of Pakistan's Neelum Valley had just experienced a 7.6 earthquake, which was of about the same magnitude as the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Farzana's mother, brother, and sister had been killed in the earthquake. Her school had been reduced to rubble.

In an earlier visit Safraz had set up tent schools in Nouseri, but few of the children were attending. Farzana was one of those few. She answered Mortenson's question about why only a few were coming to class. "Because there are no desks in the tents," she said. Since in many of the schools the Central Asia Institute had built in Pakistan and Afghanistan, students sat cross-legged on the floor, Mortenson thought she had offered a strange reason. "Why are desks so important?" he asked.

"They make children feel safe. And with desks, the tents feel more like a real school," Farazana replied. "But even if the classes are held outside, you should have desks outside, too. Only then will the children come to class."

Mortenson and Safraz begin reassembling broken desks from the school's rubble. Villagers helped, the word spread, and within a couple of hours, Nouseri's kids were back in class.

"What Farzana had understood was that in the minds of the children, desks provided concrete evidence that at least within the confines of their classroom a degree of order, stability and normalcy and had returned to their lives," Mortenson said. "In a traumatized world where everything had been turned upside down and the ground itself had given way, a desk offered certitude. It was something you could trust." Farzana had launched "Operation School Desks." Within a week, crews of amateur carpenters had knocked together some 800 desks for every school in the area.

"It is important to be clear about the fact that the aim of the Central Asia Institute is not indoctrination," Mortenson writes. "We have no agenda other than assisting rural women with their two most frequent requests: 'We don't want our babies to die, and we want our children to go to school.' And in the process of addressing those wishes, it is certainly not our aim to teach the children of Pakistan and Afghanistan to think or to act like Americans. We simply want them to have the chance to attend schools that offer a balanced, nonextremist education."

Mortenson created the Central Asia Institute (CAI) to get schools built for people desperate for learning in places like Nouseri. With the support of Dr. Jean Hoerni, his main benefactor, and tireless allies like Safraz, Mortenson's full-time mission is to build schools for Afghan, as well as Pakistani, kids, especially girls. Mortenson also conducts relentless, physically draining lecture and fundraising tours across the U.S.

Building Schools in the Wakhan

In his new book Mortenson describes an effort to obtain permission from the Interior Ministry for building schools in the Wakhan Corridor, a remote region of Afghanistan:

"'But why are you proposing to build schools in the Wakhan?'" an official exclaimed. "'We already have hundreds of schools there!....'

"'But there is not a single school in the eastern half of the Wakhan Corridor,' I responded.

'''But that is not true!' he said. At this point, Safraz unfurled a map and began to point out the places in the Wakhan that needed schools. 'But this is not even part of Afghanistan!' the man cried. 'Why are you proposing to build schools in China?'

"''The fact of the matter, sir,' said Safraz, 'is that this is your country.'

"'Well, even if it is Afghanistan,' he continued, 'schools are not necessary in this area because no one lives there.'

"Within the span of a single five-minute exchange, this official had asserted that the Wakhan was filled with hundreds of schools, that the Wakhan was not part of Afghanistan, and that no one actually lived in the Wakhan."

CAI continued to build schools in the Wakhan.

'Not a stone had been hurled'

In 2005 Newsweek published an article that implied that an American soldier at Guantánamo had flushed a copy of the Koran down a toilet. By the time the magazine retracted the story, it had flamed through the Muslim world, including remote areas of Afghanistan.

Days later Mortenson drove to check on a new CAI school in Baharak, where it seemed "as if we were entering a war zone. Rubber tires still smoldered in the streets, which were covered with sticks, bricks, and stones." The mob's fury had been directed at NGOs--nongovernmental organizations that provided services to this poor region. The NGO offices "lay in ruins, and even the safes and desks had been smashed to pieces."

But Mortenson and company reached the new school, "I could hardly believe my eyes. No windows were broken. The door was intact." New green paint was untouched. He learned that during the riot the mob headed for the school but were "met by a group of elders who had donated the land for the school, organized the laborers who had built it, and participated in the laying of the cornerstone. These elders, or pirs, informed the rioters that the Central Asia Institute school belonged not to a foreign aid organization but to the community itself. It was their school….And with that, the rioters dispersed. Not a stone had been hurled."

Military learns from Mortenson

The U.S. military learned about Mortenson's work through Three Cups of Tea. Invited to the Pentagon in 2002 to address officers and civilian officials, Mortenson told them, "I'm no military expert, and these figures might not be exactly right. But as best I can tell, we've launched 114 Tomahawk cruise missiles into Afghanistan so far. Now take the cost of one of those missiles, tipped with a Raytheon guidance system, which I think is about $840,000. 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. Which do you think will make us more secure?"

Military officers in Afghanistan listened to Mortenson's insights about building relationships and learning from the people he wanted to help, and saw that they were vital for their own mission. Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff met with Mortenson in 2008 and asked him about Afghanistan:"Tell me about something good that's going on there," Mullen said.

So Mortenson told him that "at the height of the Taliban's power, in 2000, less than 800,000 children were enrolled in school in Afghanistan--all of them boys. Today, however, student enrollment across the country [is] approaching 8 million children, 2.4 million of whom are girls."

He also told Mullen about "children studying in classrooms set up in animal sheds, windowless basements, garages, and even an abandoned public toilet. We ourselves have run schools out of refugee tents, shipping containers, and the shells of bombed-out Soviet armored personnel carriers. The thirst for education over there is limitless. The Afghans want their children to go to school because literacy represents what neither we nor anyone else has so far managed to offer them: hope, progress, and the possibility of controlling their own destiny."

That summer Admiral Mullen came to Pushgur, where the CAI was inaugurating an eight-room school for more than 200 girls. He spoke to the girls in English. Lima, a 12th grader whose desperately poor father made a living selling firewood in Kabul, translated into Dari. Then the admiral met privately with the girls in the new building.

Emphasis on educating girls

Why the emphasis on educating girls in the more than 130 schools that the CAI has built since the mid-1990s? Because Mortenson knew from the outset that most of the girls in Afghanistan and Pakistan have virtually no other opportunity to learn even the most basic 3Rs skills.

Schooling for girls has meant improved health. Educated girls grow up to be mothers who want schooling for their own children. Educated women also have a lower birth rate. Unfortunately, however, educated women still have limited opportunities in remote regions. A woman here still cannot be a shopkeeper in her village or even move to a city "because in conservative Islamic culture, interaction with men outside their family is forbidden….Aside from becoming a teacher, there are almost no jobs available for rural women outside the home."

CAI's new program to identify the highest-achieving young women, high school graduates, and finance their advanced studies in the city faces formidable obstacles, which Mortenson details. It is hard to get the support of local mullahs, and girls' fathers are often opposed. Nevertheless, Mortenson remains committed to women's empowerment just as he is to "nonextremist education" for all Afghan and Pakistani young people. It is an important part of his continuing work to promote peace through books, not bombs, one school at a time.

To support Mortenson's efforts to promote education and literacy, especially for girls, make a tax-deductible contribution to his nonprofit organization, the Central Asia Institute (PO Box 7209, Bozeman, MT 59771, phone 406-585-7841, www.ikat.org). It costs CAI $1 per month to provide one child's education in Pakistan or Afghanistan, and a penny to buy a pencil. A teacher's salary averages $1.50 per month.

Note: To view or read a transcript of Bill Moyers' interview with Greg Mortenson, visit www.pbs.org/moyers/journal. Click on transcripts and go to the interview of 1/15/10.


This essay was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: lmcclure@morningsidecenter.org.

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