Stones into Schools: Promoting Peace with Education in Afghanistan and Pakistan

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9780143118237: Stones into Schools: Promoting Peace with Education in Afghanistan and Pakistan

Book by Mortenson Greg

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Extrait :

INTRODUCTION

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


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 possessions, including a Koran, were crammed into a black suitcase that was cinched together with baling twine. They also carried a bulging burlap sack whose contents—every stitch of spare clothing they weren’t wearing on their backs—were as jumbled and mixed up as the pieces of Nasreen’s own story.

In 1984, at the age of five, Nasreen started attending one of the first coeducational schools to open up in the north of Pakistan, a region where women were traditionally denied the opportunity to learn reading and writing. Excelling at her classes, she distinguished herself as one of the smartest students in the school until 1992, when her mother unexpectedly died of pneumonia and Nasreen was forced to abandon her studies in order to care for her blind father, Sultan Mehmood, and her four siblings. Eventually her father remarried, and Nasreen’s new stepmother, a woman who believed that girls had no business pursuing education, would taunt Nasreen late at night when she tried to continue her studies by the light of a kerosene lantern. “Women should work instead of reading books,” her stepmother would rail. “Books will poison your mind and you will become a worthless wife and mother!”

Nasreen didn’t see it that way. During her school years, she had acquired a rather bold dream for someone with resources as limited as hers: She had resolved that one day she would become a maternal health-care provider—a profession she had first been exposed to when roving government health-care teams would make their annual rounds through the local villages. She vividly remembers the joy with which she anticipated immunization shots, just so she could interact with the workers in their white cloaks. “My favorite smell was the antiseptic they would use,” she says. “Also, I envied how they would write down all the babies’ names, heights and weights, and immunization details in tidy rows in a spiral notebook.”

Fueled by her dream, Nasreen studied relentlessly, despite her stepmother’s harassment. “After tending to my brothers and sisters and doing all the household work,” she recalls, “I would wait till everyone was asleep, and then late at night I would read.” She persisted in this manner until 1995 when, at the age of fifteen, she received her metric diploma—the equivalent of a high school degree—becoming one of the first of a handful of women from northern Pakistan’s Hunza region ever to do so. As the brightest student and one of the first female graduates for miles around, she was now poised to make good on her ambition.

In 1999, Nasreen was offered an annual scholarship of $1,200 by our nonprofit Central Asia Institute, a stipend that would pay her tuition, room, and board for a two-year course of study and enable her to obtain her rural medical assistant degree. With these qualifications, Nasreen could then carry her skills north over a treacherous 16,335-foot pass into the Wakhan Corridor—a remote portion of Afghanistan just a few miles north of Zuudkhan where Nasreen’s ancestors originally came from and where more women die each year during childbirth than anywhere else on earth.

By this point, however, Nasreen had been betrothed to a handsome but lazy young man from a nearby village, and her mother-in-law, Bibi Nissa, feared that Nasreen’s scholarship would rob her household of the new daughter-in-law’s labor. Even though there were no other qualified girls in the Charpurson Valley to replace Nasreen as a scholarship candidate, Zuudkhan’s tanzeem—the council of elders who decide all matters of local importance—upheld Bibi Nissa’s objections and forbade Nasreen from accepting her stipend, thereby consigning her to a life of near slavery that remains the destiny of so many promising young women in the remote villages of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

During the ten years that followed this decision, Nasreen toiled twelve-to sixteen-hour days tending goats and sheep in the mountains, tilling her family’s potato fields, hauling water in metal jerricans, and gathering up eighty-pound bags of firewood and moist patties of yak dung—Zuudkhan’s two primary sources of heating fuel during the six-month-long winters. During this time she also gave birth to three babies and suffered two miscarriages, all without the attendance of a maternal health-care worker.

Despite the drudgery and the frustration, Nasreen patiently waited out her decade of servitude. What’s more, during her brief moments of respite, she kept her health-care dream alive by seeking out and caring for the sick, the elderly, and the dying within her community. “The lamp in my life refused to be snuffed out,” she says. “God never let the kerosene of hope run dry.”

Then, in the summer of 2007, the leadership of Zuudkhan’s tanzeem changed and the elders decided to set aside their opposition. Nasreen spent a year in the town of Gilgit attending a preparatory school to build back her academic skills after the long hiatus. Finally, in the summer of 2008, with her scholarship in hand, Nasreen was free to travel to Rawalpindi to resume her studies.

Today, Nasreen is a year away from completing her medical training program, but she has decided to continue with her schooling in order to complete a full OB-GYN nursing degree. Sometime in 2012, she hopes to move her family to the Wakhan and begin providing the kind of medical care that this region, one of the most isolated and forbidding places on earth, so desperately needs. As for her “lost years,” Nasreen harbors no bitterness whatsoever, mainly because she is convinced that her experiences imparted some essential insights.

“Allah taught me the lesson of patience while also giving me the tools to truly understand what it means to live in poverty,” she says. “I do not regret the wait.”


During the exact same time that Nasreen and her family were making their way down the Karakoram Highway toward Rawalpindi, I was paying a visit of my own to a small town in the heart of the Rocky Mountains. This was no different from any of the other 120-odd trips I make each year to cities across the United States and abroad in order to promote educational opportunities for women like Nasreen throughout Pakistan and Afghanistan. By the rather warped standards of my own schedule, September 18, 2008, was a fairly ordinary day. During the preceding week, I had given seventeen speeches at schools, churches, and libraries in nine other cities; and at three o’clock the following morning, I was slated to board a private plane that would take me from Durango to my next appearance, a children’s peace rally in Rockford, Illinois. This would be followed by another eighteen lectures in eight more cities before returning to Pakistan on October 6. Somewhere in the middle of this, I was also hoping desperately for a one-day reprieve with my family.

In many other respects, however, September 18 was anything but ordinary. The previous weekend the federal government had permitted the investment firm Lehman Brothers to go bankrupt before attempting an $85 billion-dollar rescue of the insurance giant AIG. By the time the stock market had closed that afternoon, the Dow Jones was in free fall and the entire U.S. financial system seemed to be hovering on the brink of collapse. In short, I could not possibly have selected a worse time to stand in front of a group of Americans and ask them to pull out their checkbooks.

Fortunately, perhaps, my schedule allowed no time to contemplate the absurdity of this. It was a few minutes before 7:00 p.m. when, having already completed six back-to-back lectures, I dashed across the campus of Fort Lewis College to the gym, where more than four thousand people—almost a third of the town—had formed an impossibly long line. The fire marshal would eventually be forced to bar the door and prevent the final three hundred of these folks from entering the building. (Someone later told me that Durango hadn’t seen a crowd this size since Willie Nelson last came to town.)

Although the talks I give in these kinds of settings tend to vary according to the composition of my audience, I always begin with the same words: As-Salaam Alaaikum—the Islamic invocation that means “May peace be upon you.” And regardless of where I wind up steering the discussion, the heart of my presentation always includes the story of a promise.

This story begins in Pakistan in 1993, the year I attempted to climb K2, the world’s second-highest mountain, only to be forced to turn back two thousand feet shy of the summit. After making my way back to K2 base camp, I then got lost while trekking down the thirty-nine-mile Baltoro Glacier and wound up staggering into a little village called Korphe (pronounced “KOR-fay”), a place so destitute that one in every three children perished before the age of one. It was in Korphe that I was provided with shelter, food, tea, and a bed. And it was in Korphe one afternoon during my recuperation that I stumbled across eighty-two children sitting outside writing their lessons with sticks in the dirt, with no teacher in sight. One of those young students was a girl named Chocho, and somehow she got me to promise the community that I would someday return and build them a school.

The fulfillment of that promise involves a tale that recounts my fumbling efforts in Berkeley, where I worked as a nurse, to sell my car, my climbing gear, and all of my books in order to raise the necessary money—and the subsequent chain of events through which a lost mountaineer eventually came to discover his life’s calling by fostering education and literacy in the impoverished Muslim villages of the western Himalayas.

A few years ago, I put these events together into a book called Three Cups of Tea, and as those who have read all 338 pages can attest, it’s a rather long and unusual story. It is also a story that has always struck me as the chronicle of an ordinary man who inadvertently bumbled into an extraordinary place.

When it really comes down to it, I am nothing more than a fellow who took a wrong turn in the mountains and never quite managed to find his way home. My initial vision, if you could call it that, involved helping a village knock together a 2,218-square-foot schoolhouse without any plumbing or electricity in the middle of a barley field at 10,400 feet. In a world filled with bold dreamers and big ideas, it’s hard to imagine a goal more humble than this. And it is the diminutive stature of this beginning that may help to explain why I now live my days beset by an almost continuous sense of wonderment and confusion.

Although I have, by my staff’s estimate, completed a total of 680 appearances in more than 270 cities and towns from Miami and Los Angeles to Anchorage and Shreveport over the last three years, each time I travel somewhere new, I am still shocked by the sheer number of people who flock to hear this tale. Last summer in Boston, when the organizers of a talk I was giving at Northeastern University realized how many people wanted to learn about our schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan, they booked me into a hockey stadium and filled the place with 5,600 people. A week later at a basketball arena in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, 9,500 folks showed up and my speech had to be broadcast on a Jumbotron.

That’s a big change for someone who once considered himself lucky to get the attention of half a dozen bored shoppers at a Patagonia or REI outlet, and perhaps the only thing that amazes me more than the size of these audiences is their dedication and interest. It is not unusual for people to drive six or even twelve hours to hear these presentations, then stand in line for another two hours simply to get their books autographed. But perhaps the most noteworthy testament to their commitment is the sort of thing that took place on that September night in Durango.

On the very same evening that Ben Bernanke, the chairman of the Federal Reserve, was informing members of the House Financial Services Committee that the entire global economy was days away from a complete meltdown, the citizens of Durango, population 16,007, presented the Central Asia Institute with checks totaling nearly $125,000. A single contribution of $50,000 was given by George Boedecker, the founder of the shoe manufacturer Crocs. But the rest of the money came from the sort of individuals who will never know what it means to own a brand or run a corporation. Ranchers, housewives, and salesclerks. Mechanics, teachers, and plumbers. Secretaries, dental hygienists, students, and retirees. People who embody the virtues, as well as the limitations, of a life that is fashioned from humble materials. People, in other words, as ordinary and as unremarkable as me and you.

In my view, that is amazing enough all by itself, but then consider this.

Very few of the people in Durango that night had ever been to Pakistan or Afghanistan. No more than a handful could have been Muslim. And it was doubtful that a single one would ever see, with his own eyes, the schools, books, pencils, and teacher salaries that his money would pay for. Still, they opened their hearts and gave. There, on the threshold of the greatest economic collapse since the Great Depression, in the midst of an era when so many of our leaders have encouraged us to subordinate our noblest impulses to our basest fears, a small community in Colorado responded in exactly the same way as every other city and town to which I have traveled in America since this whole saga got started.

“When you hand this money over to the folks over there on the other side of the world,” said one local businessman, who had tears in his eyes as he spoke, “just tell them that it comes from a little town in the mountains of Colorado so that their daughters can go to school.”

Here, then, is the source of my wonder and confusion. Why do so many Americans seem to care so deeply about people who live in a place that is so far away? Despite everything that has happened, how can our anger and our fear be transcended so consistently by our decency? And what is it about the promise of educating children—especially girls—that so often, and with such fervor, seems to evoke what is best in all of us?


In addition to being a profoundly bewildered man, I am an incorrigible introvert. I am awkward, soft-spoken, ineloquent, and intensely shy. I do not enjoy speaking in public, posing for photographs, or asking other people for money. I dream of privacy, I revere silence, and I loathe any action that involves dra...

Présentation de l'éditeur :

From the author of the #1 bestseller Three Cups of Tea, the continuing story of this determined humanitarian’s efforts to promote peace through education

In this dramatic first-person narrative, Greg Mortenson picks up where Three Cups of Tea left off in 2003, recounting his relentless, ongoing efforts to establish schools for girls in Afghanistan; his extensive work in Azad Kashmir and Pakistan after a massive earthquake hit the region in 2005; and the unique ways he has built relationships with Islamic clerics, militia commanders, and tribal leaders. He shares for the first time his broader vision to promote peace through education and literacy, as well as touching on military matters, Islam, and women—all woven together with the many rich personal stories of the people who have been involved in this remarkable two-decade humanitarian effort.

Since the 2006 publication of Three Cups of Tea, Mortenson has traveled across the U.S. and the world to share his vision with hundreds of thousands of people. He has met with heads of state, top military officials, and leading politicians who all seek his advice and insight. The continued phenomenal success of Three Cups of Tea proves that there is an eager and committed audience for Mortenson’s work and message.

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