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From The Asian Reporter, V20, #8 (March 2, 2010), page 11.
Greg Mortenson takes his famous Three Cups of Tea approach to Afghanistan
Stones into Schools: Promoting Peace with Books,
Not Bombs, in Afghanistan and Pakistan
By Greg Mortenson
Hardcover, 420 pages, $26.95
By Allison Voigts
Since the hit book Three Cups of Tea: One Manís Mission to Promote Peace and Build Nations Ö One School at a Time propelled Greg Mortenson into the spotlight as Americaís most popular humanitarian in 2006, the mountaineer-turned-school-builder has received a lot of invitations to tea.
The account of how Mortenson began building schools for girls in Pakistan after a failed summit attempt on K2 became a favorite in book clubs, church groups, high school and college classrooms, and even military courses. Mortensonís lectures at adventure clubs, universities, and recently Portlandís Keller Auditorium draw thousands, provoking the comment in Durango, Colorado that the town "hadnít seen a crowd this size since Willie Nelson last came to town."
Readers and donators to Mortensonís nonprofit organization, the Central Asia Institute (CAI), clamored for an update on his activities in Pakistan and Afghanistan, where CAI had just begun building schools at the cliff- hanger ending of Three Cups of Tea. Mortenson has followed that book with Stones into Schools: Promoting Peace with Books, Not Bombs, in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
As Three Cups of Tea began with Mortensonís promise to the village of Korphe (where he was nurtured back to health following the K2 climb) to build them a school, Stones into Schools opens with a similar promise. This time Mortensonís reputation in the region leads the villagers to him, in the form of a cavalry of fierce nomads who rode for six days from Afghanistanís Wakhan Corridor in 1999 to petition "Dr. Greg" to help them build a school.
The horsemen, members of the Kirghiz tribe, come from an area so far-flung that even an Afghan official thinks they may be a part of neighboring China. With CAIís philosophy of building in "last places," at the end of the map, the Kirghiz school seems like an ideal project. But like the Korphe school, it takes a decade to accomplish.
The reason for Mortensonís slowness in completing such projects lies in his "three-cups-of-tea" approach, stemming from the belief that building relationships and listening patiently to a communityís needs is the way to make a lasting impact with foreign aid. Furthermore, building schools for girls in conservative Islamic villages, some populated by former and current Taliban, often requires years to gain the support of local religious leaders.
But as buildings erected by foreign NGOs (non-governmental organizations) are destroyed and schoolgirls are attacked by the Taliban, the 131 schools CAI helped build, and their 58,000 students, remain untouched. This fact has earned Mortenson the admiration of the U.S. military, from Gen. Stanley McChrystal to chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen, and while reading about their efforts to employ Mortensonís philosophy one canít help feeling a little more hope about the military campaign there.
Unlike Mortensonís first book, which he co-authored with writer David Oliver Relin, Stones into Schools reads like a recent history of a complicated region rather than an inspirational adventure story. The style, along with Mortensonís lack of eloquence, will turn off some fans of the original book, but most will appreciate a more thorough knowledge of the region Three Cups of Tea introduced.
He presents a slew of real-life heroes among his relentless Pakistani and Afghani staff, without whom he claims "I would still be nothing more than a dirtbag mountaineer subsisting on ramen noodles and living in the back of his car." And most importantly, he introduces the girls ó many of whom are now women ó whose persistence and leadership are educating entire communities.
For more information about Stones into Schools, including upcoming lectures by Greg Mortenson, visit <www.stonesintoschools.com>. To make a donation to the Central Asia Institute, call (406) 585-7841 or visit <www.ikat.org>.