Greg Mortenson, Stones Into Schools; Promoting Peace With Books, Not Bombs, in Afghanistan and Pakistan (New York: Viking, 2009), 420pp.
Greg Mortenson's new book picks up where his bestseller Three Cups of Tea (2006) left off in 2003. That book has sold three million copies in forty countries and enjoyed three years atop the New York Times best seller list. Without accepting a penny of government or USAID money, Mortenson, his Central Asia Institute, and his "Dirty Dozen" Afghan and Pakistani nationals have built 131 schools that serve 58,000 students. Stones Into Schools focuses on their most recent effort to build schools in one the poorest and most remote areas on earth, the long panhandle of northeast Afghanistan called the Wakhan Corridor.
Development economists have their sharp disagreements about how to help the poor, but most of them agree that there's no greater "force multiplier" than educating young girls and women. Life expectancy and earning power rise, infant and maternal mortality drop, families have fewer and healthier children, they delay having their first child, and so on. Mortenson ads to this his own distinct philosophy of focusing on the least and the last of the world, people who are not merely ignored but who are totally unknown to the rest of the world. He actually thinks that it's important to listen to the locals and build trust.
Mortenson is quick to give all the credit to the nationals who have labored in unimaginably difficult conditions and places. There's Sarfraz Khan who speaks seven languages ("the greatest friendship of my life"), and the warlord Sadhar Khan, who battled the Soviets and Taliban for thirty years and then urged Mortenson that "we must turn these stones into schools." Much of this story reads like Indiana Jones, and when you read closely you realize how much of a maverick and renegade Mortenson is. He travels with $50,000 bricks of cash. He'll shake hands with the devil to build schools. He avoids political ideologies and religious controversy. For a long time his Central Asia Institute was not even registered with the Afghan government as an official NGO.
His highly unorthodox style has paid off. Just before his ouster, Pakistan's president Pervez Musharraf awarded him one of his country's highest medals of honor. Although critical of the US military, he has befriended senior people in the Pentagon, including Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who opened one of their schools. Mortenson now acknowledges his "deeply rewarding" relationships with some people in the military, and for some time now Three Cups of Tea has been required reading for many military people. It took ten years to fulfill a promise he made to the warlord Sadhar Khan, but with patience and persistence, creativity and innovation, Mortenson ends this book with how they opened a four room school in Bozai Gumbaz, their most remote school that sits atop the world at 12,480 feet in the furthest northeast corner of the Wakhan Corridor.