Book review

Amid devastation, oppression, compassionate effort expands

By Bill Williams
December 23, 2009

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Greg Mortenson won the hearts of readers with the publication three years ago of “Three Cups of Tea,’’ which chronicled his failed 1993 attempt to climb the mountain K2 in Pakistan and his subsequent promise to build a school in gratitude for being rescued by villagers.

Little did Mortenson know that this would become his life’s calling. His nonprofit Central Asia Institute, based in Montana, has since opened more than 130 schools.

Mortenson’s passionate new book, “Stones Into Schools,’’ picks up where “Three Cups of Tea’’ left off by recounting the author’s harrowing and risky foray into war-torn Afghanistan, where he has opened schools in remote villages, while trying to win the support of a suspicious central government.

The sequel, written in a more personal voice, is filled with heartbreaking stories of oppression, warfare, and survival on both sides of the porous Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Mortenson describes the devastation inflicted by the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan that killed an estimated 86,000 people, many of them students buried in rubble when school roofs collapsed. That prompted Mortenson’s team to begin building earthquake-proof schools.

As word has spread about the author’s work, he is often besieged by villagers imploring him to build more schools. He once came upon 25 children studying in a hut that had been a toilet. The roof was gone, and the toilet pits had been covered with boards.

From the start Mortenson has focused on educating girls, who often have been barred from school for cultural and religious reasons. He stresses the “ripple effects of female literacy’’ and persuasively hammers the theme that secular education is the best way to counter Islamic jihad. Young men seeking to join a militant jihad often seek permission from their mothers “and educated women, as a rule, tend to withhold their blessing for such things,’’ Mortenson writes.

Taliban fighters in Afghanistan condemn attempts to educate girls, and make their point by executing teachers and burning schools. According to Mortenson, men on motorcycles once squirted battery acid into the faces of girls and their teachers. Mortenson’s schools have mostly been spared. When a school he built was threatened with arson, outraged village elders responded by naming a respected mullah as headmaster. The school was not touched.

Mortenson listens to community leaders before he embarks on projects and places responsibility in local hands. Much credit goes to a colorful “Indiana Jones’’ character named Sarfraz Khan, who rides across rugged terrain to supervise projects, even devising a special rope that has allowed him to sleep in the saddle.

One of the book’s most memorable stories involves Bozai Gumbaz, an isolated mountain village cut off from the world during winter months. Ten years ago several men rode on horseback nonstop for six days to implore Mortenson to build a school in Bozai Gumbaz. He agreed, having no idea of the obstacles. Eventually cement and other building materials were hauled to the village on the backs of yaks. Local men worked 14-hour days to complete the school before winter.

The author splits his time between Asia and the United States, where he has tried to turn his Central Asia Institute into a promotion and fund-raising machine, spreading the word about the importance of girls’ education and empowerment of women. Although Mortenson criticizes US bombing missions that have killed civilians, he praises military leaders who have embraced his efforts to build schools.

“Stones Into Schools’’ offers a compelling mix of adventure, big dreams, and fine writing. The book will leave readers applauding Mortenson’s energy and determination to make a difference in the lives of children in two nations wracked by hardship and terrorist violence.

Bill Williams is a freelance writer in West Hartford, Conn., and a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

STONES INTO SCHOOLS Promoting Peace With Books, Not Bombs, in Afghanistan and Pakistan By Greg Mortenson

Viking, 448 pp., $26.95

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