‘Stones’ offers hope ‘at the end of the road’

Posted April 11, 2010, at 9:05 p.m.

STONES INTO SCHOOLS: PROMOTING PEACE WITH BOOKS, NOT BOMBS, IN AFGHANISTAN AND PAKISTAN, by Greg Mortenson, 2009, Viking, hardcover, 420 pages, $26.95.

Despite what The Associated Press and other news services would have readers believe, the most radical news emerging from Pakistan and Afghanistan has nothing to do with violence and war.

The true top story is one that promotes peace with books, not bombs, one nongovernmental organization’s effort to educate girls and young women, and the indomitable spirit of a former mountaineer turned fundraiser, diplomat and adviser to the likes of U.S. Gen. David Petraeus.

If you have read the best-selling “Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace, One School at a Time,” you already know how Greg Mortenson took a wrong turn at the base of a Himalayan mountain that put him on the right path to enhancing the lives of Muslim girls and young women in Pakistan. His new book picks up where “Tea” left off in 2003.

“Stones” begins on a familiar note — with a promise — and chronicles Mortenson’s dramatic efforts to extend his Central Asia Institute’s reach into an isolated corner of northeast Afghanistan.

This first-person narrative puts an unexpected, yet inspiring, twist on Mortenson’s brand of “shuttle diplomacy,” his work in helping to shape U.S. military strategy in the region, and on defying the Taliban by establishing a school for girls in its very midst.

Mortenson rightfully is proud of the institute’s efforts to build 131 schools, which serve more than 58,000 mostly female students in this far-flung region, without a penny from the U.S. government.

But, he writes, “It really has nothing to do with the math and everything to do with the girls whose lives have been changed through education. In the end, the thing I care most about — the flame that burns at the center of my work, the heat around which I cup my hands — are their stories.”

The humanitarian’s flame has illuminated the path to education and empowerment for thousands of girls “at the end of the road,” who otherwise would have been left in the dark. They, in turn, pass the lamp of literacy to the next generation of educated women, and their communities are better for it. Here are synopses of some of their stories:

—ä—

It took nine years, but Jahan Ali redeemed a promise she persuaded Mortenson to grant her on the first day they met in September 1993 — to send her to a maternal health care program if she graduated from the school established by the institute in the village of Korphe. After she completed grad school, she continued her studies in public policy administration; her goal was to become a community leader and member of Pakistan’s parliament.

Despite her father’s efforts to marry her off, Ali said, “I am not going to get married until I achieve my goal. God willing, someday I will become a superlady.”

—ä—

After graduating from a government Girls’ High School and completing a maternal health program on a CAI scholarship, Aziza Hussain returned home to help women in her community, “a place where as many as 20 women perished each year during childbirth.” Since her return in 2000, no woman has died giving birth.

—ä—

Shakila Kahn graduated from the first class of CAI’s school in Hushe, a village shadowed by one of Earth’s highest peaks. In 2009, Kahn was in her third year at Fatima Memorial Hospital in Lahore “on her way to become the first locally educated female physician ever to emerge from her village.”

She said: “My two main goals are that I do not want women to die in childbirth or babies die in their first year.”

Now, more than 16 years after the institute established its first school, graduates are launching their careers. “These women are now making ‘first ascents’ far more dramatic and impressive than the achievements of Western climbers, such as myself,” Mortenson writes. “Already, these daughters have climbed so much higher than we mountaineers ever dared to dream.”

The 420 pages of this book contain much more drama and gripping storytelling, so pick up a copy from a bookstore or library and read it for yourself.

“Stones” is an inspiring read, a welcome antidote to news of violence and war spilling out of Central Asia, one that could spur even the most jaded among us to action.

It costs $1 a month for one child’s education in Pakistan or Afghanistan, a penny to buy a pencil, and a teacher’s salary averages $1.50 a day. For more information on supporting the institute’s efforts to promote education and literacy, especially for girls, visit the Central Asia Institute’s Web site at www.ikat.org.

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