21 September 2010: "Listen to the Wind":
Greg Mortenson Visits DC with a "Great Conversation"
Standing above his wife's grave, Haji Ali, an illiterate but deeply wise shura, village elder and mentor of Greg Mortenson, told him that when he stands above his grave, he should "listen to the wind."
Returning to Ali's home, the tiny village of Korphe in the outer reaches of Afghanistan, where he built his first girls' school, Mortenson stood above his grave and, in bewilderment, listened to the wind. What he heard was the sound of children's voices emanat-ing from the school he had brought into being.
Proselyte of girls' education in the outer reaches of Afghanistan and Pakistan, because "when you teach a boy, you teach an individual, but when you teach a girl, you teach a community," Mortenson and his Central Asia Institute (CAI) have built 145 schools since that long-ago day when he stumbled into Korphe, having failed to scale the second-highest mountain peak in the world, "K2," within whose height 84 Matterhorns would fit. Once nursed back to health by the villagers, he vowed to return from his home in the United States to build them a school and then did. (For more on this remarkable story, see my blog entry "Tale of Two Books" (2 September 2010).
Mortenson, nominated twice for the Nobel Peace prize, visited the Shakespeare Theatre's Sidney Harman Center this evening to address a packed house and sign his latest book, Stones into Schools, thereafter. His hour-and-a-half presentation included a ten-minute DVD portraying some of the wilderness areas where he has built schools, underlining the hardships he and his comrades of CAI have endured, happily, to spread girls' education as far as they can anywhere in Afghanistan farther than 30 miles from Kabul, his definition of "remote."
Further justification for this gender priority is that girls are much more likely than boys to teach both their mothers and children; they will learn how to reduce infant mortality as well as the exploding population and in these two ways improve the quality of all lives in their country. Literacy breeds peace; ignorance breeds hatred and war, he said. Educated mothers are far less likely to allow their sons to become terrorists. The Taliban seeks recruits largely from illiterate villages. And in such villages, primitive as they seem, a woman's dowry increases in proportion to her degree of literacy--the more years of schooling, the more goats she is worth, he joked.
He said more than once that he acquired his valuable association with the U.S. military and the Pentagon because their wives had read his book and urged their husbands to, with productive results.
In the last 35 years, the Taliban has destroyed 2,200 schools, mostly girls' (though none of those built by CAI). They focus more on schools established by outside entities, less involved with the country than others. "The Taliban fears the pen more than the bullet," said Mortenson, invoking the Qu'ranic verse that finds the ink of wisdom's pen superior to the blood of a martyr.
He compared a Pakistani minister of education's expressed need for $274 million to improve his country's educational system (where the population is predicted to double, even as the literacy rate has dropped) to the $274 billion and more spent on war by the United States, wondering about warped priorities.
Security is far less a priority than peace with education, Mortenson told us, as is fighting terroris--about fifteenth on his list of priorities. We will never kill our way to victory in Afghanistan, he said later, quoting Admiral Mike Mullen, head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Nor is there a military solution in Afghanistan, according to many of our military leaders, including General David Petraeus. With more than 250,000 coalition troops there fighting 30,000 Taliban, something is definitely wrong. War is not the answer, despite the 300 percent increase in military presence most lately resorted to.
Mortenson then discussed his increasingly productive relationship with the U.S. military, who have their own expertise in living among the Afghans after so many years. Former four-star General Stanley McChristal came to him seeking connection with the shura (tribal elders), the real power behind the country, the ones far better equipped to deal with the Taliban (some of whom have defected to work with Mortenson) than Americans are. There is that principle "Let us do our own work" that both Mortenson's father and Mortenson himself have activated---staffing the hospitals and schools they founded with natives to the region rather than imported professionals. Before you can vanquish an enemy or effectively help, let alone improve another culture, you must understand it through and through.
There is no military solution, but far more serious problems---80 percent of the Afghan military are illiterate, for example. Given the recent discover of a wealth of valuable minerals, why not build a school for mining engineers? Why not pass an Afghan G.I. Bill?
Among the 118 million children not in school all over the world, many are enslaved, doing work adults cannot, like pealing cacao beans and sewing together soccer balls, most of which are made in Afghanistan, where today--the good news--9 million children attend school, up from 80 thousand ten years ago.
More good news is that our society is becoming far more service oriented than it used to be. Ten percent of the "Me Generation" in 1990 specified community service as a priority, where today this figure has soared to 50 percent.
Pennies for Peace, an arm of CAI, and its offshoot, the Little Red Wagon, which raises money for homeless children, have raised thousands of dollars---children have become more service oriented too, inspired by Mortenson. The board of the Little Red Wagon enterprise is limited to those less than age 18.
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