Stones Into Schools
Viking Books, 2009.
Greg Mortenson is the author of the 2006 bestseller Three Cups of Tea. He told there the story of mountain climbing in the Himalayas and coming upon a remote Pakistani village where the residents begged him to help them build a school. Mortenson had no money, no connections, and no knowledge of construction or education, but he impetuously promised. Three Cups of Tea recounts his long struggle to raise the funds, then to get the necessary government support and eventually to get the building materials to the remote site and complete the school. A crucial lesson he learned along the way is that it's essential to listen to the local community and build the school they think they need in the way they want it built, rather than imposing foreign preconceptions.
Since 1993, Mortenson's effort has grown into an unconventional NGO which has helped 377 remote villages in Pakistan and even in Afghanistan build their own schools. Stones Into Schools is the story of that growth -- essentially a sequel to Three Cups of Tea.
Corporate history may sound unpromising material for a good read, but this is an unusual corporation. Eschewing the white SUV with tinted windows, air conditioning and a 12-foot antenna, Mortenson and his colleagues rattle around the perilous highways of Afghanistan in hired taxis, changing cars and drivers frequently to avoid kidnappers and other assorted highwaymen. He and his main assistant sleep by the roadside, go for days without bathing and share clothes, reading glasses and even a toothbrush, each going through 12-15 ibuprofen tablets a day when the going gets rough. He hires on gut instinct, and his staff boasts smugglers, reformed but formerly corrupt government flunkies and mellowed Taliban thugs. He recounts completing one journey on the back of a truck hiding under a pile of putrid hides headed for a tannery to escape a firefight among opium smuggling factions.
And that's the part Mortenson loves. He describes himself as painfully shy and prone to do everything at the last minute. He's awkward, soft-spoken and ineloquent. But the success of his NGO and of Three Cups of Tea has forced him into a continuous round of public speaking, promoting and fund raising, mostly in the United States, far from the mountain scenery he loves. "[It has] made me feel like a man caught in the act of conducting an illicit affair with the dark side of his own personality."
At the same time, his school building activities in Afghanistan have attracted the attention of the US military, intent on winning hearts and minds in the Afghan countryside. Mortenson's insistence on listening to the wishes of the local population doesn't seem to extend to their objections to having their nation occupied by a foreign power. Mortenson has become an advisor to the US military and, frankly as ever, describes the relationship as one of the most deeply rewarding elements of his work.
The many readers inspired by Three Cups of Tea are likely to be inspired by Stones Into Schools as well. It's no doubt conceived as a vehicle to motivate another round of publicity and fund raising, and it should be successful. After the success of the first book, Penguin/Viking has supported this one with a half-dozen essential maps, a dismal selection of uninteresting photos and a helpful but incomplete index. The work was apparently ghostwritten by climber Kevin Fedarko, a former editor of Outside magazine, so clever construction and fluid prose make it an easy read. Interestingly though, unlike the former book, the title page of this one carries no ghostwriting credit. Will tinted windows be next?
14 April 2010
Bill Purves is a Hong Kong-based writer. He is the author of several books, including A Sea of Green: A Voyage Around the World of Ocean Shipping and China on the Lam: On Foot Across the People's Republic.