First, the bad news. Eight years after the fall of the Taliban, getting an education in Afghanistan remains a considerable challenge. The Taliban have fired rockets into and gassed classrooms, gunned down girl students and shut scores of schools. They have distributed their infamous “night letters” to warn Afghans not to work for, or go to, schools.
It’s not difficult to destroy schools in Afghanistan—less than half of them operate out of buildings; the rest run out of tents or simply from under trees. The hunger for education is almost equalled by the violence to stamp it out—in 2008 alone, 130 schools were burned down, over 100 teachers and students killed, and over 300 schools closed for security reasons.
Now, the good news. More than six million Afghan children have returned to schools since the fall of the Taliban, a more than sevenfold rise from the 900,000 children—all of them boys—who were going to school during Taliban rule. The number of teachers has leapt from a paltry 21,000 to over 150,000 today. Much of this, helped by aid money, has been achieved by a largely dysfunctional and corrupt state.
The magnitude of the crisis facing education in Afghanistan—where less than 29% of people can read or write—appears to be muted in Greg Mortenson’s Stones into Schools, a triumphal account of his work in building schools in remote outposts of Afghanistan and Pakistan. A former soldier and mountaineer, Mortenson is a celebrity, feted by civilians and soldiers alike because of his work—The New York Times says he has done “more to advance US interests in the Pakistan region than the entire military and foreign policy apparatus of the Bush administration.”
Back to school : (Left) The hunger for education, specially among girls, in Afghanistan is equalled by the violence unleashed by the Taliban to stamp it out. Photo: Michael Kappeler/DDP/AFP. (Right) Stones into Schools: Penguin Viking, 420 pages, £12.99 (around Rs975).
Mortenson says he and his workers have set up 131 schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and claim to provide education to more than 58,000 students, most of them girls. This is no mean feat for a man who says he had an epiphany about helping children get an education in the far-flung corners of the two countries after an abortive attempt to climb the K2 in 1993. In his and co-author Mike Bryan’s words, Mortenson comes across as an indefatigable and intensely motivated man who works with an equally spunky group of workers at his NGO “with a difference”, Central Asia Institute, to raise funds across the US and build these schools. He calls his core group of workers the “dirty dozen”, a motley crew of renegades and misfits—his Man Friday, the irascible Sarfraz Khan, a Pakistani commando-turned-jack of all trades, comes across as the bravest and most efficient of them all.
Mortenson’s work in turning “stones into schools” in the inhospitable nooks and crannies of two of the most restive countries in the subcontinent with a priority to enrol girls is based on unexceptional logic: Educated women have smaller, healthier and better-educated families; and educating girls leads to empowering them financially and increases incomes for nations. Studies have shown that girls who become literate tend to teach their illiterate mothers how to read and write, much more than boys do.
Many of the stories Mortenson relates about how he went around goading conservative elders to put their girls into schools, and how he lugged man, machine and material to the farthest corners—the windswept, inhospitable Wakhan panhandle, a 120-mile sliver of land in northern Afghanistan, wedged between Pakistan, China and a former Soviet republic, for example—are engaging.
In a remote village in Baltistan, he says, it took eight years to convince the local mullah to permit a single girl to attend school. Today, he says, more than 300 girls study there. At the request of the Pakistani government, he built schools into the slopes of mountains in the Gultori region with pitched metal roofs capable of deflecting shells fired across the border from India. Mortenson’s men have also ventured to build schools in Kunar in Afghanistan’s east, where the Taliban have been active. Some of his journeys into the wilderness of Wakhan are lit up by a luminescent prose associated with good travelogues.
Mortenson also provides glimpses into the workings of the Afghan state and why it fails to provide basic services. A group of tribesmen from Wakhan take an entire month travelling on horses, by jeep and public transport to reach Kabul to meet government representatives. They spend several weeks in Kabul’s Kafkaesque corridors. After two months of hanging around, they are granted an audience with the president. He promises action, telling them he will send them back with food on helicopters. Nothing happens. After three months, the tribesmen return to Wakhan empty-handed.
Mortenson’s good work has been noticed by the US army, which is struggling to defeat the Taliban. He goes to the Pentagon and explains to soldiers how respecting tribal traditions in Afghanistan can get a lot of work done—his homespun homily of sharing “three cups of tea” with an Afghan doing the trick seems to be a revelation to the soldiers. He tells them that in the price of one Tomahawk cruise missile dozens of schools could be built, providing tens of thousands of students with “balanced, non-extremist education”.
What shines through in the book is the determination of ordinary Afghans to give their children an education. But Mortenson fails to throw more light on the more pressing challenges that he may have faced. How were the teachers hired? How difficult was it to hire them? Have any of the children moved from radical madrasas to his schools? The book is also vastly overwritten, with tedious details of Mortenson’s fund-raisers and public meetings reducing it often to a patronizing hagiography and a NGO handbook of sorts.
Nobody can disagree that building schools for war-weary Afghans and isolated Pakistanis is a great way to win their hearts and minds. But does it make the US a lesser hegemon in their minds? A bit maybe, and that is only a part of the story.
Soutik Biswas is the India editor of the BBC News website.
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