Monday, March 15, 2010

Building Bridges.

 ‘Three Cups of Tea’ and ‘Stones into Schools’ The story of Greg Mortenson and his quest to build schools in the most isolated parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

This will be a new departure for me, - writing a book review - but what the heck, I really love these books!

When Heather and I were young and just out of university we were swept up in the hopeful period epitomized by John F. Kennedy`s call to go out into the world and make a difference. We went off to Guyana in South America as teachers with CUSO and served in two schools; on the coast at Covent Garden Secondary and in our second year replaced a Canadian couple who taught and ran a hostel for children in the isolated Rupununi district close to the border with the back country of Brazil. (We were chased out of there by a rebellion). As these experiences are wont to do, the time we spent there transformed our lives. Reading ‘Three Cups of Tea’, recently and its sequel, back to back, re-immersed both my wife and me in that stirring experience.

In a part of the world known in the West as taliban and al qaeda territory and into which thousands of soldiers and bombs have been poured in the ‘war on terror’ Greg Mortenson has been quietly making friends and helping local people achieve the one thing they really want -schools, and especially schools that will educate their girls. Education for girls, they know is the key to stable societies and they thirst for that after years of neglect and war. In ‘Three Cups of Tea’, Greg finds that in order to get the school building materials to his first village he must first build a bridge across a river. As he says, it was such a concrete example of what his job was all about - building bridges between peoples.

The second book, just recently published, ‘Stones into Schools’ takes its title from the wish of an Afghan leader to turn the sacrifice of all the people killed in many years of warfare, ‘one for every stone on that hillside’, and build schools as their living memorial for peace. As Greg and his local representatives expand their program into the far north of Afghanistan, in the Pakistan areas of the great earthquake, and even into the still dangerous places along the Pakistan/Afghan border, they do so only at the request of local people. They find as they go along that they expand into adult female literacy programs, small local businesses, water supply systems and so on, - whatever the people see as necessary so that they can live honourable lives within their own cultural context. That I think, is the most important element in Mr. Mortenson`s work: there is no grand hidden agenda for American or Western imperialism or World trade. One shy and humble guy who is asked by a little girl in a remote mountain village for his help to get an education, for a school, and who goes home to America to fulfil his promise no matter what personal difficulties this causes for him.

I was close to tears many time as I read these books, plain and matter- of -fact as they are. They remind me that it is too easy to be cynical, worldly wise, but that one person who ‘doesn`t know any better’ can reach out, find a mission in life and begin to move the world.

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