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Stones into Schools: Promoting Peace with Books, Not Bombs, in Afghanistan and Pakistan by Greg Mortenson. Viking, 2009.

The news from Afghanistan that reaches us via the TV every evening is invariably negative. More suicide bombings, more roadside explosions, more death and destruction, and questionable political integrity. It is hard to feel hopeful for Afghanistan. The unfortunate citizens of the country have, in the last few decades, suffered through a Soviet invasion, civil war, rule by mad Taliban insurgents, and American bombing raids. In the face of all this bad news, it is a joy to read Stones into Schools. Greg Mortenson’s book shines a light on some of Afghanistan’s poorest residents, those living in the most remote reaches of the country, and gives them a human face. Stones into Schools is a “must-read” for anyone who is weary of the seemingly-endless images of violence we are exposed to nightly.

Stones into Schools is a sequel to Mortenson’s first book, Three Cups of Tea. It picks up where Three Cups left off, but also includes a bit of background information, so if you missed his first outing, you won’t have any difficulty starting with Stones into Schools. In fact, I found this second book to be a bit more fluid, easier to read.

Mortenson began his awe-inspiring odyssey more or less by accident, when he stumbled into a remote Pakistan village following a failed mountain-climbing adventure. After receiving life-saving assistant from the residents, Mortenson promised to help them fulfill their dream: to build a school and provide an education for their daughters. This eventually lead to the founding of Central Asia Institute and a hundred more schools, first in Pakistan and now in Afghanistan as well. Mortenson’s mantra has become “When you educate a boy, you educate an individual. When you educate a girl, you educate a community.” In order to qualify for consideration as a school site, communities must agree to donate land for the proposed school, contribute labour, and make a commitment that at least a third of the school population would be girls from the outset, with equal representation as the goal.

One of the chapters I found particularly interesting was coverage of the October 2005 earthquake and its fallout. Mortenson outlines how extremist groups were able to set up refugee camps in remote areas beyond the range of NGOs and set up madrassas, religious institutions teaching their extreme version of Islam to young boys. While parents might not have wanted their sons attending the schools, they had little choice when the jihadis were providing them with food and water. The refugee camps thus became fertile recruiting grounds for Islamic militants looking for new followers. Mortenson writes that he was dismayed by the West’s failure or unwillingness to recognize that establishing secular schools that offer children a balanced and non-extremist education is probably the cheapest and most effective way of combating extremism.

Stones into Schools covers the period up to the autumn of 2009. It was encouraging to read that top-ranking military officers were interested in Mortenson’s work, and it seems progress is being made. In 2000, under the Taliban, less than 800,000 children attended school, all of them boys. Today, over 8 million children attend school, and 2.4 million of these students are girls. It is surely with these young people that Afghanistan’s brightest hope for the future lies.

You can watch Mortenson’s interview with George Stroumboulopoulos here.

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