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Review: In 'Stones Into Schools,' Greg Mortenson writes of mission to educate in Afghanistan

After Greg Mortenson's first book, Three Cups of Tea, became a runaway success, a lot of people wanted to have tea with him. Mortenson became the toast of book clubs, colleges and even the U.S. military, to the point that his 2006 nonfiction account of building schools in Central Asia literally became required reading for many of them. Thousands of people showed up at his book signings. At least one of his speeches was displayed on a Jumbotron, prompting the comment that Durango, Colo., had seen nothing like it since Willie Nelson came to town.

Mortenson spent so much time on the American lecture circuit that he paid a steep price. He suffered panic attacks, felt exhausted and could no longer readily travel to do the work that Three Cups of Tea describes. His dream project, a school 10 years in the making in a particularly remote and difficult area, wound up being completed without him.

And a question arose: How could a man whose success had been based on such self-effacing relief work reconcile humility with celebrity? Mortenson's second and very different book, Stones Into Schools, provides an answer.

As this new book's strong, opinionated voice makes clear (with a first-person narrative much more vigorous than the third person of Three Cups of Tea, in which he appears as "Mortenson"), he was never all that humble in the first place. And he was never shy. The new book records his irritation with the former president of Pakistan (Gen. Pervez Musharraf) and the president of Afghanistan (Hamid Karzai) when each finds a way to pay lip service to the work of Mortenson's Central Asia Institute without providing any help.

As Stones Into Schools explains, the institute has accomplished its innovative educational work without any government money. That point is crucial, since it has allowed the Montana-based institute to reach across borders with remarkable impunity. While Three Cups of Tea describes how Mortenson stumbled into his life's work, which began as the building of schools for girls in remote parts of Pakistan, Stones Into Schools takes him into hazier geographical realms — his organization's expansion into Afghanistan.

That might make the high drama of Three Cups of Tea, which was considerable, seem an impossible act to follow. Does his second book have comparably earthshaking events to report? Actually, it finds some, including the devastating earthquake that struck Kashmir in 2005, destroying many schools and, Mortenson says, wiping out an entire generation of literate children in four minutes. Though his work then was farther north, Mortenson seems never to have found a crisis he could resist.

His great conviction, expressed to irresistibly inspiring effect in both books, is that the right kind of educational effort can bridge enormous gaps. Although he reiterates this without describing exactly what children in Central Asia Institute schools are taught, he is convinced that encouraging literacy is a way to promote trust and understanding.

Stones Into Schools presents him as a vigorous, mavericky adventurer now inundated with requests for schools who is very shrewd about sizing up opportunities. When asked to build schools in Kabul, he had no interest. But when 14 galloping Kyrgyz horsemen raced into Pakistan from Afghanistan through a narrow mountain pass to seek his assistance in 1999, though their communities were barely accessible by dirt road or tank track, and importing construction materials meant crossing mountains — well, that was an offer he couldn't refuse.

Much of Stones Into Schools hinges on the logistical challenges, but this book is also suffused with its author's unorthodox tactics and distinctive personal style (no underwear, lots of ibuprofen). It colorfully describes the local sidekicks and power brokers without whom, he says, "I would still be nothing more than a dirtbag mountaineer subsisting on ramen noodles and living in the back of his car." And it offers all-important insight into how they cut through bureaucratic red tape and accomplish miracles with very little money.

One typical thing that galls Mortenson here is the "ridiculous boondoggle" of an effort, financed by the U.S. government, to deliver hundreds of thousands of plastic bottles of mineral water to villages in Azad Kashmir. Meanwhile, his own people — who prevailed in this dispute, as they have in so many — were busy building water-delivery pipes and tanks on a local level.

As Stones Into Schools chronicles the institute's work, it captures the physical and political landscapes of Afghanistan in ways that make it exceptionally timely and compelling. Mortenson, after all, has faced Taliban resistance to any educational system for girls, let alone one with American connections. But he has clear thoughts about how such undertakings can succeed. When the local people who want a school built face religious threats, appointing a mullah to oversee the effort can sometimes work wonders.

Mortenson describes one visually breathtaking setting after another, though not in a fashion fit for travelogues. The water, he says, can be Windex blue. The altitude can be so high that removing shoes is dangerous, since low air pressure can make feet swell. And it's possible to see desperate families cooking meals over fires made from charitable donations of expensive mountaineering gear, or glimpse "a sheep grazing on a hillside with a puffy down jacket wrapped around its hind end." As Stones Into Schools constantly illustrates, some forms of help from afar are infinitely more valuable than others.


Into Schools

Promoting Peace With Books, Not Bombs, in Afghanistan and Pakistan

By Greg


Viking, 420 pages, $26.95

Review: In 'Stones Into Schools,' Greg Mortenson writes of mission to educate in Afghanistan 12/19/09 [Last modified: Saturday, December 19, 2009 3:30am]
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