Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Building schools, building peace

A couple weeks ago I spent more than an hour talking on the phone with Greg Mortenson, 2009 Nobel Peace prize nominee and co-founder and executive director of the nonprofit Central Asia Institute, which builds schools, primarily for girls, in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Mortenson is co-author of the bestselling book “Three Cups of Tea,” which chronicles his journey from mountaineer, trying and just failing to summit K2 in Pakistan, to humanitarian, working to build schools and peace. The Central Asia Institute has to date built 131 secular schools in remote regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan where physical isolation and religious extremism left populations illiterate and uneducated before. I wrote a feature in today’s Ledger-Enquirer about Mortenson and his school and peace-building mission, including his recent efforts as an outside advisor to military leaders. He will come to Columbus to share his story on Nov. 12.

One quote got cut from that story for lack of space. But I wanted to include it here -- in part because I know was curious about Mortenson's take on the McChrystal report. It came at the end of the piece when Mortenson was talking about how impressed he's been with the military's efforts over the past couple years to understand and work with the people of Afghanistan as they carry out their mission:

“General (Stanley) McChrystal and General (David) McKiernan before him, have met with dozens -- probably hundreds now – of tribal elders from pretty remote communities. The military’s actually sitting down and listening to them… The McChrystal report that was sent to Obama and Congress contains a lot of the learning that they’ve done from listening to the elders.”

As I listen each day to the news from Afghanistan and Pakistan, I think about Mortenson’s work. He believes that by educating children, and especially girls, the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan can begin to build a peaceful nation from the ground up. With the Taliban targeting illiterate, uneducated children in their recruiting efforts -- and with mothers acting as gatekeepers to terrorism (it is customary for boys to seek their mother’s permission before going on violent jihad, and educated mothers are far less likely to give their approval), educating the future mothers of both countries seems essential to building lasting peace.

Having read his story and spoken with Mortenson at length, this is one of those moments where I’ll take what I’ve learned as a journalist and apply it to my life as a mom and teacher too. Mortenson is also founder of a Pennies for Peace program, designed to help kids in the developed world learn about Pakistan and Afghanistan and support the education of children there. Cindy Sparks, the servant leadership director at Brookstone School who helped bring Mortenson to Columbus, sent me a copy of “Listen to The Wind” – the story of Three Cups of Tea retold through beautiful collage illustrations for children, with photographs to bring it all to life at the end. Will is fascinated by the book and we are going to begin collecting Pennies for Peace in our home and perhaps at our preschool. Check out the Pennies for Peace program if you are a mom or teacher, and consider buying a copy of “Listen to the Wind” or the young reader’s edition of “Three Cups of Tea” for your kids.
Mortenson points out that a penny, which buys nothing in the U.S. these days, will buy a pencil in Afghanistan – and that young Americans, by collecting even the smallest of sums, will begin to develop a mind for thinking globally and a heart for serving others. The Pennies for Peace Web site also offers in-depth, grade-appropriate curriculum so that children of all ages can learn more about Afghanistan and Pakistan and about their own place in the world. The Web site features videos you can download that help kids see what life is like for children in Afghanistan and Pakistan, with subjects ranging from food, religion, and geography, to home life, school and play.

If you live nearby and want to hear Greg Mortenson speak at 7 p.m. Nov. 12 at the CSU Lumpkin Center, be sure to pick up a free ticket at one of the one of the Chattahoochee Valley Libraries branches soon. Organizers have already given away more than 2,000 of 4,000 available tickets -- and they may run out.


Grace said...

Impressive! Can't believe you got to interview him. I look forward to reading your article tonight when I have more time. I loved this book and the children's book too.

I wish I could come hear him speak. How inspiring.

Annie Addington said...

Yes. Greg Mortenson is definitely the most inspiring person I've had the privilege to interview. He is inevitably a hero in his own book (which he wrote jointly with journalist David Oliver Relin). In person, or over the phone, he comes across as a humble, ordinary guy who's made it his life's work to do extraordinary things.