Stones for Schools Author Greg Mortenson Inspires BC Students
Stones for Schools and Three Cups of Tea best-selling author Greg Mortenson spoke to a packed house of over 1000 Grade 4-12 students from St. George's, Stratford Hall, York House, and Vancouver's West Point Grey Academy (WPGA) Friday January 15th.
Organizer and WPGA Head of the Senior School, Stephen Anthony, introduced “Dr. Greg” by acknowledging that “as educators, parents, students, and as globally-minded citizens, we realize that community service is of paramount importance.” West Point Grey opened in 1996, the same year Mortenson completed his first school in Korphe, Pakistan.
Now Mortenson and his charity have 130 schools in war-torn Afghanistan and Pakistan to show for the intervening 14 years, not to mention two nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize, numerous honorary degrees, awards, and the attention of luminaries, politicians and celebrities alike, including Tom Brokaw who gave Mortenson his first donation - $100.
Anthony's advice to his students was to “find yourselves in the presence of greatness, for it is in these experiences that we are inspired to be more, do more” and Mortenson's presence more than lived up to the adage if the standing ovation was any indication.
Illiteracy Rates in Afghanistan
Mortenson, a father of two, visits 150 schools around the globe each year with the intention of raising awareness about childhood illiteracy - a staggering 120 million children worldwide don't have access to education, 78 million of whom are girls. It would cost a paltry $6 billion a year for 12-15 years to eradicate the problem.
Mortenson's non-governmental charity, the Central Asia Institute, and his program, Pennies for Peace, offers a school curriculum unit and fundraises with pennies donated by students and parents that purchase materials (books whose words "make wise the fools" according to a tribal leader) and training for teachers in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
For their part, the locals provide the land and labour. It costs $15,000 – $30,000 to build a school and supply its materials for 5 years, though the program also plants trees, builds chicken farms, and equips the building to function as a community or adult vocational centre outside of class time. Playgrounds, skipping ropes, volleyball courts, cricket pitches included.
The "Threat" of Educating Girls
Mortenson has particularly focused his efforts on female students, citing an African proverb that says, “If you educate a boy, you educate an individual. If you educate a girl, you educate a community.” Most girls will teach their parents, elders, and siblings to read and write, whereas boys are much less likely to share new-found knowledge. Educating girls is found to reduce birth rates, infant mortality, and improve general health conditions.
To date, the Taliban has closed 1100 girls schools in Afghanistan and bombed 850 in Pakistan. They have prohibited girls' instruction precisely because of the threat they pose as a collective, the pen being mightier than the sword, or put another way, "the ink of a scholar more powerful than the blood of a martyr."
In Afghanistan, 1 out 3 children dies before the age of one and the literacy rate is 2%. Those who do learn often write with sticks in the sand, attentive despite the absence of a teacher (on rotation to other schools). Some Afghan students go to school in converted steel truck containers, walking 2-3 hours to go to school after their morning chores.
But it's not all doom and gloom, in 2010, 8.4 million children, 2.5 million of whom are girls, now go to school in Afghanistan as compared to 800,000 5-15-year-old boys only a decade earlier.
Three Cups of Tea: Touching Poverty
Mortenson is certain, “The only way to solve poverty is to touch, see, taste, feel, hear poverty,” to sit across from it and have a cup of tea with it. His first book - 155 weeks on the New York Times Bestseller List - takes its title from an Afghan proverb that maintains the first cup of tea is taken with a stranger, the second cup with a friend, the third cup with family. As members of this international family, Mortenson asks us to extend our children or siblings the same education we often take for granted in the West.
Tea's subtitle in paperback is "One Man’s Effort to Promote Peace One School at a Time," an emphasis on hope versus the fear that was associated with the hardcover's failed subtitle to "Fight Terrorism One School at a Time."
Child Labour, Refugees & Landmines
Still, Mortenson didn't sugarcoat the very real horrors he witnesses daily, terrorism being only one. His slideshow featured orphans abducted from refugee camps by militant recruiters or sold into slavery and forced labour for nominal food and board. The children work off their price as debt, 12-14 hours a day, and most have never been to school.
Those who don't perish under these conditions often fall victim to a weapon that "doesn't choose its victims": landmines. Between 5 and 20 children die every day in Afghanistan as a result of these hidden killers, of which the US is the 4th biggest manufacturer and one of only a handful of countries yet to sign an international treaty to ban them. They can be diffused for $800 each, but still pepper the countryside.
What do the mothers of Afghanistan want? Two things. "We don’t want our babies to die and we want our children to go to school." Mortenson, daunted by the task in the past, remembered the words of a Persian proverb - “When it is dark you can see the stars” - and of Martin Luther King Jr, “Even if the world ends tomorrow I will plant my seed today.” He planted 1000 seeds last Friday.
Mortenson, for whom "half of diplomacy is just showing up," will visit with Canada's Immigration minister this week. To pick up your copy of Mortenson's titles, including a Young Reader's edition for the teen set, visit Vancouver Kidsbooks or an independent bookstore near you.
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