Greg Mortenson never expected to draw crowds so large that it was necessary to enlist the aid of a JumboTron. He never expected to write a book that would become required reading for all U.S. officers in counterinsurgency training. He never expected to build more than 130 schools in the hinterlands of the Middle East, or to provide an education to more than 58,000 poor, underprivileged students, most of whom are girls. He did expect to climb mountains, but it was his failure at climbing one in particular that led him to become one of the world’s most pre-eminent pioneers for social change.
Mortenson was a nurse in Berkeley, Calif., when his sister Christa died from a seizure in 1992. He set off the following year for Pakistan, where he wanted to honor her memory by making it to the top of K2, the second-highest mountain in the world. Only 2,000 feet from the summit, he was forced to turn around and head back to base camp. It was at some point during a 39-mile hike down the Baltoro Glacier that he became lost, eventually stumbling into a tiny village called Korphe.
Korphe is lodged in the recesses of Pakistan’s Karakoram Range. The village sees one out of every three of its children die before the end of his or her first year. While Mortenson recovered from his trek, he came across 82 kids writing out their lessons with sticks in the dirt. It was one of those kids, a girl named Chocho, who somehow got Mortenson to promise to build a school in Korphe. And that’s what he did.
Mortenson’s organization, the Central Asia Institute, builds schools in places not many know about and where even fewer will ever go. The undertaking is best known through Three Cups of Tea. Co-authored by David Oliver Relin, the book is still on the New York Times Best Seller list after 146 weeks, has sold more than 3 million copies and is published in more than three dozen countries. A project that started with Mortenson selling his car and climbing gear to gather funds has turned into an internationally renowned effort.
Stones into Schools: Promoting Peace with Books, Not Bombs, in Afghanistan and Pakistan is Mortenson’s follow-up. It focuses primarily on his transition into building schools in the northeast corner of Afghanistan. He writes in the book’s introduction, “If Three Cups of Tea lays out the narrative of our first school—the seed with which we started our planting—then this is the tale of the most remote of all our projects, the flower in the farthest corner of the garden.”
A stepmother eventually appeared, and she forbade Nasreen from studying, telling her books would poison her mind. So Nasreen studied in secret by night.
But Stones into Schools is more than an outline of how and when and what Mortenson has accomplished. As he indicates in the book’s outset, he cares more about stories than numbers, and it shows. The book never delves into instructional territory, although there is much to be learned from Mortenson’s storytelling.
Take the case of Nasreen Baig, a green-eyed woman from Zuudkhan. Her small Pakistani village is just a few miles north of a region where more women die in childbirth than anywhere else in the world. Maybe because of that startling statistic, Nasreen developed a dream of being a maternal health care provider—even though women in her part of the world are traditionally denied an education. She was able to attend one of the area’s first coeducational schools for girls, and she quickly rose to the top of her class. When her mother died, however, 13-year-old Nasreen was called home to watch after her blind father. A stepmother eventually appeared, and she forbade Nasreen from studying, telling her books would poison her mind. So Nasreen studied in secret by night.
Eventually, Nasreen was offered a scholarship by Mortenson’s Central Asia Institute. At $1,200, it was enough to pay for her room, board and tuition for two years so she could work on a medical degree. But Nasreen wasn’t able to accept the stipend. Her mother-in-law objected to the scholarship, bringing the matter to the village tanzeem, a council of elders, who ruled against the schooling. So Nasreen had three babies and two miscarriages—and worked 12- to 16-hour days tending livestock and tilling fields.
Finally, in 2007, at the age of 23, Nasreen was granted permission to accept the scholarship, which was still waiting for her. Last year, she packed up her family and few possessions and traveled for three days (by foot, horseback and bus) to the city of Rawalpindi, where she is now a year away from completing her medical training program.
It’s stories like these that fuel Mortenson and the work he does. He has a larger tale to tell, encompassing all of the 58,000 children who now have a chance to learn because of him. And it’s the individuals strewn throughout Stones into Schools that help both the reader and Mortenson himself understand the impact of that number.
Mortenson writes that his is “the chronicle of an ordinary man who inadvertently bumbled into an extraordinary place.” If that’s true, then he proves that an ordinary person can, inch by inch and book by book, set about changing the world.