Stones into Schools

Greg Mortenson

Penguin Books

“Look here. Look at these hills,” [Sadhar Khan] said as he pointed toward the mountains looming over the town, whose lower slopes were strewn with countless rocks and boulders. “There has been far too much dying in these hills. Every rock, every boulder that you see before you is one of my mujahadeen, shahids, martyrs, who sacrificed their lives fighting the Russians and the Taliban. Now we must make their sacrifice worthwhile.”

He turned to me with a look of fierce determination. “We must turn these stones into schools.”

                                           from Stones into Schools


 Moving, inspiring tale of an ordinary man making an extraordinary difference

H. G. Wells summed up history as “a race between education and catastrophe.” This is nowhere more evident than in the developing world today.

In his bestselling book, Three Cups of Tea, Greg Mortenson relates how, in an unsuccessful attempt to climb K2 in 1993, he became lost and would have died had he not been found and cared for by villagers. In gratitude for saving his life, he promised to return someday and build the village a school.

Since that time, with only his quiet, respectful manner and the Islamic invocation, As-Salaam Alaaikum (“May peace be upon you”), he has built over 140 schools and 60 temporary refugee schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

As he says in his new book, Stones into Schools, his story has always struck him as “the chronicle of an ordinary man who inadvertently bumbled into an extraordinary place.” It is the story of a man who found his calling.

His work testifies to the “ripple effects of female literacy:” Where women are educated, the quality of health increases, infant mortality drops significantly, and girls tend to marry later and have fewer children. (For the fathers, there is an economic incentive: “Her bride-price, thanks to her education, has now shot from five to fifty adult rams.”)

Also, not unimportant, educated Muslim women are more likely to withhold their blessing of their sons who wish to join a militant jihad. Three Cups is now mandatory reading for all military commanders in Afghanistan.

Mortenson concludes, “Simply put, young women are the single biggest potential agents of change in the developing world—a phenomenon that is sometimes referred to as the Girl Effect and that echoes an African proverb … ‘If you teach a boy, you educate an individual; but if you teach a girl, you educate a community’.”

Stones is the stronger of the two books—certainly more dramatic, including descriptions of life under the Taliban’s harsh theocracy, the attack on the World Trade Center, and the horrific 2005 earthquake in Pakistan.

But I also found it more inspiring as it tells the stories of “ordinary people,” living on the edge of subsistence who seek education as the key to their children’s future. It is these people who daily inspire Mortenson. He writes, “When ordinary human beings perform extraordinary acts of generosity, endurance, or compassion, we are all made richer by their example.”

Indeed we are, Greg.

As-Salaam Alaaikum.


This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (January 15-February 14, 2011). Reprinted with permission.