Stones into Schools fighting terrorism through education
“When you find someone who can lead you, don’t be afraid to follow” said General Stanley McChrystal, a man that you would not expect hearing such a thing from. Charisma incarnated. “Here is a man who does not lead by force, even though he could” continues McChrystal smiling at his friend, Greg Mortenson, who does not exactly look weak, “he leads by example, it’s a moral kind of leadership.” Greg Mortenson is a humanitarian, a co-founder of the non-profit Central Asia Institute and the educational charity Pennies for Peace, who has devoted his life to furthering education in Afghanistan and Pakistan, in the most remote regions of both.
The documentary about Greg’s work in Afghanistan that is shown at the beginning of the talk explains what “remote” as well as a poetic phrase ”stones into schools” mean in practice. The landscape is rural, steppe-like, people live in poverty. Children have classes outside, they sit on the ground, surrounded by landmines. People in those areas of Afghanistan live and work, poised in between their thirst for education and the need for security.
The most tragic example of this ‘split’ is that of a fate of a little Afghani boy, with dark curious eyes and unequaled passion for learning. “He was so eager to learn and to see our school built that he would come every day with the herd of his sheep and watch the progress of the construction,” says Greg. Until one day there was a loud noise, a landmine. The little boy did not come to the construction that day. He is still and will always be remembered by the pupils and teachers sitting under the roof of a new-built school, as its young patron. The wooden path leading to the school is named after the little boy. The father of the child has devoted to dismembering mines in the region.
These are the kind of conditions that requirecultural awareness (in Greg’s language: the ability to drink tea with people, see his bestseller: “Three Cups of Tea”), emotional strength and the ability to delegate responsibility. For Greg the trick to being a good leader is the ability to empower people. His formula for building a school effectively is the ability to engage the community in the project of construction – sharing the resources and the knowledge, but ultimately being able to say “this is your school and you are in charge.” Dependence always produces resentment, which is why leadership through empowering is the only viable long-term solution that will upkeep friendly international and interpersonal relations.
This is not always simple, especially when cultural differences come to play a role. The Afghani culture is based on consensus. When Greg and his Western friends raised their doubts about the freedom of elections in Afghanistan, because everyone voted for the same candidate, the Afghani people were surprised: “Why would we split your votes?” What they did was come together, debate, decide who was the best candidate and then vote for him. As simple as that.
To be aware of these differences it is crucial to invest in building lifelong relationships. It is important to drink tea with the elders, to follow their rules, to get to know them well before any operation can be conducted. Afghani are known for their hospitality.
Education is the only long-term way to solve the security problem in Afghanistan. One of the peopel in teh audience, an Afghani girl, spoke with tears in her voice (I could not see her face, but I could hear te tears in her voice) about the difference Greg’s activity made to her life. She also agreed with Greg that the source of extremism in Afghanistan is lack of education. Most frequently the future terrorists are isolated and illiterate – they memorize Koran, but they do not speak Arabic so they cannot understand what they read or what they recite by heart. That’s how ideological thinking, as opposed to critical thinking, starts.
One more important question from the audience was about the role of students in helping out. “Develop strength before helping others” said Greg explaining that helping others is not a way to solve your own problems. During college you have time to develop emotional, intellectual and moral strength – only on that basis you will be able to later go to a very dangerous and difficult environment and help others. He also pointed out that you should take good care of yourself, find your passion and later find a way to connect it with making a greater good for other people. “When your heart speaks, take good notes” he said.