Monday, August 23, 2010

Stones Into Schools - Read It

While relaxing Poolside at the Amara resort in Sedona this weekend (for our anniversary we stayed at the L'Auberge de Sedona, the sister property, which had no pool), I finished Greg Mortenson's Stones into Schools. It's given me hope that SOMETHING constructive can come out of Afghanistan. It's not by force, not by aggression or imposed rule - it's by channeling the free market.

Yes, the free market. That invisible hand, who has crept into land locked Afghanistan via cell phone and satellite dish. The poorest and most illiterate of blue collar, semi-agrarian, subsistence farmers and unskilled laborers, and their dirt poor wives, are getting cell phones. Not cars, or refrigerators, or large screen TVs, no. But they are getting cell phones. And those cell phones are CONNECTING them to their relatives outside of Kabul, out in Herrat, down in Helmand Province, over in Uzbekistan, everywhere. And these very poor, mostly illiterate people, are gaining connectivity that they NEVER had before. Not during the Russian occupation, or the 3 previous British land wars of retribution. Not during Alexander the Great's invasion millennium ago. Now women are talking to other women on cell phones in Afghanistan, and wow, is it starting to make a difference.

In America, Idiocracy uses their cell phones to text message while driving, take videos of bigoted comedians or subway platform police brutality. But in Afghanistan, cell phones are being used to discuss upcoming elections, where schools are being built, where vocational centers for women are being built, which villages are being threatened by Taliban, etc. They are empowering women and enabling connectivity that has never before been possible. The illiterate husbands want their wives to go to these local classes, so that they can Earn More Money, to help the household. More work on the women's shoulders, yes, but the Afghans are an incredibly resilient people.

Mortenson says it best: "I knew this idea of yours was popular," I remarked to Wakil later that afternoon, after we had toured several more facilities, "but you didn't tell me how many there were or how quickly this concept was growing."
"It's hard to keep count - in another four months, we'll probably have three dozen [women's vocational centers]" he said. "When women take charge things start to get out of control really fast."

Wakil Karimi is the Central Asia Institute's (CAI's) Afghanistan manager. A former refugee from the Afghan war, who learned English in Pakistan, and worked in a Western Hotel at the front desk, Wakil relentlessly pursued Greg Mortenson and his team to build girls schools and vocational centers closer to Kabul - instead of at the end of the road of known existence. Once Wakil's idea caught on, the slow process of building schools ramped up exponentially. There's a 130 women's schools now in Afghanistan that the CAI has grown.

The women who attend these schools are taught at night, for 3 or 4 hours, after all of their maternal house work is done. They're learning to read and write Dari, Pashtun, Arabic, Urdu, English. They are learning skills in weaving, child care, disease prevention, domestic skills, and basic cell phone usage. yes, cell phone usage - so that they can call their sisters, girl friends, mothers, cousins, old friends, in other parts of the country and in other countries, to provide a neural social network. A "counter insurgency" to fight back against the Taliban. These women sit cross legged on dirt floors in adobe mud buildings, 40 to 60 packed into the room, eager & hungry for basic knowledge.

Reading this gave me hope for the first time. The Taliban are a minority Pashtun force, governed by Wahhabi Sunni fundamentalists, funded by rich Saudies. They are only 40% of the Afghan population, and the Afghan population is nearly as multi-ethnic as the United States. And more than 1/2 of those Pashtuns, are women (30 years of war, and stupid military tactics by the Taliban have culled the male Pashtun population pretty severely). Like the Basiji in Iran, the Deobandi Wahhabi of Saudi Arabia and Yemen, the Khmer Rouge of Cambodia, and the Tea Partyers and Libertarian Militias of the United States, the fundamentalist Pashtun males are a small, violent, hateful, vocal minority. Instead of UN sanctions, or the 82nd Airborne, or a NATO imposed peace, the Petraeus counter insurgency in Afghanistan and NW Pakistan needs to continue to focus on education for women, home grown solutions, listening to village elders and helping them to affect long lasting positive societal change. Turn the neck, the head will turn as well.

If you'd like to have hope about Afghanistan, read Stones into Schools. It's made a significant improvement in my outlook on Afghanistan.

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