The principle of a 4,500 student school in Afghanistan had not been paid her $40 monthly salary since it was promised by the US government five months earlier. She asked an American, Greg Mortenson, if he could make enquiries. He found that her promised measly paypacket had been redirected to the funding of the immanent invasion of Iraq.
Individual case histories can open one’s eyes to what is really behind our policy failures in the Muslim world.
Who was Greg Mortenson? In 1993, he had completed his descent off the second highest mountain in the world and took a wrong turn. He found himself in a village in frontier Pakistan. He was the first foreigner ever to arrive there. His ragged and exhausted self needed a place to recover. The hospitality was overwhelming.
One day he saw a group of village children conducting their own lessons without a teacher. Some were writing with sticks in the sand. One of the children asked him to build a school for the village. The initiative of these children would be unheard of in the West. Before he knew what he was saying, he had agreed.
Back in the US, Mortenson did whatever he could to put some funding together. He sold his car. On a clunky typewriter he wrote 580 letters of appeal - and received one cheque for $100 back. He hired venues to give talks - only to have less than half a dozen attend. Then he gave a talk to a class of schoolchildren. One child donated his tin of pennies (US cents). Mortenson knew that a penny in itself was worthless. He began a program to collect worthless pennies and raised over 62,000 of them in his first attempt.
Gradually he built his bank up to $12,000. This was enough to build a school with the volunteer labour of the villagers. The materials had to be found and transported significant distances - much of it on human backs. A suspension bridge even had to be built by the community to get the material to their school.
(Recently in this country a $534,000 six-cubicle toilet block for a school with 55 students was built. What does this single example tell us of the cultural differences between frontier Muslims and us?)
Three years after Mortenson made his promise, the school was completed. Since then Mortenson’s fund-raising has enabled him to organise the building of, or contributed to the building of, schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan which have given more than 58,000 girls and boys a primary schooling.
We hear of the odd extremist attack on a girls’ school - but we don’t hear of the popular desire for all the children of Pakistan and Afghanistan to gain a broad education. When Greg Mortenson got his first school built, the women of the village prayed to Allah to bless the air that this infidel stepped into. And yet we in the West believe that Islam is fundamentally opposed to the education of girls.
The Islamic extremists are recruiting young uneducated males for training in hate and then training them on how to kill the hated. The extremists are able to do this by filling an education vacuum. Why cannot the US draw the obvious conclusion that the best way to combat the extremists is by contributing to the financing of a balanced primary education for all Pakistani and Afghan children?
As one of Mortenson’s compatriots looked up at the screaming jet planes when Operation Enduring Freedom was driving the Taliban into the hills, she thought how well Mortenson’s project could use the $20 million just one of those planes cost.
If one man a can achieve so much by passing around his hat, then why cannot the nation which can afford a military expenditure which is 40 per cent of the world’s total?
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