During June 2010 I traveled to the towns of Mukono and Lugazi, Uganda working with four Country Directors, two volunteer teams (40 people), NGO Partner Leaders, Government Officials, and others. I continued my research and learning to “Discover What Works” in the Developing World. I, hopefully, contributed something to the mix of what is happening there. However, I mostly used my listening ears, seeing eyes, and other senses. And asked a lot of questions.
Africa, I found, is a paradox. A place of huge opportunity with many vexing obstacles to fulfilling individual and collective potential. To see more of my observations and conclusions on this paradox please see my Blog, Tweets, YouTube posts, and pictures on Facebook. You might also want to read the McKinsey & Company whitepaper “Lions on the Move: The Progress and Potential of African Economies” found on their website at: http://www.mckinsey.com/mgi/publications/progress_and_potential_of_african_economies/index.asp
I am always humbled by my trips into the developing world. So many of the trappings of life that encumber our experience of life in the developed world are stripped away in the developing world setting. We who are involved in NGO’s are working to contribute something to the lives of the people we serve in the countries in which we operate. But we gain so much from our experiences with these wonderful people. I can never figure out if I am gaining more that I contribute or vice versa. What I can tell you without a doubt is that I see my clients and the developed world in general with very different eyes when I return from these journeys. And the eyes I bring back see more clearly and can more perceptively discern the hogwash that we muddle through in the developed world. It is a great privilege to serve in this capacity.
2002 – El Salvador
In the picture to the right three village women and a US based volunteer are working on a square foot garden in El Salvador in 2002. The woman bent over the garden is Rosa, an amazing community leader who educated three daughters on her income from her micro business.
“Square Foot Gardening” has been a very successful approach for us to use to help families become more self-reliant. I use that approach in my own vegetable garden and it supplies a nutritious balance to my daily diet. You can find out more at http://www.squarefootgardening.com/
2005 – Thailand – Post Tsunami
The Khao Lak area of Thailand is about 75 kilometers north of the well known resort town of Phuket. In the Winter of 2005 the students in one class on social entrepreneurism in a university school of business organized an expedition to go halfway around the world to provide “worms eye view service” to families in communities they had never visited and had no economic or social connection to! Imagine that! A group of students — not a big NGO or government agency. Just bright, passionate, energetic, idealistic regular American young people. Who paid their own way and supplied the physical and emotional power to make a huge difference in the lives of real people who needed the help.
This is one of the homes those volunteers helped built in Tap Tuan near Khao Lak, Thailand in 2005 after the Asian Tsunami. The in-country NGO Partner, the Mirror Group, did amazing work through their Tsunami Volunteer Center. There were over 100 volunteers there through the US based NGO. Notice the wonderful patterns in the woven mat walls and the railing around the balcony and on the stairs. The villagers had a wonderful sense of design and craftsmanship in the aftermath of an overwhelming geophysical disaster.
2007 – Guatemala & El Salvador
The experience with stove building over the years has been very gratifying. Numerous NGOs are searching for ways for it to be an increasingly powerful way of helping families and villages to become self-reliant.
Here the volunteers are teaching Adobe Stove Building in a village in Guatemala in 2007. Respiratory problems are a major health issue in the developing world. By teaching them how to build and use adobe stoves families can eliminate cooking over an open fire in their homes. The stoves use less wood, make more efficient use of the heat produced, and eliminate particulate matter and hazardous fumes from the air in the home. Burns decrease, respiratory problems decrease, fuel expense decreases, and Mom has more time. (And with that time Mom can get a micro-loan, start a business, and add to the families prosperity!)
In 2007 one US Based NGO group built 45 stoves with villagers. The villagers, supported by in-country NGO partners, went on to build 450 more. When it works there is leverage!
Greg Mortenson as a Resource on Developing World Issues
One of my sources of wisdom on issues about the developing world is the writings of Greg Mortenson. If you can only read two books on the topic, read his.
Mortenson, Greg, Stones into Schools: Promoting Peace with Books, Not Bombs, in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Viking Press, 2009, pages 17-21, 231. (ISBN: 978-0-670-02115-4)
Mortenson, Greg, and David Oliver Relin, Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace . . . One School at a Time, Penguin Books, New York, 2006. (ISBN: 978-0-14-303825-2)
Here are a few quotes:
“The only way we can defeat terrorism is if people in this country (Pakistan) where terrorists exist learn to respect and love Americans, and if we can respect and love these people here. What’s the difference between them becoming a productive local citizen or a terrorist? I think the key is education.”
— David O. Relin & Greg Mortenson, Three Cups of Tea, page 268
Educate Girls to Get Change
“After attending a conference of development experts in Bangladesh, Mortenson decided CAI schools should educate students only through the fifth grade and focus on increasing the enrollment of girls. ‘Once you educate the boys, they tend to leave the villages and go search for work in the cities. But the girls stay home, become leaders in the community, and pass on what they’ve learned. If you really want to change a culture, to empower women, improve basic hygiene and health care, and fight high rates of infant mortality, the answer is to educate girls.’”
— David O. Relin & Greg Mortenson, Three Cups of Tea, page 209
Taking Time – Building Relationships – Three Cups of Tea
Listen with Humility to What Others Have to Say
Build a Bridge Before You Build the School (Span of Emotional Links)
A Pace that Mirrors the Ponderous Movement of the Karakoram Glaciers
Good Relationships Often Demand Titanic Patience
(Page 17) Serious and worthy efforts to promote schooling for girls are currently taking place all over the world from Guatemala and Egypt to Bangladesh and Uganda. The unusual twist that the Central Asia Institute applies to this enterprise, however, is encapsulated in the title of Three Cups of Tea, which refers to a Balti saying that Haji Ali invoked during one of my first visits to his village. “The first cup on tea you share with us, you are a stranger,” he intoned. “The second cup, you are a friend. But with the third cup, you become family — and for our families we are willing to do anything, even die.”
Of the many lessons that that old man imparted to me, this was perhaps the greatest. It underscores the paramount importance of taking time to build relationships, while simultaneously affirming the basic truth that in order to get things done in this part of the world, it is essential to listen with humility to what others have to say. The solution to every problem, Haji Ali firmly believed, begins with drinking tea. And so it has proven.
After my first encounter with Haji Ali in 1993, I returned to the United States, raised twelve thousand dollars, and then went back a year later to Pakistan, where I purchased a massive load of cement, lumber, and other supplies in the city of Rawalpindi. This material was piled onto a Bedford truck and ferried up the Karakoram Highway to the town of Skardu, a trip that took three days. There it was transferred to jeeps and driven (Page 18) to the end of the road, eighteen miles from Korphe — where I arrived with the expectation of being greeted like a hero. Instead, I was informed (after drinking several cups of tea with Haji Ali) that before we could start construction on the school, we had to build a bridge. The reason? It would be impossible to ferry the construction materials over the roaring Braldu inside the only device spanning the river, a rickety wooden basket suspended beneath a 350-foot cable.
Perhaps I should have thought of this earlier; in any case, the unexpected turn of events seemed like a disaster. It forced me to retreat back to the United States, where I had to convince my main benefactor, Dr. Jean Horerni, to contribute even more money, which was then used to purchase even more construction materials and transport these supplies to the edge of the Braldu, where the residents of Korphe built a 282-foot-long suspension bridge over the river. In the end, the whole exercise set the project back nearly two years.
At the time, I found this detour and its delays utterly maddening. Only years later did I begin to appreciate the enormous symbolic significance of the fact that before building a school, it was imperative to build a bridge. The school, of course, would house all of the hopes that are raised by the promise of education. But the bridge represented something more elemental: the relationships upon which those hopes would be sustained over time — and without which any promise would amount to little more than empty words.
Korphe’s schoolhouse was finished in December 1996, and since then each and every school we have built has been preceded by a bridge. Not necessarily a physical structure, but a span of emotional links that are forged over many years and many shared cups of tea.
This philosophy means that some of our projects can grind along at a pace that mirrors the ponderous movement of the (Page 19) Karakoram glaciers. For example, in Chunda, a conservative rural village in Baltistan, it took eight years for us to convince the local mullah, an immensely cautious and pious man, to permit a single girl to attend school. Today, however, more than three hundred girls study in Chunda — and we take great pride in the fact that they do so with the full support of the very same mullah who once stood in their way. His change of heart affirms the notion that good relationships often demand titanic patience.
Like Nasreen Baig, the green-eyed nurse from the Charpurson, we do not regret the wait. As any wise village elder will tell you, anything truly important is worth doing very, very slowly.
(Mortenson, Greg, Stones into Schools, 2009)
Retrospective Sense Making in both Learning Math (Russ Ruby) and International Development
Hope — Perspective — Wisdom
(Page 19) The book that you are holding in your hands picks up where Three Cups of Tea left off in 2003 and is partly a chronicle of how that process has continued to unfold in Pakistan during the last several years. Mostly, however, this new book traces our efforts to take our work into a whole new region, the remote northeastern corner of Afghanistan. It is a place that has proved even more challenging than Pakistan, and the sage of what my staff sometimes calls our “Afghan adventure” is framed loosely in the context of a single school.
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. No project has ever taken us so long or required such complex logistics as the little school we built next to the old Kirghiz burial grounds in the heart of the Afghan Pamir’s Bam-I-Dunya, the “Rooftop of the World.” And next to Korphe itself, no school is closer to my heart, because, in ways both large and small, it was the most miraculous. It arose out of a promise made in 1999 during an unlikely meeting that seemed lifted from the pages of a novel set in the thirteenth century, (Page 20) when the horsemen of Genghis Kan roamed the steppes of central Asia. And it drew us into the land of the Afghans, the only place that has ever threatened to usurp the affection and the love I harbor for Pakistan.
Part of what made this school such a surprise is that so many other urgent projects were demanding our attention during the ten years it took to make good on our promise. The fact that we refused to let it go, even amid an earthquake in Kashmir in 2005 and other challenges that are recounted in the pages that follow, is a testament less to me than to the vision and the persistence of the Central Asia Institute’s staff, and in particular to a group of twelve men whom I affectionately call the Dirty Dozen. If there are any heroes here, it is they; and for the most part this book is their story, because without these men, none of it would have happened. If the daughters who flock to our schools represent the fire we’ve lit, then these men are the fuel that sustains the flames. They have guided, pushed, and inspired me in more ways than I can recount, and their commitment and sacrifices run so deep that whatever we achieve will ultimately belong not to me but to them. Without their example and their resourcefulness, I would still be nothing more than a dirtbag mountaineer subsisting on ramen noodles and living in the back of his car.
As you’ll see, the story of the little gem of a school that we build in the most remote corner of central Asia a roundabout tale — a thread that like the twisting roads we ply in our battered Land Cruiser through the passes of the Karakoram and the Hindu Kush can sometimes get lost amid the unexpected detours and the landslide of complications that cascade down upon anyone who ventures into that harsh and wondrous part of the world. But these digressions and dead ends may also provide something that readers of Three Cups of Tea have been requesting from me for years. What they’ve wanted, more that anything else, is a window into the day-to-day mechanics and rhythms of (Page 21) the Central Asia Institute. A sense of what it feels like to lay the physical and emotional foundation for girls’ education, book by book and brick by brick, in the middle of Taliban country. It nothing else, this new work should fulfill that request.
I should also note that the first part of this story will cover some ground that may already be familiar to readers of Three Cups of Tea. I thought this was necessary and important because several of these early events began to shape themselves into a meaningful pattern only over time. Back when they took place, I did not understand the full significance of these experiences and lessons they imparted, nor did I realize where they fit into the larger story that is my privilege to tell here.
In short, it was only after having moved forward a considerable distance that I was fully able to comprehend where we had been — a phenomenon that would not have surprised Haji Ali, who, to my sadness, passed away in 2001. Haji Ali never learned to read or write, and over the course of seven decades he left his home village only once, to perform a pilgrimage to Mecca. Nevertheless, he understood that hope resides in the future, while perspective and wisdom are almost always found by looking to the past.
Sometimes, it seems like everything I’ve ever learned traces back to that irascible old man I first met in the barley fields of Korphe.
(Mortenson, Greg, Stones into Schools, 2009)
Sustainability Requires Intensive Follow-Up, Broad Support, & Long-Term Commitment
Very Little Simply Falls Into Place
(Page 231)This, we discovered, has several consequences. First, it gives rise to a cycle of students becoming teachers who educate their own students to become teachers, and so on. Second, the first wave of educated women to emerge in a community have no role models or support network whatsoever to help them pursue higher education and eventually move into the workforce as doctors, lawyers, engineers, and a range of other professions through which women can, if they wish, build wealth and attain greater control of their lives. In short, we began to realize that not only the institutions we built, but also the people passing through them, would require intensive follow-up, broad support, and long-term commitment in order to eventually become self-sustaining. For poor people in poor countries, very little simply falls into place. (Mortenson, Greg, Stones into Schools, 2009)