Greg Mortenson came to town yesterday. An honorary doctorate from 16 universities, twice nominated for the Nobel, I met this shy yet confident personality, who did not seem to be used to the bright light of fame. He spoke from the heart about the work he has been doing in Afghanistan.
I agree that our soldiers, who we honor today have succeeded in their limited mission and cannot also be responsible for the humanitarian work that must follow wars. Greg’s work is impressive in building schools from stones in Afghanistan starting in Korphe. He has won the hearts and trust of a people who are by nature suspicious of foreigners, the hard way.... school by school, rock by rock.
He started off with a video that showed us the bleak vista which he is helping to rebuild. Even as the camera pans the buildings in Kabul one gets the sense of unadorned simplicity. Here and there are some architectural pieces but they are bombed out of recognition. He talked of the little boy Gul who was so interested in the proposed school project but died by a land mine. Gul’s father’s face was a study in human resilience and suffering. Greg’s personal feelings towards the boy, and Haji Ali were stirring as he went through some of the details in “Three Cups of Tea” to drive home his conviction about the role of education and awareness in bringing lasting peace.
Listening to him talk I could not help having a few questions which went unasked. Would Mr. Mortenson have got as much attention, if instead of Afghanistan he had built these schools in Myanmar, Tibet, Nepal, any of the other depressed Eastern Himalayan sector, or even Kashmir? Another author in the past UB reader’s list was Khaled Hosseini who with his thousand splendid suns illuminated the kite runners from Afghanistan.
Afghanistan is then the focus I must deduce. Don’t get me wrong, I think the job is splendid, but why is it that such work is so much more glorified that the quiet teacher in a rural town in the US or anywhere else, who do their job the best they can? Why is it that in ethereal circles of well settled professionals, they commiserate about the sibling teacher sister with hushed voices? Why is it that a child who aspires to be a teacher is met with “Why not a doctor?” It must be more the scope of the project at hand rather than teaching itself. Greg’s scope is admirably huge.
He threw up some slides with known wisdom about education. I could not but think about the one which says “If you educate a boy you educate an individual; if you educate a girl you educate a community” an African proverb. I would take extreme objection to it if I was a male teacher, a responsible father or citizen of the world. This is not to put down the basic principle that yes all girls should be educated and that all children have the basic human right to knowledge. But to separate out females from males by proverbs, which are more socially relevant rather than universal, is surely unnecessary in the US. What about the simple logic that both sexes need to be educated for a healthy society to flourish.
He talked about the importance of “elders” and listening to them and lamented the lack of it in the US or Western world. I come from the East and yes there is a huge advantage in learning from wise elders and talking to them and letting them lead the way. But even Greg would agree that this is an individual honor deserved by the older generation and given by the younger generation voluntarily. Not all elders have wisdom, and I would especially question the elders of Afghanistan who might know wonderful glorious stories of their past but have done very little to take charge of their own society and bring it to modern times. Is it okay for the children there to be so bereft of resources? Is it okay for the warlords to have run the town and kept their own girls down? Aren’t the elders the ones who have actually actively kept the country marking time and confounded them with religiosity, social and cultural taboos? As wonderful as it is for the villages in India to have been hearing the tales from “Ramayana” being told and retold (it is still fascinating, I wholeheartedly agree), or about the British Raj and the Freedom Movement, is it not also incumbent upon society to be proud of their present? Is it not incumbent upon the elders to find ways and means of disseminating knowledge through the means of the newer technologies and thus make the next generation vested in their future? To stick rigidly to history and wishing things to be the way they were without a balancing viewpoint about the present and future is sure the definition of fundamental thought. In fact one of education’s strength is in encouraging creativity and curiosity about the unknown. To make the further correlation that in the Western world there is no inter-generational give and take is not deserved. Modern technology has opened up the world to the silent majority who used to remain quiet in the past and has allowed them to actively participate in discussions.
His idea of empowering local people instead of doing charity rang a bell with me. I have always considered those who label their life work as charity as disingenuous. The word itself has inequality embedded in it automatically presuming that one is somehow better than another and is thus more qualified to be doing “for” rather than “with” someone. Logically helping one’s co-traveler results in a journey being successful, all scientific endeavor is collaborative, we are a society not individual islands. Education is the only way to enlightenment and awareness and has been the shining torch in the world and for me all my life.
As we snaked our way through the lines for his autograph I couldnt but notice the number of police that had been recruited to keep peace around the man.
Thanks for personalizing my copy Greg and Namaste indeed!
Salute to all veterans of the world and to my father (Late) Colonel MM Ghosh AMC
After being shuffled around in research at Roswell Park Cancer Institute two years ago, I changed the course of my own life. I searched and found a science teaching program through Department of Energy and the Joint Genome Institute and wrote up an innovative teaching curriculum and took it to the colleges and departments in the University. Finally Biotechnical and Clinical Laboratory Sciences at the University of Buffalo saw my vision and collaborated with me to get the program in. Steve and I traveled to California to train in the program of Genomic Annotation thus bringing active research into the science classroom and after wrestling an adjunct Clinical Assistant Professor position in the department, I now conduct research in “Pancreatic Cancer” and I teach Bioinformatics to undergraduate and grad students, High School teachers and kids in and around Buffalo. We have applied for a grant even though I could not be the principal investigator or even co-PI because I don’t have a formal affiliation. I still worry that after all that hard work, I might be marginalized when the money does come in eventually. But I refuse to let negativity get in the way of work. Greg’s work has only re-energized me!