Notable Books: Stones Into Schools

Notable Books: Stones Into Schools


After the snow from the storm on September 5 melted, the weather stabilized and the entire Pamir hung suspended in a golden autumnal interregnum while winter made its final preparations. The sunny days and the cool nights created ideal building conditions while lacing the air with a fierce sense of urgency. Each morning when the Kirghiz awoke, they gazed out at the surrounding wall of twenty-thousand-foot peaks and observed that the snow line had crept farther down toward the valley floor. By the middle of the month, the line of white was sixteen thousand feet; days later, it descended to fourteen thousand. When it reached the valley floor, the game would be over.

On the nineteenth, I called Sarfraz to let him know that there would be no helicopters, and found him wrestling with yet another snafu. By now he had completed the job of ferrying all the material from Wohid Khan’s first supply dump to Bozai Gumbaz, but a second load had been deposited at yet another location – an encampment called Gozkhon, which the Kirghiz use mainly in the fall, on the western side of Chakmak Lake about five miles south of the Tajik border. It was a three-day journey from Gozkhon to Bozai Gumbaz, and with the limited number of yaks available to Sarfraz, it could take a month to transfer the entire load, which included the final bags of cement and the 190 wooden poles for framing the roof. At that rate, the school would never be finished in time.

Meanwhile, Abdul Rashid Khan was mired in troubles of his own. As word of his illness spread, men and women all across the Pamir had dropped whatever they were doing and begun walking or riding toward Kara Jilga in order to pay their respects and offer their support. The impulse behind this convergence was touching and appreciated, but it meant that manpower was being drained from Bozai Gumbaz precisely when the need for it was greatest – a conundrum that Abdul Rashid found intolerable. “This is no time to sit around watching an old man die,” he railed at his well-wishers, making no effort to contain his frustration. “It is worthless for you to be here when you could be helping to build our future!”

The only peace the ailing leader had was at night, when his family would lift him up and carry him outside the yurt so that he could lie beneath the sky and gaze up at the stars that had once guided his ancestors down from the steppes of Mongolia. And perhaps it was there, in the writing of the constellations, that he found the answer he was looking for.

The next morning, Abdul Rashid summoned everyone together and laid out the situation. Despite the best intentions of the American military, he announced, there would be no helicopters to take him to a hospital or to shuttle the remaining building supplies to the construction site. As far as his health was concerned, he was content to accept his fate and give himself over to the will of Allah.

But the school was another matter.

“We live at the edge of the world, and since no help is going to arrive, we have no choice but to do this ourselves,” he declared. “This school is our priority. At this point, we have almost no resources left. But starting from this moment, everything that we have will be focused on one goal. Inshallah, we are going to finish what we started.”

With that, he issued an edict ordering every available yak in the High Pamir sent immediately to Gozkhon. The fastest horses were rounded up and saddled, and riders streamed out across the grasslands in all directions. In less than twenty-four hours, long lines of shaggy black beasts were shuffling from the surrounding mountains toward the western shore of Chakmak Lake.

When Sarfraz called on his sat phone to tell me about the Kirghiz leader’s proclamation, I thought it was a smart strategy that might help to nudge the odds back in favor of polishing off the school in time. But what impressed me even more were the selflessness and the resolution that lay behind this move. Having already squandered his personal fortune and his health in a fruitless campaign to improve the welfare of his people, Abdul Rashid Khan was now determined to spend the last chunk of capital he had left – the moral force of a dying man’s final wish – as a means of rallying the members of his community around a goal larger than themselves. It was an exemplary demonstration of leadership, as well as a compelling object lesson in the nobility, tenacity, and grace that is to be found among the people at the end of the road. And it yielded some impressive results.

By September 21, forty-three yaks had arrived in Gozkhon, where they were loaded with cement and lumber, and driven in the direction of Bozai Gumbaz. No one in the Pamir had ever seen anything quite like this. It was the longest yak train in living memory, and more were on their way.

Meanwhile, more than sixty Kirghiz men had rushed to Bozai Gumbaz and flung themselves into the task of assisting the eight masons from the Charpuson Valley who were directing operations. They worked fourteen hours a day hauling water, mixing cement, and roughing out the roof frame, pausing only at midday for lunch that was laid out by the women in the open. Judging by the descriptions I received from Sarfaz, the scene looked like an Amish barn-raising at the crossroads of Asia.

At the center of it all was the man with the broken hand. By tracing the GPS waypoints registered by Sarfraz’s sat phone, it was clear to me that he was everywhere at once: needling the yak herders south of Chakmak Lake to move their animals faster; galloping off to the school to harass the masons, then dashing back to Gozkhon to supervise the formation of a second yak train, and then a third one after that. It took little effort for me to imagine him glancing toward the mountains in the distance, registering the fact that the snow line had descended another hundred yards, and mercilessly thrashing poor, exhausted Kazil into yet another gallop with the trekking pole he used for a horse whip.

Then one evening at about 7:30 p.m., the phone rang in Bozeman. Tara was outside sitting on the front porch with our dog Tashi on her lap, Khyber was practicing the piano in the living room, and Amira was doing her math homework on the kitchen table.

“So?” I asked.

“No problem, sir – the school is finished.”

I glanced at the calendar on my desk that sits next to the photograph of Abdul, the orphan mechanic who had repaired our radiator hose on the way to Badakshan during one of our first trips into northern Afghanistan. It was Monday, September 28.

Nearly a decade after the original promise had been made to Abdul Rashid Khan’s horsemen, the covenant had finally been fulfilled.

Greg Mortenson is the co-founder of nonprofit Central Asia Institute www.ikat.org , founder of Pennies For Peace www.penniesforpeace.org, co-author of the #1 New York Times bestseller Three Cups of Tea www.threecupsoftea. com, and author of bestseller Stones into Schools www.stonesintoschools. com.

Text reproduced with permission from the author (Stones in to Schools pg 371-374)

“This is no time to sit around watching an old man die,’ he railed at his well-wishers, making no effort to contain his frustration. ‘It is worthless for you to be here when you could be helping to build our future!”

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