The schoolhouse at the end of the world is a simple affair. Made of concrete and painted gray, it bears the white star of the Central Asia Institute, the nonprofit group co-founded by Greg Mortenson. The group says it has built more than 170 schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan.This one stands at 12,480 feet in Bozai Gumbaz, a corner of northeastern Afghanistan that is cold, rocky and barren. The clear waters of the Wakhan River flow from a nearby glacier. The school is ringed by brown lunar peaks on a wind-swept plateau, the Little Pamir, the most remote stretch of land in a remote nation. One afternoon last August, after a light snowfall, I walked through the small building. It had no desks and chairs. Wooden planks and sawdust lay on the floor. The schoolhouse, completed in 2009 and the centerpiece of Mr. Mortenson’s second book, “Stones Into Schools,” had never been used. The Kyrgyz nomads who lived in yurt settlements on the plateau had little desire to enroll their children in the school. “I need to hold a jirga,” said Sarfraz Khan, the regional project manager for the institute, referring to a conclave of elders. “We need to convince the people to send their children to school.”
Another institute-built school I saw, in the ethnic Wakhi farming village of Sarhad-e Broghil, was more impressive. It had nine classrooms around a courtyard, and was filled with scores of high school students. Boys played volleyball outside and girls scribbled notes in math class.
The two schools — one hinting at failure, the other at success — jumped to mind last week in light of accusations that Mr. Mortensen has played fast and loose with his charity’s finances, using much of the money for his own book tours and not delivering on school projects he had promised, and that his program has oversold and underdelivered on its promises to Afghans.
But what I saw of the school-building program was difficult to fit neatly into either the heroic narrative offered by Mr. Mortenson, whose admirers say he is enhancing hope for stability in Afghanistan by promoting secular education, or the depiction of greed by his accusers, including Jon Krakauer, who said that, among other things, the institute’s staff had claimed on 2009 tax forms that 66 students were enrolled at the school that I found empty last August.
In fact, what the two schools, especially the empty one, may reflect most plainly is the complexity of any development work in a country like Afghanistan.
There, as in much of the developing world, culture and language can change from one valley to the next, and whether the local populace buys into a project is crucial for success. I saw the same issue play out with the American military’s efforts in Iraq: Not all communities wanted what America had to offer. Some schools or aid projects were embraced, others ignored.
Here, for whatever insight it may offer, is what one reporter learned about how the school at the end of the world was built and stayed empty.
In “Stones Into Schools,” a best-selling memoir by Mr. Mortenson whose factuality is now under question, and which I only read months after visiting the schools, Mr. Mortenson outlines grand hopes for the school in Bozai Gumbaz and calls it the toughest project his charity had ever undertaken. Other than the first school he built in Pakistan, “no school is closer to my heart,” he writes. The book ends with the school completed after a series of obstacles. But one day, it predicts, 200 students will enroll there, even during the harsh winters. It has not worked out that way — yet — as I learned while on vacation, trekking through the Wakhan Corridor with my wife, Tini, and two friends.
Before leaving home, I had e-mailed Mr. Mortenson to ask if I could visit some schools financed by the Central Asia Institute. He answered with advice and an introduction to Sarfraz Khan, his right-hand man. So I had dinner with him in the Afghan border town of Ishkashim, and over chunks of lamb meat, he talked openly about the problems at Bozai Gumbaz.
The school had been built, but the Kyrgyz preferred that their children spend their days taking care of sheep, their most valuable commodity. “The Kyrgyz only care about sheep and yaks,” said Sarfraz , an ethnic Wakhi from Pakistan. “They say if we have sheep and yaks, we have success in life.”
Sarfraz, a garrulous ex-soldier and mountain trader, was on his way through the Wakhan to persuade the Kyrgyz otherwise. We drove for two days to Sarhad, the gateway to the Little Pamir, where we parted. Sarfraz rode on horse through a gorge to the Kyrgyz, while my companions and I trekked to the Pamir plateau on the high, scenic route over four mountain passes. We met up again in Kashch Goz, a summer settlement with a handful of yurts belonging to the family of Haji Osman, a thin Kyrgyz elder with a wispy beard. Haji Osman told me that he had gone to Kabul to ask President Hamid Karzai to provide basic services to the Kyrgyz. He said food was short, but did not mention education.
I later learned why from Ted Callahan, an American anthropologist who studies the Kyrgyz: In 2008, the Afghan government finalized plans to send eight teachers to the Little Pamir during the summer to teach Kyrgyz children in their yurts. “It’s been surprisingly effective,” he said in a telephone interview. And it obviated the need for a schoolhouse.
Years earlier, Mr. Mortenson had promised Abdul Rashid Khan, the leader of the Kyrgyz in the Little Pamir, that he would build a school in the area. Mr. Callahan had recommended a boarding school, and he said the Kyrgyz leaders liked the idea. One reason is that landing such a development project brings power and prestige to the local leaders.
But when the Afghan government began to send teachers to the yurts, Mr. Callahan said, it became clear that there was no need for a school. Still, Mr. Mortenson and his institute pressed on, and Mr. Mortenson wrote in “Stones Into Schools” that Abdul Rashid Khan fully supported the school project. “If it was the only game in town, they’d send their kids down there,” Mr. Callahan said of the school. “But by the time the school had been finished, there was an alternative.”
Abdul Rashid Khan died shortly after the construction ended, so it is unclear what use he might have made of the school. In any case, Sarfraz Khan told me that the Kyrgyz parents said they did not want their children walking an hour or more each way to attend class.
So Sarfraz Khan had come to Kashch Goz to propose a solution at a jirga: the Central Asia Institute would convert an old Soviet military building beside the school into a dormitory, and a Kyrgyz family would live on the grounds and cook for the students.
On our second night at the settlement, after paying for a sheep to be slaughtered for a communal meal, he made his case to the elders.
The next morning, my companions and I left for the trek back to Sarhad and the lower Wakhan Corridor, where we would find the more successful school. Before we left, Sarfraz Khan told us: “The food problem is solved. They have agreed to send their children to school.”
Mr. Mortenson called me after my trip and said children would attend school in the winter and herd sheep in the warm months. “They have their traditional ways,” he said.
But this February, the school still sat empty, according to Matthieu Paley, a photographer who often visits the region. He told me in an e-mail: “The school was completely abandoned, unused and locked — and there is no way it can ever be used, I would say, for at least seven months a year.” The temperature, he said, was easily a dozen degrees below zero Fahrenheit.