In these uncertain times of mass migration and seemingly solution-less problems, I have been bowled over by two very different yet parallel stories of hope in a world that is now struggling to deal with global issues on a scale that is unfathomable.
Malala will go down in the annals of time as an utterly remarkable young lady. Arguably ‘the most famous teenager in the world’, her eventful life has been widely chronicled, and it’s a pretty good claim to fame to be able to say you are currently the youngest-ever Noble Prize laureate. The list of awards and honours already raining upon this particular adolescent would be enough to turn anyone’s head, and we are all going to follow her journey and every step with great interest, as the teenager grows and develops into a young woman.
One to watch out for is the brand new documentary on the story so far by Davis Guggenheim, “He Named Me Malala“, that has just been shown at the Telluride film festival and will be out here in Europe in early 2016. Meantime, while reading her story, I couldn’t help but be struck by the maturity of her words, and confess I shared a little of Fatma Bhutto’s faint dismay with “the stiff, know-it-all voice of a foreign correspondent”: I think overall the book is undoubtedly enhanced by being co-written with journalist Christina Lamb, but there are lots of moments when the child steps away and the schoolmarm takes over. Early on, I took a conscious decision not to let this become detrimental to the read, and I have to say this work is a testimony to sheer bravery, determination and hope in the face of such scary daily conditions.
A bit like with “Persepolis”, every page also bears witness to the strength and support that is forthcoming from Malala’s family. While – and no doubt in no small measure because – her mother has not had the same educational benefits as her children (and she is in fact is the most deeply affected by the cultural and language barriers of having to recreate her life when the family is transported to the UK), Mr Yousafzai and Malala’s story are entirely interlinked from start to finish, and from page one of the book to the end the influence of her father is integrally part and parcel of what makes this young lady tick.
Both are fearless, both are driven by a desire to make the imparting of knowledge accessible to all. Am sure you have all seen it before, but the speech she makes in front of the United Nations in 2013 makes my eyes smart (and spot her mother wiping her eyes, while Dad has the biggest grin imaginable): “Let us pick up our books and our pens. They are our most powerful weapons. One child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world”. I loved too his Ted talk on his evident pride at being the father of such a remarkable woman, and gosh he does it without a single sheet of prompted script. The two share a common passion: she is “The Girl Who Stood Up For Education”, while he battles constantly in her book to keep the schools he founds open for business. Going to school, something that is so automatic here in Europe, goes by a whole other agenda elsewhere – “For us girls that doorway was like a magical entrance to our own special world”.
“Today we all know education is our basic right…around the world there are 57 million children who are not in primary school, 32 million of them girls… I thank my Allah. I talk to him all day…he has given me great responsibilities. Peace in every home, every street, every village, every country – this is my dream. Education for every boy and every girl in the world. To sit down on a chair and read my books with all my friends at school is my right. To see each and every human being with a smile of happiness is my wish”.
Well, back in August Malala celebrated a string of A* and A graded results for her GCSEs to hold as high as her Nobel Prize, and so far her dream is staying on track: more studies, further power to her elbow. We watch this space, suitably awed.
John Wood may be ‘just’ a bloke, but he shares many of Malala’s ambitious plans to help change the face of this earth. Of the nearly 800 million people who are illiterate today, nearly two thirds of these staggering statistics are women and girls. Leaving Microsoft and a financially comfortable existence back in 1999, he founded “Room to Read” as a result of a life-changing encounter with one Mr Neupane in Nepal where “I started a conversation that was to last for the next decade”, and within ten years this non-profit organisation reached out to make a monumental difference for nearly ten million children, with more than ten million books checked out from 17,000 school libraries and more than fifteen million children’s books distributed.
I haven’t read John’s first book, “Leaving Microsoft to Change the World” and this copy was lent to me by Rachel, who runs the Paris chapter of “Room to Read”. The subheading for the work is “A Story of Hope in the Battle for Global Literacy”, and I found many parallels to Malala’s story all the way through. This book comes at the problem from the opposite side of the spectrum, as it were, and it is very easy to be swept along with Wood’s tireless quest to be a true agent of change. His energy is totally mesmerising and it is not hard to imagine how he has rallied the troops and grown his team so massively: he is a bit like Maximum Decimus in “Gladiator” (bar the blood and guts) – a peaceful warrior wielding a symbolic sword, conquering every new terrain and sewing the seeds for an empire of schools and libraries chock-a-block with books in both English and the local language. Wood is a true orator – as the New York Times puts it, he is a “motivational speaker with no off button”, and having seen him speak just the once can vouch for his charisma and total enthusiasm for this cause.
The book is very much a description of some of the challenges – and moments of jubilation – involved in encouraging donators to make a difference too. Wood clearly lives and breathes his life project, and some of his most emotional descriptions hinge on some of the more heavyweight pledges coming through – or not. The team has also grown so much that Room to Read has to be tightly run as a business, and he recounts the evolution of his group, including the decision to step down and pass the role of CEO to co-founder Erin Ganju, freeing him up to continue what he does best – travel the globe and put fire into everybody’s bellies and dosh into the coffers, so that more and more people have r(R)oom to r(R)ead.
What is clearly most exciting for him is their philosophy of working in collaboration with the local communities – both parties need to be working in tandem for progress to be made, and the Girls’ Education Program aims to take the girls out of the classroom at the other end of their education and enable them to gain life studies that will stand them in good stead forever. “My goal is that children everywhere have access to literacy and books in their mother tongue from a young age”. Now where did we just read that?
Malala and John Wood: singularly quite remarkable.
PS. Sadly, there are no magic wands to be waved, but these words at the end of Malala’s book speak volumes:
“…when I went to the Jordanian-Syrian border I was not expecting to see a huge crowd of people coming from Syria to Jordan. I was not expecting that there would be women without shoes, that there would be children without shoes, with no coats, with no idea of where they were going and no idea if they would have shelter or not…these refugees do not want luxury, they do not want a big modern house. All they want is peace. They just want a place where they are treated with equality, where they are fed, where there is no war, where people are not scared every day, where no bombs are dropped”.
“I Am Malala” by Malala Yousafzai – 8/10
“Creating Room to Read” by John Wood – 7/10