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Change the World: Read a Book

Friday, September 25, 2009 by Marianne Elliott

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I spent most of this week driving around rural New Zealand visiting schools. These are the lowest 'decile' schools in the country, that is, these schools have been assessed as having the most challenges and the least community resources. I've been visiting them to talk with the children about my life and work in Afghanistan and about my love of books. It was all part of the Duffy Books in Homes programme, through which children in decile one schools are all given books of their own choice to take home and call their own.

The schools I visited this week ranged from a tiny remote country school with  nine pupils to a 450 pupil school in the "wrong" part of a provincial city. I met a principal who had worked with UNICEF in Africa, another who had taught in Papua New Guinea and one senior principal who had left a very privileged school in Wellington to lead one of the most challenged schools in the region. At his school the supposedly challenging students led the entire assembly, beautifully. It's humbling to be introduced as a 'Duffy hero' by these real-life heroes. 

I have such a great time at these assemblies. I tell a few stories about Afghanistan, show some photos, get some brave volunteers to dress up in Afghan clothing and then answer questions. I noticed that children have a strong sense of justice and fairness, and their questions often reveal the strange injustices of our international presence in Afghanistan. One young boy asked: "If the children have to walk so far to school why don't they ride in the helicopters that the soldiers have?" Why not, indeed.

I was also touched by the interest these children showed in the children who featured in my stories and photos. They wanted to know the name of each child and they wanted updates on their stories, what had happened to them since I left Afghanistan.

It didn't seem to be too difficult for these New Zealand children to empathise with a seven year old girl from the remote mountains of Afghanistan. They didn't rationalise away her suffering with arguments about whose fault it was that she had lost her home. Nor did they try to protect themselves from the injustice of it by arguing that nothing could be done to change her situation.

That simple but powerful ability to empathise, combined with a simple belief that life could be fair and that there can be solutions to the world's wickedest problems was what got me into this line of work in the first place. I wonder what it says about me that I found myself more amongst kindred spirits in those school halls than I often have in the corridors of the world's professional humanitarian organisations?

I had lots of great inspiration from you guys for the part of my talk that focused on books and reading. In the end the message that kept coming to me as I spoke was this – that it is our imagination that enables us to empathise with others. Our ability to act for good in the world stems largely from our ability to imagine what it would be like to be a seven year old girl who has been forced to leave her home and travel with her family through strange and sometimes dangerous places. I've been talking about this subject on this blog for years now, my belief that empathy is an act of creativity and that we can boost our capacity for empathy by feeding our creative imaginations.

After talking to all those beautiful children about Afghanistan, this is what I wanted to share with them about books and reading. When you read good books it is like watering the garden of your imagination, like working out your imagination muscles at the gym, like feeding your imagination a big bowl of delicious fruit. When you read your imagination muscles get stronger and your imagination is the most important tool you have for doing good in the world.

So I encourage you as I encouraged them. Read what you love. Read about places in the world that you would love to visit, read the stories of characters who do things you would love to do, read about people who you can imagine as your friends, read about machines that you would one day like to build. Read whatever makes your imagination soar.

This 'Change the World Friday' here is your mission: Curl up on a comfy chair and read.

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9 Responses to "Change the World: Read a Book"

  1. Meliors says:

    Yeah! After some weeks of being ‘too busy’ to ready anything but serious factual material, this week I started rereading a favourite novel about a place I love to imagine… Antartica (KS Robinson). Coming home to this book feels like climbing into a safe lap, and yet every time I read it I am immersed in different aspects of the writing. I love how you connect imagination and compassion, I will be trying to incorporate that into my next term as Writer in Residence at Hamilton Girls High School.

  2. Rachel says:

    I can do that! Glad you had a great time, and I’m sure they all did too. In my experience kids talk about these kinds of visits for a long time.

  3. Stefanie says:

    I think that is lovely. And you are right, why shouldn’t they expect children in A. to have safe and fair lives like the ones they lead. Its amazingly simple. Sad we don’t have an answer.

  4. asiyah says:

    This post made me cry, my life path has changed because of books for all the reasons you so eloquently stated in this blog. It started with empathy but ended with the creativity to think I can help people too.
    On a different note, I’m reading a book about samurai now…

  5. leonie says:

    i promise that i will – it’s one of my favourite pastimes. made easy in our house as we don’t have a television…
    i have just last night started reading ‘The Treehouse: Eccentric Wisdom from My Father on How to Live, Love, and See’ by Naomi Wolf. it’s about lessons in creativity from her father. i think it’s the perfect book to be curling up with in acceptance of your mission.

  6. Lubna says:

    Wow. This is awesome.
    I think I told you that I will volunteer at a tiny school in the slum area of Bangalore and read to them stories.
    I will begin in October, right now they are having vacations (Diwali). My story book collection drive was a success, with 70 story books pouring in from cyber-pals. The Amazon wish list is still open and we hope to get a few more. For now, we got the first two sets of gifts today and are all set to roll.
    You must have read Three Cups of Tea – this is the best way to make peace in Afghanistan. And yes, ensuring that are kids are culturally aware of the world around them will ensure that the world is a more peaceful place in times to come.
    I am so thrilled to hear what you did.
    Best,

  7. susanna says:

    Terrific post, Marianne. I can just imagine you there, surrounded by interested young students. You’ve lived an adventurous life and perhaps one of the little ones will be inspired to take up humanitarian work when he or she grows up. Seeing empathy for others in those young faces must have been inspiring and hopeful.

  8. One of my favorite ways to find things to read has been to enter libraries with no preconceived ideas of what I wanted to pick up – just read the titles off the spines of books and leave with a few that caught my attention. It’s a good way to read about things you’ve always kind of been interested in but never really informed yourself about.

  9. Emma says:

    Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful!

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