Pennies, Afghan Girls, and Central Asia

Imagine, for a moment, the last time you used a penny. What was it for? Saved in a jar on the counter, maybe — or perhaps in a tray in a grocery store? Did you make exact change for your gum?

What if you could change a life with it?

That’s where the Central Asia Institute (CAI) comes in. Lockhorn Cider, located in downtown Bozeman, and the non-profit are teaming up to raise money for Pennies for Peace, a program which takes spare change donations to support youth education in remote Central Asia. All proceeds go to CAI. Lockhorn will exchange donations for a pint of cider and is matching donations up to $1000. The program has raised over $7 million. As their website says, “A penny in the United States may have little worth, but in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Tajikistan just a few pennies can buy a pencil and open the door to literacy.”

The fundraiser also is matched with a photographic exhibition. Photographer Erik Petersen has worked with CAI for four years and is drawn to the people, who he called “unique and beautiful.” The shots ranged from mountain vistas to kids playing soccer in a dusty field, but most were portraits — beautiful young women in bleak surroundings. They are the focus and the mission of CAI. Those young girls are the future of their homes, and by educating them, CAI hopes to expand their minds to the world. As communications director Hannah White pointed out, “If you get kids involved from the beginning, the effects will be felt globally.”

However, some may know CAI only by tabloid-worthy news coverage. In 2011, co-founder Greg Mortenson was accused of fabrication and fraud by Jon Krakauer, a journalist and former supporter of CAI. The controversy that ensued became a polarizing national story. In the end, several things became clear — the account in Mortenson’s book “Three Cups of Tea” was chronologically inaccurate, and there had been financial mismanagement at CAI. The Attorney General concluded there was no criminal intent, but did note “significant lapses in judgement” and mismanagement of funds. Mortenson paid CAI just over $1 million in “restitution.” As for the story inaccuracies, Mortenson has stated that the account actually took place over a period of a year and half, rather than one trip, but says that it was “literary license” to write it as he and his co-author did. In the end, very little is completely clear — many, including Mortenson’s K2 partner Scott Darsney, defend his claims and mission. Others, such as Krakauer, fervently deny his trustworthiness. The issue still simmers.

Nevertheless, the institute’s work continues. They continue to hold fund drives, run Pennies for Peace, and interact with donors around the world. They want to create what White calls a ripple effect. “These communities need help, but they really do want to have access to better educations and opportunities,” she said. It can be hard for many Americans to understand that desire. We are given our educations, and we complain bitterly about them — the books, the homework, the long walk across campus. Petersen recalls a girl who would rise at 4:30 a.m. to tend to animals, make her family breakfast and walk two miles to school. After five hours in a dirt-floored concrete schoolhouse, she would come back home to help with all the evening tasks. Perhaps, in the end, cafeteria dorm food and spread-out campus aren’t so terrible.

Of all the photos at the exhibition, there was one that stood out. It is a girl standing before a blackboard in a white head scarf and robe. In her hands she holds a book of bright blue cloth. And she is smiling, simply for the joy of being in school. And that, for the employees and supporters of CAI, is validation enough.