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.