John Wood gave up his career to fight for all children’s right to education. His organisation, Room to Read, builds schools and libraries for the very poorest children in ten countries, publishes children’s books and fights for girls’ rights and education. John says that education is the best way to tackle poverty.
It all started in Hong Kong 15 years ago. John is an important manager at Microsoft. He travels all over Asia, going to hundreds of meetings and working long hours. His career is going well, but after seven years John is exhausted. He goes on holiday to fulfil a long-held dream: to go hiking in the Himalayan mountains in Nepal, far from computers and ringing telephones.
“It’s tato (hot). Do you have chiso (cold)?”
The boy shakes his head regretfully. There are no refrigerators in the mountains. But suddenly an idea strikes him. The boy dashes down the steep slope towards the river, and puts the bottle in the ice-cold glacial meltwater. John laughs and gives the boy a thumbs up, and a man at the next table laughs too.
“Are all Nepali children as clever?” asks John.
“Here we have to improvise, as we have very little,” says the man. His name is Pasuphati and he works for the local education department. Right now he is visiting the mountain schools to find out what they need.
“They lack almost everything,” he explains to John. “Come with me tomorrow and you will see.”
“At the school... you will see that in Nepal we are too poor to afford education. But until we have education, we will always be poor.”
John has prepared himself, but he still gets a shock when he is shown around the ramshackle school building. The recent rains have turned the earthen floors of the rooms to a sea of mud. The temperature is 40 degrees under the tin roof, which has been heated by the sun. Around 50 students are packed into every classroom. The children don’t have desks, but squeeze onto long benches with jotters on their laps.
At the library in his small town, you were only allowed to borrow eight books per week. But John had a secret agreement with the librarian. He was allowed to borrow twelve books a week, as long as he didn’t tell anyone!
The headteacher opens the door marked ‘Library’. But the room is empty. No shelves, chairs, desks or reading lights. And no books. There is a small cupboard in one corner.
“The books, they are so precious and so few. We must protect them,” explains the headteacher as he unlocks the padlocks on the cupboard doors. John hopes that the cupboard is going to be crammed full of books. But inside there is only a handful of old paperbacks left behind by tourists. Books for adults, in English and Italian. This is the instant when John’s life turns upside down. As he is leaving the village, the headteacher says:
“Perhaps, sir, you will someday come back with books?”
The books are loaded onto donkeys and yaks to begin the hike up the mountainside. As they approach the summit where the school is, John sees a huge crowd of people. Children, parents and teachers are waiting to welcome the book delivery. The students greet them with flower garlands and when it’s time to unpack, chaos breaks out! Soon the children are spread right across the mountainside, each one leafing through a colourful book.
Later, as they eat dinner, John’s father asks him:
“Okay, what’s next?”
John hasn’t thought that far, but now his head is spinning. In the past his focus has been on revenue and sales growth – things that were ultimately going to make rich people richer and give himself a raise, a new car and a bigger house. But all of that seems unimportant now. John makes a decision. He’s going to quit his top job and put all his time and savings into giving children all over the world access to books.
Room to Read grows quickly. Soon school libraries are being built not only in Nepal but also in Cambodia, Vietnam, South Africa, India and Bangladesh. But after a while John and his colleagues realise that they have missed a vital piece of the jigsaw. They have opened thousands of school libraries, but filled them with children’s books in English! The children have to have the opportunity to read in their own languages. But there are hardly any children’s books available in Nepali, for example, or in Khmer, the language in Cambodia.
“We have to find great writers and artists, and publish books in the children’s own mother tongues,” says John.
“We’ve still only reached 1 percent of the children who need us,” he says. “We have to get back to work so we can one day reach 100 million children! Our motto is that ‘world change starts with educated children’. We will never accept the notion that any child can be told that he or she was ‘born in the wrong place, at the wrong time, to the wrong parents’ and hence will not be educated. That idea belongs on the scrap heap of human history!”