For the past 8 years, Matiullah Wesa, a 22-year old finishing his degree in political science, has been on a mission to nurture reading in Afghanistan.

He’s opened 7 volunteer-run libraries across the country and corralled tens of thousands of books through his organization the Pen Path. Last year, he started a book drive on social media and was able to gather 20,000 books to replenish his various libraries. He’s also working to restore the country’s education system by reopening shuttered schools.

Wesa doesn’t have the resources to open state-of-the-art facilities, but he makes do with what he can secure, stocking book shelves in dingy basements or other vacant spaces.

He knows that any safe space for reading will have an impact in Afghanistan. Each book taken out a small light against the pervasive darkness of fear and violence that has fallen over many communities in his country.  

Reading--and education in general--has been a fraught affair in Afghanistan, a country with an estimated 31% adult literacy rate, and a 20% rate for women.

These low rates are partly because of widespread poverty, but they’re also driven by the dominance of the Taliban and the US-led war that has ravaged the country over the past decade, not to mention the decades of war and turmoil that dominated the country through much of the 20th century. .

More than 50% of schools lack basic resources and even a set location.

Many other schools are “ghost schools,” meaning they receive funding but don’t actually exist because officials just steal the money for themselves. Corruption like this has been endemic in the country, particularly since the US led invasion in 2002 and has hampered attempts at recovery. It has also hampered the government’s ability to function, which has opened the door for the Taliban to retake control of many communities and eliminate or warp schooling, especially for girls.

Against this grim backdrop, Wesa has been ardently spreading the gift of education.

In rural Panjwai District, for example, Wesa established a library in a former basement guest room. 1,600 books line a few shelves and only a few dozen people visit each month.

But these few dozen patrons are committing a radical act in a neighborhood that was once the cradle of the Taliban uprising in the 1990s and then became the site of rampant terror throughout the 2000s.

They’re taking out books on history, religion, housekeeping, romance and whatever else is available. They sign their names on a sheet and return the books in a day or a week or a month.

The tiny library is seeding the community with hope that peace is here for good after a long struggle with chaos.

Even women are venturing to the library and challenging cultural norms in their quest for knowledge and freedom.

In Wesa’s hometown, his family oversees a library that has 4,000 books on metal shelves and functions on the same honor system.

Over the next year, he plans to open several more libraries. He’s currently courting a donation from a wealthy Afghan citizen for 20,000 books for a new library.

Terrorist groups and government corruption are still crippling the country and could mean even harsher times ahead for the people.

But person by person, book by book, house by house--on the simplest path to peace possible--Wesa is changing his country.


Defeat Poverty

This Afghan student is bringing libraries to his war-ravaged country

By Joe McCarthy