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Group Walks 320 Kilometers to Raise Money for Educating Afghan Girls

The Appalachian Mountains of western Maryland are popular with hikers, who spend the day walking the trails, enjoying nature. But last month, a group of hikers set off down the mountain with a loftier goal -- to raise money to help end illiteracy among girls in Afghanistan.

Hiking for 320 kilometers without food might not be the most enjoyable thing to do for 10 hot summer days, but Clifton Wiens, 42, felt it was important. With each step, he was raising money to help educate Afghani girls, who were forbidden to go to school under the Taliban regime. "I have a daughter who is 13," he says. "I can't imagine her growing up in the world where she can't read."

Mr. Wiens became familiar with the problem as a senior researcher at the National Geographic Society. "Working at the National Geographic, you're always interested in global issues," he says. "So, I was aware of what's happening there. I was aware of the fact that women there have a low rate of literacy, 20% according to some statistics."

Mr. Wiens was discussing the illiteracy problem with National Geographic TV producer Brian Armstrong when they decided to do something about it. To raise money and public awareness, they planned a 10-day trek -- slogging down a mountain and through a city with no camping gear like sleeping bags or tents… and no food. "Everybody we talked to said, 'you're crazy," he says. "You can't go without food for 10 days. It's impossible. You'll be starving by day 3.'"

But not only were the 2 men convinced that they could make it, they managed to convince a half-dozen of their colleagues and friends to join them, and got individuals and businesses to pledge money for the effort. Truly Herbert was one of 5 women who signed up to walk. "It was just such a great cause," she says. "I just couldn't resist it because I feel that literacy and the opportunity to learn is something that should never be denied to anyone. It just felt like a cause I could participate in and I could hopefully endure. And I was able to, luckily."

She says that as a runner and yoga instructor she was mentally and physically ready for this adventure. "I had actually done a pre-slog diet. I'd started what's called a detox diet," she says. "I'd reduced sugar and caffeine and a whole bunch of other things. Then by the time we took the trek, I had been fasting for 2 days So I actually fasted for total of 12 days for the trip."

Surprisingly, Ms. Herbert says, hunger was the least of her concerns during the 10-day slog. "The cold at night was very, very, difficult to deal with," she says. "And general aches and pain, and blisters on the feet were very, very, difficult. So really the toll on the body was more difficult than other things."

However, she says, the hunger, thirst, discomfort and pain helped her discover an inner peace. "We endured rain, horrible thunderstorms, cold, terrible heat, terrible blisters," she says. "Yet, it just felt like, 'Okay, what's going to happen next?' I was able to cope with a lot more just because of that calm meditative state that walking just puts you in."

Walking together for long hours gave the group members a chance to talk with one another and discuss a wide range of issues. Clif Wiens says they put any differences aside to work as a team for the hike. "When there were issues that would arise, we would decide as a majority what we were going to do -- whether we were going to walk at night or were we not going to walk at night." He says. "People expressed their opinions and decided what was necessary to be done. As a group we stayed together. We focused on walking for 50 minutes, stopping for 10 minutes. This way it keeps the lactic acid in your system from building up, and we did this for 8 to 10 hours a day."

By the time the group reached the National Geographic Society headquarters in Washington, D.C., everyone was really tired. However, Mr. Wiens says, they were really happy as well. They'd achieved their goal of raising $20,000. "The funds go through the National Geographic to the Afghan Girls Fund, which was established by the National Geographic 3 years ago," he says. "Then, the money goes through the Afghan Girls Fund to the Asia Foundation."

The Asia Foundation is working with the Afghan Girls Fund on several projects in Afghanistan. Foundation Vice-President Nancy Yuan says the money raised by the sloggers will support 2 programs directly related to girls' education. "The first program is with an organization called ASCHIANA, a local organization in Afghanistan," she says. "The idea behind this program was to provide an accelerated education for girls age 12 to 17 who were unable to attend school under the Taliban Regime. So, there are 270 girls involved. They are taught reading, writing, math, as well as computer skills, painting and handicrafts. So they can graduate from this program and go into the regular school system."

The other program focuses on a girls' high school in Kabul that was damaged during the war and rebuilt. "The funds for this program from the Afghan Girls Fund have gone to provide a library and a resource center," she says. "This library and resource center is the only one of its kind in Afghanistan. It was designed by an Afghani construction company and provides books as well as computer resources for the students to use."

A few days of discomfort is worth it, says Clif Wiens, if it can provide such needed resources, and demonstrate what a small group of people can do to change a small part of the world. The sloggers hope their adventure will inspire others to set out to make a difference as well.