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From Lafayette to Afghanistan | One local man’s quest to help a war-torn country. | By Emily Wilson

Budd MacKenzie, a lawyer from Lafayette, has a question for the crowd come to hear him speak about his work in Afghanistan. “What are you going to do with the rest of your life?” he asks the 35 or so Tri-Valley Democrats who have assembled in a Dublin conference room on this January evening. “The yard is looking pretty good, the garage is in good shape, you’ve read a few books, taken a couple of trips. Now what?”

MacKenzie, an affable man in his 60s with a head of thick white hair, has faced that question himself. His life-altering answer: Trust in Education, an all-volunteer nonprofit that he launched in 2005 to provide education, health care, and economic development programs in Afghanistan. The organiza-tion’s first project—founding a secular school in the village of Lalander, close to Kabul—paved the way for many other education-related enterprises, programs that provide fruit trees, seeds, and an irrigation system to farmers, and more—all with self-reliance as the end goal.

“We are limited only by our imagination and resolve,” says MacKenzie. Easygoing and politically moderate, MacKenzie doesn’t think of himself as an activist. But his life—and the lives of countless others (both Americans and Afghans)—has been transformed by his passion for helping the people of Afghanistan.

Since its founding seven years ago, Trust in Education has gained many high-profile supporters, including Khaled Hosseini, the Bay Area author of the bestselling book, The Kite Runner, and Said Tayeb Jawad, Afghan ambassador to the United States from 2003 to 2010. But the backbone of the nonprofit is its devoted staff, including the several program directors who work in Afghanistan and the growing handful of volunteers who work out of the office in Lafayette.

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Civic groups, community organizations, Rotary Clubs, schools—MacKenzie will speak to anyone he thinks could become interested in giving time or money to Afghanistan. Hence his talk tonight to the Tri-Valley Democrats, one of hundreds of such speeches he’s delivered over the past six years. This one, as it happens, takes place at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 595’s headquarters. In this post-Christmas season, the room is still a riot of green and red decorations, snowflakes, and Santas—there’s even a fake fireplace with stockings carefully hung.

MacKenzie’s quest began in 2003, when he read a Parade article about former climber Greg Mortenson, author of Three Cups of Tea, who builds schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Deeply moved, MacKenzie contacted Mortenson to find out how much it costs to build a school. When he got the answer—$25,000—he told Mortenson to go ahead and find a site for another school. Ultimately, MacKenzie raised $60,000.

In light of recent news stories questioning the financial practices of Mortenson and his nonprofit organization, as well as the truthfulness of his immensely popular book, MacKenzie says that “we expect someone portraying themselves as a humanitarian to tell us the truth.” He worries about the effect of the negative reports on organizations like his. But, MacKenzie says, without Mortenson, he would never have founded Trust in Education. “The great thing for me is that he got me off the couch,” he says.

MacKenzie never intended to launch a nonprofit—that $60,000 for the Lalander school, he tells his listeners, “was supposed to be the end of it.” But, he jokes, he “made the mistake of becoming informed” and started learning more about Afghanistan and its history. Then he wanted to make sure the thousands of dollars his friends and neighbors had contributed were being spent wisely. So he made an in-person trip to see the school.

Using slides to illustrate his stories, MacKenzie tells the group about that first school; belatedly purchasing playground equipment (“Where are the swings?” asked an American child, studying MacKenzie’s photos); experimenting with microfinance; starting a program for street children; working with an Afghan woman, Zohra Aziz, to create a new school for girls in her father’s village of Farza; and, most recently, building solar ovens to ship to people in refugee camps.

As always, the audience has questions. How does MacKenzie know the Taliban won’t destroy the progress that his projects make? Is he afraid of kidnapping? How does he find teachers for the schools? MacKenzie has an easy manner with people, patiently answering questions he’s fielded dozens of times before.

“Budd does an amazing job talking to people who are very, very skeptical and getting them to open up,” says Berkeley volunteer Kathryn Vizas. “Part of why he’s effective is that he slowly builds his case. He’s not pounding the lectern and acting keyed up.” A retired lawyer with an interest in international aid, Vizas started volunteering with Trust in Education two days a week after she heard MacKenzie speak in Lafayette. His approach impressed her, she says.

“He’s actually going to Afghanistan,” she says. “He’s on the ground, doing work there. When he’s here, he’s in that office every day and weekends, doing stuff. It’s the real deal.”

Seeing firsthand the difference schools make to Afghan children keeps MacKenzie going. “People tell you just focusing on one village or building a school—it’s just a drop in the bucket,” he says. “Well, it’s not a drop in the bucket to the people in that village or the ones at that school.”

Vizas, who now concentrates on networking and finding funding, is excited because she and MacKenzie have just met with Congressman John Garamendi to discuss how he can promote the program. But despite promising encounters like this, Vizas says, the idea of aid to Afghans has been a hard sell to her friends and neighbors. “People think it’s all about tribal feuds that go back centuries and they never stop fighting,” she says. “They’re writing the people there off as backward and primitive.”

MacKenzie aims to dispel the idea that Afghans are not like Americans. He wants the men and women here in this prosperous group of American baby boomers to feel a connection with the people in the villages of a country that’s been living with the terrible effects of war for 30 years. “The majority of people in that country are women,” he tells the Tri-Valley Democrats. “They don’t want to fight, they don’t want war. They’re just suffering the consequences of war.”

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As a law student at University of California at Berkeley during the Vietnam War, MacKenzie didn’t participate in war protests (his father was in the Air Force), but he frequently showed up to hear what the protesters had to say.

Decades later, MacKenzie was reminded of that volatile time when he attended a Lafayette city council meeting in 2003, almost two years after the United States attacked Afghanistan in reaction to the events of 9/11. On the agenda: a possible resolution condemning the recent American invasion of Iraq. “I thought, here we go again—another divisive time,” he says.

Recalling President Lyndon Johnson’s famous remark about winning the hearts and minds of a war-torn country, MacKenzie says that the Afghan people need to see Americans as partners, not occupiers. “They were left with warlords and civil war,” he says, referring to conditions in Afghanistan after the United States pulled out in 1993. “I wanted to help these people directly, not keep looking to Washington, D.C.”

In MacKenzie’s small Lafayette office, law books from his career as an attorney crowd the shelves, as well as Little League trophies. Some of the glittering statues belong to his now-grown children; others hark back to MacKenzie’s years of coaching youth sports—basketball, soccer, roller blade hockey, tennis—until, as he says, his son “could take no more.” MacKenzie, whose Lafayette roots go back 20 years, has served as president of the Lafayette Chamber of Commerce, been named that city’s Citizen of the Year, and volunteered as a mock trial adviser at Acalanes High School. His enterpreneurial experience dates back to 1970, when he and a college friend launched a wine and cheese store, Curds and Whey, in Berkeley.

The mild-mannered MacKenzie never expected to visit a war-torn country, and when he first went to Afghanistan—a far cry from the well-to-do suburb where he lives—he was struck by what he saw. “Kabul is incredibly dusty—every tree had been burned to the ground,” he says. “There are remnants of the war all over. There are Russian tanks on the roadside. It’s coming from the land of plenty and going to the land of survival.”

MacKenzie made that first trip alone. Now Trust in Education’s vice president, Nabi Tawakali, a native of Kabul, goes with him on the two three-week trips he makes each year, interpreting the language and easing the way. But it took some convincing to get the 61-year-old Tawakali to go back to the country he left as a young man 32 years earlier.

“There was nothing for me to look back to. My parents had passed away,” Tawakali says. “When I went there I thought I landed in a totally different country. Kabul had 350,000 people when I left, and now they say it’s 6 million.”

Yet in spite of his initial reluctance to return to Afghanistan, Tawakali believes that Trust in Education’s schools and its program to help street children make a difference. Lack of education, he says, is the main problem in his country.

Another of the nonprofit’s many volunteers, Zohra Aziz, left Afghanistan as a child. She didn’t return until 2006, when she traveled with her father to his village, Farza. When girls in the village approached her, curious about her ability to read and write, she learned there was no school for them—just for boys. Back in the United States, Aziz searched for more than two years for an organization that would help her build a school for girls in Farza. Finally, her seventh-grade English teacher, now a close family friend, mentioned an article she’d read about Trust in Education. Aziz immediately called MacKenzie.

“He said he couldn’t promise, but he’d try,” she says.

Today, plans for the school are well underway, thanks in part to a March 2010 fundraiser that raised $60,000 to launch Aziz’s project. The hardest part of making her dream come true, Aziz says, has been completing the intricate paperwork for a school that will serve 350 girls. But she doesn’t mind the effort. “Education is the only way to go,” she says. “Even if they can’t get a job, at least they can be better moms. They can make decisions for themselves. If a woman is educated, they educate their families.”

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While education, particularly for girls and women, is the driving force behind Trust in Education, the organization has ventured into other areas—including, most recently, solar cooking. Jack Howell, a publisher living in Lafayette and a solar oven enthusiast, met MacKenzie when he spoke last year at the Mt. Diablo Peace and Justice Center. The upshot: Trust in Education has now built and sent 100 solar ovens to Afghan refugee camps.

Howell got hooked on the simplicity of solar ovens after researching and publishing a 1991 book on the subject (Cooking with the Sun: How to Build and Use Solar Cookers) that sold 80,000 copies. “Afghanistan is perfect for solar,” he says. “There are about 300 days of sunshine a year, and there’s not much wood left. Deforestation is a real problem.” Solar ovens also improve the quality of life for Afghan women and girls, who typically stand over fires all day as they cook, breathing in wood smoke.

Howell has been spending Sundays, and now several days during the week, at a warehouse in San Leandro, working with volunteer oven-builders. “It’s very satisfying,” Howell says. “It’s such a little thing that makes a huge difference. As far as I know, we’re the only ones doing this.”

Howell’s own efforts and accomplishments on behalf of the Afghans are not inconsiderable. But like many Trust in Education volunteers, he credits MacKenzie with creating a way for him to channel his compassion into tangible contributions. “He’s kind of like the Pied Piper,” he says of MacKenzie. “He just gets people to follow him.”

There have certainly been days where MacKenzie didn’t feel like anyone was following him—lots of people have told him he is crazy to try to assist in Afghanistan. But he has kept his determination and enthusiasm by doing, he says, only what’s immediately in front of him. “If I thought of the whole country, I’d quit and go back to bed,” he says. “If you pick a little piece of the world, you can bring about major change.”

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Emily Wilson is a radio and print reporter who teaches at City College of San Francisco.

 


Child care expert: Lafayette volunteer Budd MacKenzie with some of the many Afghan children his organization, Trust in Education, has helped by providing schools, health care, and economic development programs. Photo courtesy Budd MacKenzie.

 



Book nook: Afghan school children crack up over classics provided by Trust in Education. Photo courtesy Budd MacKenzie.