Am dying to read this book. InshaAllah soon!!
From Climbing Mountains To Moving Them
40 trips over 14 years, Mortenson’s non-profit CAI has built 60 schools in Pakistan and seven in Afghanistan
Confucius famously said that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. The first step taken by Greg Mortenson in his life’s sojourn was a failed attempt at climbing the world’s second highest peak, K-2, in Pakistan’s Karakoram Northern range in 1993.
For a journey that commenced in failure, it has become an astonishingly successful endeavor that spans continents, unifies disparate policies and fuses divergent viewpoints. Greg Mortenson’s altruistic struggle led him to find a basic solution to the challenge of illiteracy in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the founder and executive director of Central Asia Institute (CAI), which has established 67 schools and provided an education for more than 25,000 children in the rural regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Greg Mortenson’s compassionate philanthropy has become a legendary 21st century tale of heroism and testament to the power of the unconquerable human spirit. He is one of the rare individuals whose benevolent feats supersede the boundaries of language, culture, race and religion. Mortenon’s enlightening journey is chronicled in the book he co-authored, Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace...One School At a Time. This book has been a New York Times bestseller for 65 weeks, with more than one million copies of the book sold in 2007.
Sadia Ashraf is a mural artist, a freelance journalist and a creative writer. She earned her graduate English degree from Loyola University while focusing on post-colonial studies.
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With the increasing popularity of Three Cups of Tea, Mortenson is a highly sought-after speaker. His talk is punctuated by a slideshow of his voyages and has attracted audiences of over 4,000 with thousands sometimes being turned away. He utilizes this recognition to create peaceful dialogue between the two clashing worlds he easily moves back and forth between: “There are many stereotypes and misperceptions about Islam and the good people of Pakistan and Afghanistan,” says Mortenson. “They aspire to the same values, goals and hopes as Americans, and it’s important that their voices be heard if we are to ever live in a world of peace.”
In 1993, after a catastrophic attempt at climbing K2 in Pakistan, Mortenson walked for five days, injured and emaciated. He stumbled into the village of Korphe, where the villagers nurtured him for several days. While recovering, Mortenson saw the villagers’ “school,” and the scene of 84 children sitting on a frosty ledge with no roof over their heads, writing on the ground with sticks, inspired Mortenson to realize his life’s vocation. Since Korphe couldn’t afford its own teacher at a dollar a day, residents shared a teacher with a neighboring village. Appalled, Mortenson rashly promised the villagers he would build them a school. The third chapter of the book ends with that promise: “‘I’m going to build you a school,’ he said, not yet realizing that with those words, the path of his life had just detoured down another trail, a route far more serpentine and arduous than the wrong turns he’d taken since retreating from K2.”
In America, raising $12,000 proved to be a grueling task for an itinerant mountaineer. Mortenson began to live with “Monkish frugality” as an emergency trauma nurse. Frustrated at the lack of response from the famous people to whom he wrote 580 letters appealing for money, Mortenson lived out of his car, in a sleeping bag, for months to save as much money as possible for his vision. Later he even sold his car. It was not until his niece’s school raised $623 that fundraising success materialized. Then, in an incredible stroke of fortune, Jean Hoerni, a physicist and one-time trekker to the Karakorum Mountains, granted Mortenson $12,000.
Back at the village, Mortenson realized that they would have to build a bridge first in order to carry the school construction supplies. Undaunted, he went back to America to raise more money and then returned again to build the bridge with the villagers. Ultimately, they built the first school. Now, after 40 trips over 14 years, Mortenson’s non-profit CAI has built 60 schools in Pakistan and seven in Afghanistan (plus 30 tent schools after the earthquake of 2005), helping to educate 24,000 children, some of whom walk up to three hours per day to attend classes. Girls, who had previously had few educational opportunities, have particularly benefited. “When the Taliban was in power, only 800,000 kids were in school. Today more than five million children go to school, and 1.8 million are girls. That’s where we should be putting our money,” Mortenson says.
In a region marked by tribulation, Mortenson’s schools and projects have triumphed by extending self-empowerment to communities, which leads to enduring life development. Before a project starts, the community matches Central Asia Institute project funds with equal amounts of local resources and labor. Such ownership ensures the project’s viability and long term success.
Mortenson has also made tremendous personal endeavors to build cultural bridges with the people of the Northern Pakistan, having learned to speak Balti, Farsi and Urdu. “If you promote peace, that’s based on hope,” Mortenson said, “The real enemy is ignorance because it’s based on hatred.” His journey, though, has had some treacherous bends. In Afghanistan, he was kidnapped and held captive for eight days. After Sept. 11, he received death threats by Americans and has been “debriefed” by the CIA twice. Two separate fatwas that were issued against Mortenson to banish him from Pakistan for educating girls were repealed by enlightened Muslim clerics.
After Sept. 11 2001, Mortenson’s friendships with Muslims led him reflect, as elucidated in the book Three Cups of Tea. “I wish all the Americans who think ‘Muslim’ is just another way of saying ‘terrorist’ … knew … that the true core tenets of Islam are justice, tolerance and charity.” In addition to reading the Qur’an and studying Islam, Mortenson always presents a constructive image of Muslims in his interviews and public appearances. He admits the book’s original subtitle One Man’s Mission to Fight Terrorism and Build Nations One School at a Time (chosen by the publisher) is a distortion. “I don’t really care about fighting terror,” Mortenson says, “the biggest issues in the world we need to address today are poverty, illiteracy and ignorance.” His humanitarianism has made him an Ambassador of American goodwill in Central Asia and his unbiased comprehension of politics and religion make him an emissary of cultural tolerance in America.
The book’s title, Three Cups of Tea, refers to the measured progression of becoming a trusted partner with people in underdeveloped areas where Mortenson operates. As the title implies, it’s important to have “three cups of tea” to do business in Central and South Asia. As Mortenson explains, “The first cup of dudh patti (Pakistan’s sweet milk tea) or kahawa (green tea in Afghanistan) - you are a stranger. The second cup - you become a friend. And the third cup - you become family - but the process takes several years and is about relationships. When you are family, your hosts are prepared to even die for you. Here in America, we have two minute football drills, thirty minute power lunches, drive through fast food, and six second TV sound bytes, but in Pakistan and Afghanistan it takes three cups of tea.”
One memorable situation from Mortenson’s 14 years of experience, as recounted in the book, is when he built the first school and was micromanaging and trying to hasten the construction. One of the village elders led him aside and said, “We’ve been here for hundreds of years, and we’re grateful to Allah that you’re helping us build a school. But you need to do something: You need to sit down and shut up and let us do the work.” He learned to listen rather than dictate and to let the communities be empowered to lead the work themselves, rather than impose his direction on them. It is no wonder that Mortenson’s picture appears over hearths and on Jeep dashboards throughout northern Pakistan.
Mortenson grew up in the proximity of Mount Kilimanjaro, where his father found Tanzania’s first teaching hospital and his mother launched an international school. That personal history seems to compel his tenacious struggle, despite the hurdles he faces. “When I see those little girls their tiny bare feet, or in plastic Chinese boots, walking to school, those little footprints in the dust may be tiny, but I think of Neil Armstrong on the moon,” says Mortenson. “She’ll become a role model, a giant leap for her community.” Case in point: a girl named Aziza was the first educated female in the Charpusan Valley in northern Pakistan. Before her maternal health care training, five to 20 females died in childbirth every year in her valley - there were no doctors, medicine or clinics - and one out of three children died before the age of one. Since Aziza received her training and returned to her village in 2000, not one woman has died in childbirth, and the infant mortality rate has decreased to about one in five.
Mortenson’s monumental humanitarian effort and his ideology of loving every child as much as he does his own two children have earned him many humanitarian and peace awards, but no honor is so gratifying to him as the smile of an impoverished child rewarded by knowledge. “I look into the eyes of my children, and I see the eyes of children in Pakistan and Afghanistan,” he says. Some of the students who yielded more than literacy are now in college and technical training centers, studying to be teachers, medical health care workers, computer technicians and engineers. Mortenson says of global literacy, “There are over 145 million children in the world today deprived of education (age 5 to 14), and the cost to provide them an education is only about a dollar per month per child. The total cost would be a global investment of $6 billion per year for 15 years. Last year, the US government spent $94.2 billion in Iraq and $14 billion in Afghanistan solely for the War on Terror. With the same money we could eliminate global illiteracy in 18 months!”
Stubborn hope begins in the dark and Mortenson’s quest today is an optimistic vision for the children of tomorrow. For more information, visit Central Asia Institute at ikat.org or threecupsoftea.com.