Visiting with Greg Mortenson in Pakistan
In the past 18 years, he has spent more than 70 months in the region, walking for miles on treacherous roads and sitting in dirt while gently convincing villagers of the need to educate their children
Through his organization, the Central Asia Institute (CAI), Mortenson has provided education to more than 68,000 children, including 54,000 girls, and has earned himself a Nobel Peace Prize nomination in the process. His journey to educate youth grew out of personal tragedy and failure—namely, the sudden death of his beloved sister, and his failed attempt to climb K2, the second highest peak in the world, in her honor.
Mortenson’s sister, Christa, contracted acute meningitis in Tanzania, where her parents were missionaries, when she was three and he was 15. After that event, Mortenson committed himself to becoming his sister’s protector.
“It would take Christa hours to get organized for school the night before,” Mortenson said. “She would do her homework, lay out her clothes, pack her lunch. But she never complained, and she inspired all of us.”
Salma Hasan Ali Responds to the Controversy:
The facts of this story are still evolving and there are several sides to every story. I have no doubt that Greg will address the various issues raised in the 60 Minutes story and by others. I have seen Greg interact in various settings in both the US and Pakistan, and he does so with respect, humility and compassion. Ultimately, we should not lose sight of the fact that thousands of girls are getting an education because of Greg's commitment to building schools in remote areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan through his organization, the Central Asia Institute (CAI). I have visited a couple of CAI schools in Pakistan, and have spoken to many of the girls in these schools, who are today filled with excitement at the idea of becoming doctors, teachers and lawyers because of the education they are receiving. I’ve also met members of the CAI team in Pakistan who are incredibly proud of what they do, and proud of their work for CAI and of their friendship with Greg.
Thanks so much, Salma
While growing up, Mortenson and his sister spent at least one month together, each year, taking special trips to Disneyland and the Kentucky Derby. After seeing the movie Field of Dreams, Christa was inspired to visit the cornfield in Deyersville, IA, where the film was made. But on her 23rd birthday, the day that she was supposed to head to Dreyersville, Christa died of a massive seizure.
Heartbroken, Mortenson wanted to do something extraordinary to honor his sister’s life. That’s when he decided to climb K2, on the Pakistan-China border, and place her favorite amber necklace at the summit.
Mortenson spent one year preparing for the climb and, in 1993, set out with a 12-person team. After 78 days on the mountain, he turned back to help a fellow climber who was ill. After ensuring the other person’s safety, Mortenson took a wrong turn just 600 meters from the top, and stumbled into a tiny Pakistani village so isolated and poor, that one in three children died before their first birthdays. Sick, emaciated and convinced he had failed his sister, Mortenson was nursed back to health by Muslim villagers. They put the little sugar they had in his tea, and covered him with their warmest blanket.
Overwhelmed by that display of generosity, Mortenson felt compelled to repay the villagers’ kindness. He gave away the few possessions he had and used his medical training to treat minor illnesses in the community.
Just before Mortenson left the village, he noticed children writing in the dirt with sticks. The community did not have a school, Mortenson learned, and could not afford the daily $1 salary required for a full-time teacher. He made a promise to return and improve the village’s circumstances.
To this day, Mortenson says he felt the presence of his sister in that remote village, particularly when he was among the children. “Everything about their life was a struggle,” he wrote in his best-selling book Three Cups of Tea. “They reminded me of the way Christa had to fight for the simplest things—and also the way she had of just persevering, no matter what life threw at her.”
Once back in the United States, Mortenson wrote nearly 600 letters to sports stars and celebrities, in an effort to raise the $12,000 he needed to build a school. He received only one check, for $100.
Not to be dissuaded, Mortenson worked double shifts and briefly lived in his car before selling it and his mountaineering equipment to raise additional funds. After his mother, an elementary school principal, invited Mortenson to speak to her students, the children decided to help. They collected over $62,345 in pennies. Upon securing those funds, Mortenson returned to the village and built a five-room school in 1997. Today he continues to honor his sister’s memory by building schools for girls in northern Pakistan and neighboring Afghanistan.
I first met Mortenson four years ago, in Washington, DC, when he was launching the publication of Three Cups of Tea. Captivated by his story and by his commitment to girls’ education in the country of my origin, I wanted to see for myself how this soft-spoken, six-foot-four Midwesterner was able to navigate within my culture with such grace and sensitivity. When Mortenson received the Sitara-e-Pakistan (Pakistan’s highest civilian award) in 2009, I had the chance to visit his schools, meet his local team, and see him in his element.
As we arrived at the Gundi Piran Girls’ School in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, about 20 girls in light gray shalwar kameezes and maroon shawls were finishing their exams. Each of the students worked within an open-air classroom that featured a rectangular dirt patch and seven gravestones.
Those gravestones serve as a reminder of October 2005, when this school was located near the epicenter of a 7.6 magnitude earthquake that devastated Kashmir. The natural disaster had killed more than 80,000 people and had displaced 3.5 million. Thousands of schools were destroyed in the quake, and CAI has since rebuilt several in the area. Today 350 girls attend this one-story, 12-room school that includes a library, computer room and playground. One of the students, 18-year-old Sadia, told me she had never thought she would return to school. Now she is deciding whether to become a doctor or a teacher.
Mortenson emphasizes that providing children with schooling offers the best weapon against injustice and social stagnancy. “You can build roads, and put in electricity,” he said, “but until girls are educated, society won’t change.” The former mountain climber is quick to highlight the many benefits of providing girls with at least a fifth-grade level of education: a drop in maternal and infant mortality rates, a decrease in population rates, and healthier and more educated families, as mothers pass on the importance of education to the next generation.
Education of girls results in other, more unexpected benefits, as well. When a young man goes on jihad, custom dictates he must get permission from his mother, and that permission is more likely to be given by illiterate women. “If you look at the 9/11 hijackers,” Mortenson said, “you find they were educated.” But their mothers, he said, were illiterate.
Even in a region in which educating girls is not a priority, Mortenson says he has been able to convince several conservative elders to educate their daughters, often by invoking Islam to emphasize the importance of education. “The first word revealed in the Quran is ‘iqra,’ which means ‘to read,’” Mortenson said. “The first two chapters implore people to seek knowledge.”
For all of its successes, however, Mortenson’s work has encountered some skepticism, and has even earned him a fatwa, an unfavorable ruling of Islamic law. Once his work was assessed by authorities, however, he received a letter from the Supreme Council in Iran, which read: “Dear Compassionate of the Poor, our Holy Koran tells us all children should receive education, including our daughters and sisters. Your noble work follows the highest principles of Islam.”
Mortenson says his work is both personally rewarding and considerably time-consuming. It took eight years to persuade the local council of one village to allow a single girl to attend school. By 2007, when one of Mortenson’s new schools had opened, there were 74 girls enrolled. One year later, that number tripled.
Some village elders, however, don’t need to be convinced of the value of Mortenson’s contribution. During our visit to the Punjab region, we received warm greetings from two members of the village education committee. “The era of not sending girls out of the home is over,” one of the men told us. “Girls need to know how to function in society.”
One of the village elders, wearing a white kurta pajama and turban, succinctly captured the value of educating a girl: “When one girl becomes educated, then one family becomes educated. Her children benefit, her parents benefit, her brothers and sisters benefit.”
Mortenson said that sentiment echoes an African credo he’d learned while growing up in Tanzania: “Educate a boy and you educate an individual. Educate a girl and you educate a community.”
Mortenson says that each time he meets a young woman with a fierce desire to learn, he finds himself reminded of his sister. One young girl, Nasreen, who grew up in a tiny village in the northernmost part of Pakistan, was known as one of the brightest students in her school. When she was 12, however, her mother died, which forced the promising student to drop out of classes and take care of her four younger siblings and her father, who is blind.
“When my mother died,” Nasreen said, “all my dreams went far away.” Nevertheless, she continued to study on her own. In 1995, at the age of 15, she became one of the first girls in the region to receive a diploma.
In 1999 Mortenson met Nasreen in her village and promised to help her fulfill her dream of becoming a maternal health care provider. His organization offered the teen a scholarship to study in Rawalpindi, a town near Pakistan’s capital. Today she is completing her medical assistant degree, and wants to get an ob-gyn nursing diploma. She hopes to work in areas even more remote than her own, teaching other women what she has learned.
“I am very happy,” Nasreen told me as we looked through her family photographs. “I’ve been given a chance to fulfill my dreams. I want to give my children the best education so they can fulfill theirs.”
For every rupee that CAI invests in building a school, the recipient village matches the effort by providing free labor, wood, land, and cement. Those too old or weak to provide labor make tea for the team or have their children pay a small tuition. “From day one we make sure the school belongs to each and every person in the community,” Mortenson said.
Perhaps that sense of community involvement explains why only one CAI school has been attacked by the Taliban. After that event, the community’s militia leader—who himself has two daughters in another school—and a group of other volunteers, defended the school. It reopened, two days later.
Mortenson believes the keys to the success of his efforts lie in building relationships, listening to people, and drinking a lot of tea. “Tea drinking is one of the main hazards of my job,” he said. He’s sipped the popular beverage alongside the Taliban, religious clerics, tribal chiefs, conservative fathers, and nervous children. As explanation for this unusual bonding strategy, he quotes a Balti saying he learned from his mentor: “The first cup of tea, you’re a stranger. The second cup, you become a friend. And by the third cup, you’re family.”
Mortenson attributes his unique ability to work between two cultures to his childhood in Tanzania. “It was a diverse environment,” he said. “My closest friends were Muslims and Hindus and kids of all backgrounds.” His eclectic friendships were the key to his early introduction to Islam. One of his most potent memories involves climbing to the top of the minaret to hear the muezzin announce the call to prayer. “Islam is about tolerance. A few people have hijacked this.”
Mortenson was near the Afghan-Pakistan border on September 11, 2001, and still remembers the outpouring of sympathy he received from villagers after the terrorist attack in New York City. “Little old ladies brought me eggs to give to widows in New York,” Mortenson said.
As a companion to his efforts to spread education and literacy, Mortenson works to dispel fear and divisiveness wherever possible. “The real enemy is ignorance,” he says at the end of each of his talks, “and it’s ignorance that breeds hatred. To overcome ignorance, we need to have courage, we need to have compassion and, most of all, we need to have education.”
On our last day in Pakistan, we visited a tea house to celebrate Mortenson's reception of the Sitara-e-Pakistan. Without introduction, a young boy, perhaps eight years of age, sat next to him, on the tottering wooden bench. The boy couldn’t speak and was hard of hearing. Within moments, the educator picked up some stones, held them in his palm, and began to give the boy a math lesson.