Greg Mortenson and Three Cups of Tea

Eighty-four children attend school, sitting on a frosty ledge, with no roof over their heads, writing on the ground with sticks. Since they can’t afford their own teacher at one dollar a day, they share one with a neighbouring village. Appalled, an injured, American mountaineer attempting to climb K2, (who villagers have been nursing for several days), rashly promises the villagers he will build them a school. What follows includes being kidnapped and held captive in Afghanistan, death threats by Americans post 9/ 11, and two “encounters” with the CIA. Two separate fatawas issued against him, to banish him from Pakistan for educating girls, are repealed by enlightened clerics.

Is this a movie script? Not yet. It is, however, the reality of one man who continues to change the face of education in the remote, mountain provinces of Pakistan. It’s the story of a mountaineer turned humanitarian, Greg Mortensen, written with David Oliver Relin, and condensed into the award-winning pages of THREE CUPS OF TEA: One Man’s Mission to Fight Terrorism and Build Nations ... One School at a Time.

Greg Mortenson’s book illustrates how and why he decided to build 55 schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan. “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. She’ll become a role model, a giant leap for her community.” Case in point: a girl named Aziza who was the first educated female in the Charpusan Valley, northern Pakistan. Before her maternal healthcare training, five to 20 women 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 she received her training and returned to her village in 2000, not one woman has died in childbirth, and the infant mortality rate has gone down to about one in five.

Greg Mortenson’s work transcends personal boundaries of language, culture, race and religion. He has made tremendous personal endeavours to build cultural bridges with the people of Northern Pakistan and speaks Balti, Farsi and Urdu. In addition to reading the Quran and studying Islam, he invariably portrays a positive image of Muslims in all his interviews and publicity appearances.Excerpts from a short interview with Greg

Why did you feel compelled to stick to the task despite the hurdles?

Greg Mortenson: When I look into the eyes of the children in Pakistan and Afghanistan I see my own two children, Amira Eliana and Khyber Khan. That motivates me. As adults we all have failed to bring peace to the world, and we owe it to all our children to leave them a legacy of peace.I’ve often heard Christian, Muslim and Jewish leaders say ‘God is on our side’ but actually Allah Almighty is on the side of the widow, refugee and orphan and that is who we should be of service to. Allah is not on the side of any football team, and Jihadi who commits suicide to kill women and children or justifies the murder of even one innocent child by collateral damage from a Tomahawk Cruise Missile. The real enemy is ignorance, which breeds hatred, whether it’s in Pakistan, Afghanistan or America.

Q: What is the one situation you will never forget?

A: The one thing I will never forget is that after 9/11, everywhere I went in Pakistan, I was touched by an outpouring of sympathy and kindness. A poor widow, named Hawa, brought me five precious eggs to give to the New York widows. I was invited into mosques for prayers of peace, but when I came back to America I received dozens of hate mail and even death threats for helping Muslim children with schools. So the real enemy is ignorance, even in America.What advice do you have for others?A lesson I learned from Haji Ali, an elderly chief and village Cha Cha, that it is more important to listen than talk and to let the communities be empowered to do the work themselves, rather than tell them what to do.

Q: How do the challenges of your work with the schools compare with your challenges as a mountaineer?

A: Both are difficult and rewarding. On a mountain, one must listen to their ‘inner voice’ or intuition to overcome many obstacles. I’ve learned from many years of living and working in Pakistan and Afghanistan that it is also important to ‘listen to your heart’ or your intuition. And as the book title implies, it’s important to have ‘three cups of tea’ to do business in that part of the world. The first cup of dudh patti (Pakistan 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.

The book’s 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. The biggest issues in the world we need to address today are poverty, illiteracy, ignorance. Ignorance breeds hatred.

Q: Both agenda’s must have been fulfilling. How did the nature of the fulfillment differ?

A: Climbing is a temporary reward, after you reach the top of a mountain, you soon want to go again to another peak. Working for years to get one hardened mullah to agree to let the girls go to school, and then one day watching that girl walk down a dusty trail to start her education — is the most incredible experience I know. Behind that brave girl will come hundreds of more girls, and later they will become mothers — and the value of education instilled in the communities.

There is an African proverb which I believe in (I grew up in Tanzania for 15 years from 1958 to 1973: If you educate a boy, you educate an individual, but if you educate a girl, you educate a community.) There are over 145 million children in the world today deprived of education, aged 5-14, and the cost to provide them an education is only about $1 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 only for the military on the ‘war on terror’. With the same money we could eliminate global illiteracy in 18 months!

(Additional input from Sadia Ashraf)