If we are lucky, once every year or so we will hear a story that will strike at the very core of our soul. If we are really lucky. Usually, that story only comes along every 10 years or more – a story or the mission of an individual so powerful that it becomes truth, the essence of what it means to be a member of the human race… the definition of what living should be all about… a tale so powerful that all I want to do is tell everyone I meet about it.
I don’t know where I first heard about Greg Mortenson, but the extended interview on Bill Moyers PBS show filled out the details for me. Mr. Mortenson, an unassuming and soft-spoken mountain climber who, after a failed attempt to summit K2 in Pakistan, got lost and wandered into the tiny remote village of Korphe. The residents there took him in with kind words, a plate of food and cup of butter tea. They welcomed him, as the Koran would instruct, into their tiny home to recover. Later, when he witnessed 80 children, meeting in an un-sheltered area to practice their school lessons – in the absence of any instructor – he discovered his mission: to build a school for Korphe so these smiling children could have a sheltered place to hold their classes. Little did he know that it would be the first of hundreds of schools he would help build.
The ongoing story of Greg Mortenson and the Central Asia Institute is both remarkable and incredibly inspiring. The lengths that this single person went through to succeed is both harrowing and miraculous. Nearly every time he encountered dangerous situations – whether they were suspicious local leaders, warlords, or Taliban groups – he successfully diffused the situations when they discovered that his reason for being in their area was to improve the education and welfare of their children. On many occasions powerful local elders and leaders (what US government leaders would often define as the enemy or potential terrorists) would seek out Mr. Mortenson to help them get schools built in their villages. In time, despite being an American citizen, Greg Mortenson came to occupy a place of honor in the eyes of Pakistanis and Afghanis – despite the path that our military was set upon in their part of the world. His belief was that education provides an alternative path (from the radical Taliban) for young men in these countries, and educating young women enhances the health of local communities.
These books do something that western media has not been able to do for me: paint an honest portrait of the world of Islam and the citizens of these misunderstood regions. These people, from dozens of different tribes and cultural backgrounds, are incredibly diverse, warm, generous, and giving people. Their greatest wish is for their children to be healthy and a chance for them to receive an education.
Do your soul a favor and read Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin, and follow that up with Stones into Schools by Greg Mortenson. The If the spirit moves you, consider contributing to their program, but enter it with an open mind and drink in the power that building a school creates. And let’s hope that the generals and majors read these stories as well. Books will always trump bombs when it comes to mending hearts and minds.
Greg Mortenson and the Central Asia Institute website
Three Cups of Tea