You can try to force peace through military might — and you are bound to fail — or you can build peace through education. That seems to be the main lesson behind Greg Mortenson’s life and work. Thanks to his efforts, 78 schools have been built in Pakistan and thousands of children have been educated, mainly girls. For Mortenson, building schools is proving to be a better way to fight terrorism than the force of arms.
After his sister Christa died of severe epilepsy, Mortenson went to Pakistan to climb K2, the world’s second highest mountain, as a way of honoring her memory. Unable to climb to the top and feeling totally dispirited he started to climb down under subzero temperatures until he reached the village of Korphe. In that village he was fed and taken care of by the local people who helped him recover.
One day, while walking around the area during his convalescence he came upon a group of 84 kids (79 boys and five girls) who were attending a makeshift school. The children were kneeling in the frozen ground, doing their multiplication tables with a stick on the sand. Seeing these children’s desire to learn even in the most difficult circumstances reminded him of his sister’s Christa’s fierce determination to overcome obstacles in her own life. He promised the villagers that he would build a school in their village. At that point his life changed forever.
He went back to California and sent hundreds of letters asking for financial support. They were mostly unanswered. His 16 grant applications were also denied. Finally, he found a sponsor for his project, went back to Pakistan, and started building the school, never imagining the kind of obstacles he would have to face.
In 1996, three years after his failed attempt to climb K2, the school was only up to the roof level, and he was increasingly frustrated by almost insurmountable obstacles. He felt that in spite of all his efforts to make people work faster and be more efficient he was going nowhere.
At that point the village chief, Haji Ali, invited him for a steep climb. What follows is told in the book that Mortenson and Parade’s contributing editor David Oliver Relin wrote titled “Three cups of tea: One Man Mission to Fight Terrorism and Build Nations . . . One Child at a Time,” published by Viking Penguin.
“You can’t tell the mountains what to do,” Haji Ali told him. “You must learn to listen to them. And now I am asking you to listen to me. By the mercy of Almighty Allah, I appreciate what you are doing for my people. But now you must do one more thing.” “Anything,” replied Mortenson. And Haji Ali told him, “Sit down. And shut your mouth. You are making everyone crazy.”
Afterward, holding porcelain bowls of scalding tea, Haji Ali spoke again. “The first time you share tea with a Balti (the people from Baltistan, in northern Pakistan) you are a stranger. The second time you take tea, you are an honored guest. The third time you share a cup of tea you become family, and for our family we are prepared to do anything, even die.” Then, laying his hands over Mortenson’s own he continued, “Dr. Greg, you must make time to share three cups of tea. We may be uneducated but we are not stupid. We have survived here for a long time.”
“That day Haji Ali taught me the most important lesson I’ve ever learned,” said Mortenson. And added, “We Americans think you have to accomplish everything quickly. Our leaders thought their ‘shock and awe’ campaign could end the war in Iraq before it even started. Haji Ali taught me to slow down and make building relationships as important as building projects. He taught me that I had much more to learn from the people I work with than I could ever hope to teach them.”
He finished building the school at Korphe and continued building more schools, placing emphasis on teaching girls. When questioned about that Mortenson said that his position on the issue was based on a UNICEF study which shows that when you educate a girl to at least a fifth-grade level you do three important things for society: reduce infant mortality, reduce population explosion and improve the basic quality of life for the girls and the whole family. He had also found that in areas where there was more education, women were refusing their sons to join the Taliban.
Over 33,000 educated Pakistani and Afghan children are living proof of the effectiveness of Mortenson’s approach. In 2009, he received Pakistan’s highest civilian award. For Mortenson the main enemy is ignorance. By building schools and educating children he is providing them not only with basic skills. He is giving them hope and the skills to have a better future.
Cesar Chelala is a cowinner of an Overseas Press Club of America award for an article on human rights.