Treacherous roads make it challenging, if not impossible, for kids from remote areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan to reach established schools. Driving from Islamabad to the heart of the northern areas of Pakistan along the Karakoram Highway takes about 20 hours.
Everywhere Greg Mortenson travels, people flock to hear his story and his simple message about how to change the world. He has spoken to crowds of 1,400 in Cambridge, Mass., 2,000 in San Francisco and 2,500 on Bainbridge Island in Washington state. The Bozeman-based author uses photos and humor to explain why he has been building secular, coed schools in isolated, mountainous areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan: 64 so far, with as many as 100 more in the planning stages.
People also are buying Mortenson’s book, which has spent 47 weeks on The New York Times best-sellers list. And the readers aren’t just peaceniks. The Army is requiring 5,000 officers attending the U.S. War College to read Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Fight Terrorism and Build Nations…One School at a Time.
It started in 1993, after Mortenson failed to reach the 28,250-foot summit of K2, the world’s second-tallest mountain, which straddles the China-Pakistan border. Because of its pitch, climbers concur that K2 is more difficult to climb than Mount Everest, the world’s highest peak.
With just hundreds of meters to go, weather and illness forced his climbing party to descend. A devastated Mortenson got lost on the way down. Worn out and emaciated, he wandered into Korphe, an isolated Pakistani farming village, where locals nursed him back to health.
Mortenson, a former Army medic, was nicknamed “Dr. Greg” by local villagers after he used his knowledge and climbing medical kit to treat their broken bones, infections and other illnesses. But Mortenson found his calling when he visited the local “school,” where he saw 84 children sitting outside, writing their lessons with sticks in the sand. The students hungered for learning, but the village could afford to pay a teacher only part-time, because his dollar-a-day salary was just too dear.
“I made a very rash promise that day to build a school for these kids,” Mortenson recalls.
It took him three years to raise the $12,000 needed to build a school for the kids in Korphe. Before the school was finished, nearby local villages clamored for their own.
The requests have not stopped since, though the schools now cost about $60,000 each, with ongoing teacher training, salaries, pencils and paper factored into the price tag.
Over the past decade, Mortenson has focused most of his efforts to ensure that girls receive education. So far, his schools have taught 25,000 students, 14,000 of them female. He often repeats an African proverb: “If you educate a boy, you educate an individual. But if you educate a girl, you educate a community.” Mortenson explains that schooled rural boys often migrate to a city, while girls usually remain in their villages, thereby recycling knowledge among children and neighbors.
Among other things, Mortenson believes education is the best way to change the tradition of child marriage. The United Nations reports that nearly 60 percent of marriages in Afghanistan involve girls younger than the legal age of 16. Some are married as young as 10. In rural areas, the tradition of marrying off daughters to receive money remains common among the poor.
In December, John Weiss conducted an extended telephone interview with Mortenson, just before the author headed back to Central Asia.
Indy:Where are you going next week? And why?
Mortenson: I’m leaving to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Mostly, I’m just going out to some really remote areas. When I go overseas in the winter, it’s mainly to have community meetings, because people are often home that time of year. They come in from the fields and mountains and their jobs in the cities, so it’s a good time to have a jurga, which is a tribal community meeting, to discuss setting up schools in the coming year.
Indy: How does the turmoil in Afghanistan and Pakistan affect your work? (Note: This interview occurred before Benazir Bhutto’s assassination on Dec. 27.)
Mortenson: While there’s a lot of political turmoil, especially in Pakistan, it really doesn’t impact our work in the remote communities and schools. Our schools are mostly two to three hours’ drive from the nearest paved road.
Indy: What do your schools teach?
Mortenson: Our main focus is on ensuring girls have access to education. It is often extremely difficult to get parents to allow their daughter to enroll. I often say we could drop bombs or build roads or put in electricity, but until the girls are educated, a society won’t change.
If you can educate a girl to at least a fifth-grade level, it does three important things. First, it reduces infant mortality. Second, it reduces population explosion. And third, it improves the quality of health and life itself. But it takes one to two generations to reap the rewards.
One is that we incorporate the storytelling tradition, where elders come in several times a week. I’ve spoken at several hundred schools across America, and I often ask the students, “How many of you have talked in great detail to your grandparents or elders about World War II or the Depression or the Vietnam War, or when your parents or grandparents came as immigrants to this country?” About 5 or 10 percent of the hands come up. If you ask that same question in Afghanistan or Pakistan, 90 percent of the hands come up.
One result of bringing in literacy and books is that folklore and heritage tradition get eradicated. I think it’s very important to keep our faith and respect these parts of every culture.
A second unique part of our curriculum is our ongoing hygiene, sanitation and nutrition classes. And the third thing, which is perhaps the most controversial, is our Islamic studies for about two or three hours every week. It’s very tempered, and we include in that learning the differences between Sunni and Shia. We’ve also added what you might call religion studies, or learning about different faiths or religion.
Pakistan President [Pervez] Musharraf put me on a curriculum reform panel in 2004 because we were able to diffuse a lot of the sectarian violence and differences between Sunnis and the Shias by including both of their doctrines in our schools.
Islamic study is required by both the governments of Pakistan and Afghanistan in all schools. But even if it was not mandated, the alternative is that the kids could go across the street to attend an extremist madrasa [school], where they’re learning not so much about Islam but, at times, about violence and hatred and ignorance, which breeds and fosters more extremist type of ideology.
Indy: About three decades ago, MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] researchers examined how to get more American girls interested in studying science. They found that one needed change was in the attitude of junior high boys toward girls studying technology; girls were doing just fine in math and science until middle school, when there was a big downturn. And the girls took their cues from the boys.
While the circumstances are very different, how do Central Asian men and boys react to your push for coed schools?
Mortenson: That MIT research is very interesting. In fact, my mother earned her Ph.D. in the same kind of study, looking at when girls reach fifth, sixth or seventh grade and start drifting away from the sciences and math. Part of that is the attitude of the boys and what girls are expected to do—put on makeup—and peer pressure.
Let me tell you about Aziza, a young woman who graduated from high school in 1998. She lives in a rural tribal valley, right on the Afghan border. It’s quite a conservative area.
When Aziza first went to school, the boys threw pebbles at her to try to dissuade her from attending. And then in high school, they stole her notebooks so she couldn’t study. But she did keep going and became the first female high school graduate in her whole valley.
Today she works as her region’s first maternal health care worker, performing both pre- and post-natal care, from deliveries to immunizations. In her valley, there’s no doctor, no medical, no clinic, no medicine.
Before Aziza started working in 2000, between five and 25 women died in childbirth every year. Since she’s been working, not one woman has died in childbirth. Her pay is about $1 a day, and it cost us about $800 for her to attend her medical training after high school. She’s now become a role model for more girls to go to school.
Indy: Twenty years ago, I spent several weeks in a small Nepali village about a half-hour off the beaten path. I was amazed at how young the girls got married. Does attending school impact when girls get married? And if so, is that impact controversial or accepted?
Mortenson: When you bring in literacy or education for females, the marriage age definitely gets pushed back. Traditionally, girls often marry at 12, or even younger. When girls go to school, they and their families and communities often make the decision to delay their marriage until they can get to fifth grade or even 10th grade.
I need to stress that it often takes us many years to get the first girl to attend school. To help the process along, we bring in mullahs who support girls’ education. We have two ex-Taliban who are now teaching in our girls’ schools and have become some of our biggest proponents. It’s somewhat similar to an ex-smoker or an alcoholic who has changed and becomes very against smoking or drinking.
We even use good old-fashioned Western capitalism. We go and tell a mullah: If I want to marry a girl in your village, how many goats do I owe you? He might say five goats. If she has a fifth-grade education, how many goats would I then have to pay you? And the answer would probably be 15 to 20 goats. A goat is usually $30 to $40 each.
And then we tell the mullah: If all the girls are educated, just think of how much more wealth you’d have. Then you can see his eyes get bigger.
Now, I’m saying that in a rather humorous way, but the reality is that even people who are opposed to education, they see the financial incentive, which is really a small part of the equation, but it’s a way to convince some people to start sending girls to school.
The most important thing that can be done in a society as far as economical development—and this is an impoverished, illiterate society—is if you invest $1 in every female, that in one generation, the return rate on that is about $52. There’s no one single more effective investment that you can make.
Indy: In some ways, the people with whom you are working are living in a different century. What can we learn from them?
Mortenson: I have a quote on my bathroom mirror that I’ve had for probably 20 years by Judith Campbell that says, “When your heart speaks, take good notes.”
I’m 49 [and turned 50 on Dec. 27, the day of Bhutto’s assassination], but having grown up in rural Tanzania for 14 years, and I’ve now worked in Pakistan and Afghanistan for 14 years, I’ve realized that societies in remote areas have very strong intuitive sense. We are programmed from early childhood to be very logical and linear. We wake up to an alarm clock. Everything is kind of “click on” and “off.” We have a lot of control of our environment. But I think that leads to somewhat of a dissociation with our intuitive sense; whereas over there, they’re much more subject to the elements and the intuitive type of process.
One reason that I think we’ve been effective over there in forging relationships and getting things done—at least half of it is our intuitive sense, or “When your heart speaks, take good notes.” So what’s just as important as the summit is the climb: not the product, but the process. It’s about the relationships. Hence the title of the book, Three Cups of Tea. The first cup, you’re a stranger; the second cup, you become a friend; the third cup, you become family. But the process takes several years.
Here in America, we have two-minute football drills and 30-minute power lunches and six-second sound bytes on TV. But what really is important? It’s about relationships and working with people and empowering them to make their own decisions.
When we set up a school, we provide the skill, labor and materials and, most important, the teacher training. But the villages themselves have to come up with equal amounts of sweat equity, subsidized or free labor, free land, free resources and free wood, so we kind of have a 50-50 match so that they become invested in the school.
Indy: Let’s say it’s January 2009, and you’re asked to give a five-minute briefing to the incoming American president. What would you tell him or her?
Mortenson: First of all, it’s important to have dialogue and diplomacy even with your enemy, especially in tribal societies like Afghanistan and Iraq. In tribal society, it’s always imperative when there’s a dispute that you sit down; you meet and bring in the elders from the conflicting sides. If you can’t come to a resolution, then often you come to terms with the rules of engagement, which are basically war.
But inferring that you’re “either for us or against us,” or that “we’re not going to talk to you because we’re against you” is very American. We either hire an attorney, we step outside and duke it out, or we don’t talk to each other. It’s important to have dialogue, and I’ve learned that.
I’ve had tea with the Taliban. And in many cases, we have several hundred girls of the Taliban that are going to our schools. To me, that is the ultimate victory.
Number two: to involve local communities and provincial leaders in the reconstruction process. The most important thing we can do is invest in education. Last year, we spent $94 billion in Iraq, $14 billion in Afghanistan, with $627 million on opium eradication. But we only spent $38 million for education.
So I would say that we should put at least 10 percent, but even if we could put 1 percent of the money for the War on Terror into education, we would have a really big difference.
Indy: How do you keep going?
Mortenson: I’m very blessed because I think I have the best job in the whole world. I love my work. I’m actually kind of a quiet, shy kind of guy. What really happened was I was in Afghanistan and Pakistan during and after 9/11, and I came back to the States on Oct. 31, 2001.
When I’d been in Pakistan, everywhere I went I’d been given incredible hospitality. I remember a very elderly widow named Whawa, who gave me five very precious eggs and asked me to bring them to the widows in New York. People apologized for what had happened on 9/11 even though they had nothing to do with it. I was very touched by what I saw.
When I came back, I started getting death threats and hate mail from Americans, which was a very big surprise for me. People called me a traitor. Others said I should die a painful death because I was helping the enemy. What that made me realize was that the real enemy is ignorance, and ignorance breeds hatred, whether it’s here in America or in Afghanistan.
It was actually my wife who encouraged me to go out and talk about what I’m doing. It was very difficult for me at first, because I felt somewhat threatened and afraid. But what’s happened as a result is that in the last year, I’ve been in about 120 cities and I’ve talked to maybe 50,000 people. I find that Americans are also good people. So are the people over there.
I’ve been able to talk at the Pentagon and Capitol Hill and feminist groups in San Francisco and Republican prayer breakfasts and farming communities in the Midwest. And everywhere I go, I find that people really value and respect education.
Indy: Your speaking engagements range from colleges to churches to military bases. Does your style or approach change from venue to venue?
Mortenson: I’m a military veteran, and I have great respect for the difficult and dangerous assignments that our men and women in uniform have in Iraq and Afghanistan. I often find that soldiers on the ground have a much more acute insight into what’s happening than people who are working in think tanks in D.C. who have never even been over in those countries or understand really what the sentiment is.
Ultimately, a victory is not just capturing or killing terrorists, but it’s changing the hearts and the minds of people that they look up to. Education is a way to have hope. We have two previous Taliban—they were trained in Chechnya and fought in Afghanistan—who are teaching in a girls’ school.
At the Air Force Academy, part of my talk will be to read some of the e-mails I have from people in the military who are serving in those difficult areas. They all say that education is the only way to really bring hope, and give those children an opportunity to get out of the cycle of violence and terrorism.
John Weiss is the editor and publisher of the Colorado Springs Independent, where this interview originally appeared earlier this month.