Thursday, April 24, 2008


The incredible story told in Three Cups of Tea, by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin, begins in 1993, when mountaineer Greg Mortenson was climbing down the Baltoro Glacier from K2, the world's second highest peak. He lost the trail and got separated from his companions. Disoriented, emaciated, cold and hungry, he wandered into the Balti village of Korphe, in northeast Pakistan. This is one of the poorest places on Earth, yet its people cared for him as for one of their own. Recuperating from his ordeal, Mortenson got to know them well:
As his strength returned, his power of perception sharpened. At first, in Korphe, he thought he'd stumbled into a sort of Shangri-La. Many Westerners passing through the Karakoram had the feeling that the Balti lived a simpler, better life than they did back home in their developed countries... but even after a few days in the village, Mortenson began to see that Korphe was far from the prelapsarian paradise of Western fantasy. In every home, at least one family member suffered from goiters or cataracts. The children, whose ginger hair he had admired, owed their coloring to a form of malnutrition... the nearest doctor was a week's walk away in Skardu, and one out of every three Korphe children died before reaching their first birthday.
Mortenson asked to see the village school, and was brought to an open area where eighty-two kids knelt on the ground scratching multiplication tables in the dirt with sticks. They had no school, explained Korphe's leader, and the government did not supply a teacher. At a cost of a dollar a day, the village couldn't afford to support one themselves.

Powerfully moved by the children's determination to learn under any conditions, Mortenson made them a promise: "I'm going to build you a school." Thus began a relationship that would change all their lives, and a humanitarian campaign that would change the world.

Without retelling the whole amazing story (read this book!), I will say that the tremendous effort to fund and build the Korphe school eventually grew into the establishment of the Central Asia Institute, of which Greg Mortenson is the director. Over the years, Mortenson has assembled a tough, diverse, capable team of dedicated people -- drivers, bodyguards, mullahs, suppliers, accountants, you name it. Driven to provide the world's neediest with basic education, he has overcome incredible obstacles -- everything from language barriers, passport trouble and interrogation by his own government, to floods and rockslides, to gunfire, imprisonment, and fatwas issued against him.

Working with local leaders and using local resources, CAI has built many schools, women's centers, and water projects in the poorest, most remote, most volatile and war-torn places in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

And you have to ask yourself, what better way is there to promote peace than this? What better way to fight terrorism than through balanced education? Through helping people out of poverty? Through promises kept, and genuine good will? Maybe that comes off impossibly naive. But reading Mortenson's story, you can see, it works, and for a tiny fraction of the cost of everything we're trying instead.

In any case, it is an uphill battle, in a time when West-hating Islamic fundamentalists with suitcases full of Saudi Arabian cash are building Wahhabi madrassas, "the most virulent incubator of religious extremism," at a truly alarming pace. This is where the militant jihadis come from. Many of them are children whose families have no other place to send them for any kind of education, as the Pakistani government appears to have largely failed its people in this regard. Room, board, clothing, learning, all paid for? It's too good to turn down for many.
"I don't want to give the impression that all Wahhabi are bad," Mortenson says. "Many of their schools and mosques are doing good work to help Pakistan's poor. But some of them seem to exist only to teach militant jihad."

...By 2001, a World Bank study estimated that at least twenty thousand madrassas were teaching as many as 2 million of Pakistan's students an Islamic-based curriculum... Not every madrassa was a hotbed of extremism, but the World Bank concluded that 15 to 20 percent of madrassa students were receiving military training, along with a curriculum that emphasized jihad and hatred of the West at the expense of subjects like math, science, and literature.
It's worrisome.

(It's worrisome and infuriating, when you look at where the attentions of our own government have been instead of to this most basic facet of the problem. One might wonder, if one were especially cynical, what's more important to this administration -- ending terrorism, or maintaining a "War on Terror." One might. Mortenson's book doesn't go there... that'd be me, wondering.)

Three Cups of Tea leaves off in 2003, as CAI staff are basically running the show in Pakistan, and Mortenson turns his primary attention to Afghanistan. There, the Taliban has been defeated for the time being, but the Americans have neglected to follow through on their promises of reconstructive aid. Message received by the Afghans: the U.S. government doesn't care about that part of the equation. Undaunted, Mortenson again risks life and limb just to reach the part of the country that most needs his help.

In the acknowledgments, Mortenson writes: "What motivates me to do this? The answer is simple: when I look into the eyes of the children in Pakistan and Afghanistan, I see the eyes of my own children full of wonder -- and hope that we each do our part to leave them a legacy of peace instead of the perpetual cycle of violence, war, terrorism, racism, exploitation, and bigotry that we have yet to conquer."

Amen, Greg, and God bless you.

Read this book, everyone. Buy it through

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