Wyoming Arts Council

Greg Mortenson — education key to democracy

Greg Mortenson has humanitarian marrow in his bones. As an adolescent, he spent time in Africa with his Lutheran missionary parents and his then three-year-old sister as his father set up the Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Center in Moshi, Tanzania, which was opened in 1971. A month after his father said that in ten years, the facility would be staffed by the citizens of Tanzania, he was fired from his position for having the audacity to think that the running of the hospital could be done by the people in whose country it had been established. 

So Greg is familiar with failure. In fact, the title of the first chapter of Three Cups of Tea is “Failure.” It is the beginning of his prophetic journey in building girls schools, first in Pakistan, and then in Afghanistan. At twenty-three years old, Greg’s sister, Christa, who suffered from epilepsy, died from a massive seizure on the morning she was to go on her dream trip to Deyersville, Iowa, where the movie Field of Dreams had been filmed. It was a movie she watched again and again, and found much inspiration from. He had decided that he would climb Kilimanjaro in Christa’s honor. He had brought her necklace with him that she had worn, which he planned to leave it as an offering at the top of the mountain to “whatever deity inhabited the upper atmosphere” (From Three Cups of Tea, pg. 9). He had summited “The Savage Peak” at eleven years of age, and had much climbing experience at other locations. Nothing to it to doing it again, he thought.

He ended up spending 78 days on the mountain, but never making it to the top. When he finally got down, he ended up in the village of Korphe, where the first school was built.

We watched a short film about the first school built in Afghanistan. On Mortenson’s first visit to Afghanistan, he discovered classrooms of boys in the metal storage containers used by the Russians during the war. He also saw that the girls had class ourside on a hillside. It was here that he met Gomajin, a young boy who watched the progress of the school while he herded his goats, anxious for its completion so that he could attend. But he became the victim of a landmine and died from his wounds. In Gomajin’s memory, his father learned how to remove land mines. There is a monument to Gomajin near the school.

Three cups of tea means that with the first cup, you are a stranger, second cup a friend, and by the time you are drinking a third cup, you are family. But this is not a linear progression, 1,2,3, boom you’re in. In every village, there is an unspoken progression of bringing one into the social circle. It may take many cups of tea, not formally ceremonial, but an important indicator of acceptance and trust. Greg has taken many cups of tea in his 18 years in the field, and has facilitated the building of many girls schools.

Why girls schools? Educating girls has many positive rewards for the community. Women bring life and nurture it after it is here. Statistics show that when girls are educated, the birth rate drops, the infant mortality rate drops, the quality of life improves, and women go back and serve the community from a more informed place. It is a powerful thing when a woman can read the news. When people are isolated, this breeds fear, and fear breeds anger and ignorance. Education is the only way to civility.

Greg mentions more statistics. Since 2007, more than 3,000 girls schools have been destroyed or shut down by extremist groups. There is a proverb that says, “The ink of a scholar is holier than the blood of a martyr.” In 2000, there were only 800,000 students, mostly boys age 5-15, attending school. In 2011, the count was up to 8.3 million children, with 2.8 million of those girls.

The subtitle on Three Cups of Teas is One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace…One School at a Time. This was not the first choice of the publisher, who wanted to say something about one man’s mission to fight terrorism. But Greg is adamant that he is doing this to promote peace. The book didn’t sell with the publisher’s subtitle, but Greg was able to get the publisher to agree that the subtitle would be changed if the book didn’t at first do well. After the subtitle was changed, the book became a best seller.

Greg also talked about the poverty in this country and how we must be willing to touch, hear, and be poverty to realize any formative changes to the situation. His Pennies for Peace program does this, and suggests the grass roots effort in towns across America of collecting pennies and getting the money to our most impoverished schools. This was his first fund raising program, but it only began when he was asked to speak at a school about how to get the school built in Korphe. Up to then, he had typed hundreds of letters asking for donations, and only received one check back, from Tom Brokaw. A young boy brought his pennies to Greg, and that is how Pennies for Peace began.

Our military mission in Afghanistan now includes soldiers who work at laying some groundwork for the beginning of a school in villages. Greg believes the most successful mission begins with empowering the members of the village. They must dedicate the land for the school, provide the labor to build, and get the materials to where they need to be. With this kind of investment, the village is not so willing to let the school be closed. When the elders of a village in Afghanistan played on the playground of a school, they told Greg they wanted a school in their village, a place where extremists had a strong hold, but only if it had a playground also. They told him that as children, they never had a chance to play, all they were taught was to fight.

Around the world, children are bought and sold into slavery, and at the youngest of ages, are taught to kill. Soccer balls are made by children in Pakistan. China and India have huge child labor forces. Children are mistreated, poorly fed, work fourteen-hour days, and fear abduction and/or molestation at night. Many just disappear. They are certainly not allowed to go to school, but many express the desire to be able to.

So Greg continues his work against the ill winds of prejudice and ignorance. He received a standing ovation.

Linda Coatney

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