Beginning in 1993, Greg Mortenson, an American who had spent his childhood in Tanzania, began building schools for both boys and girls in small, isolated villages scattered across northeastern Pakistan. Following 9/11, as it became increasingly clear to him that military action alone would never succeed in eradicating terrorism, he undertook similar projects in turbulent northwestern Pakistan and Afghanistan. To date, the Central Asia Institute, of which Greg is the Director, has built almost 80 schools and provides support for dozens of others in remote areas of these two countries.
What started him out on this mission and how did he achieve what he did?
Greg Mortenson is a skillful and very experienced climber. After the death of his young sister, he decided to scale K2 in the Karakoram Range of northeastern Pakistan to honor her memory. However, the members of the expedition were thwarted in reaching their goal by bad weather and the need to rescue a fellow climber. During the descent, Greg was separated from his companions and lost his way on the Baltoro Glacier.
At the end of his strength, he stumbled into the tiny village of Korphe, where Haji Ali, the headman, befriended him. While he was recuperating, he became acquainted with the inhabitants and learned of their sorrow at not having the resources to provide their children with an education. This moved Greg deeply. He realized that building a school would be a far more meaningful gesture to his sister's memory than reaching the top of K2. Before he left for the States, he promised Haji Ali that he would return and build a school.
Back in California, Greg lived very frugally as he saved money and raised funds for the school. He was back in Korphe the next year to the delight of the people of the village. In the past, many climbers had made promises to help them, but none had made good on his promise.
Part of Greg's success is certainly due to his facility with languages. Besides English and Swahili, which he learned as a child, he speaks Urdu and picked up Balti, the language of the province of Baltistan where Korphe is located. Later he learned a little Pashto as well so as to be able to communicate more easily with the people of eastern Pakistan and Afghanistan.
But Greg owes his success more to traits of character than to particular skills. His utter lack of self-importance and his willingness to be guided by the wise but uneducated leaders of the village allowed this cross-cultural enterprise to develop harmoniously. Flexibility came into play when he joyfully announced that he had bought all the supplies for the school, only to be told by Haji Ali that in his absence the elders had decided that their priority had to be a bridge across the river rather than a school. Reflecting on his lesson, Greg says, "We Americans think you have to accomplish everything quickly . . . . Haji Ali taught me to share three cups of tea, to slow down and make building relationships as important as building projects . . . . I had more to learn from the people I work with than I could ever hope to teach them."
Greg's tenacity of purpose and cultural openness make it possible to overcome innumerable logistical and financial problems and to win the trust of many people representative of different regions and tribes, different levels of education, and different sects of Islam. He emerged unscathed from a kidnapping by tribal warriors of Waziristan, a region bordering Afghanistan. Through the all-out efforts of Shia leaders on his behalf, two fatwas issued against him by mullahs enraged by his projects were overturned.
When Greg makes a promise to help, he carries it out. This was evident in Korphe. On another occasion, when Greg was working in northwestern Pakistan, some Kirghiz horsemen from northern Afghanistan rode in to ask him to build schools for their villages. He promised that he would visit them in their homeland to discuss the project, but it was not until 2003, several years later, that he succeeded in flying into Kabul and making his way north to do this.
In carrying out this extensive and increasingly dangerous work, Greg depends on the understanding and support of his wife, Tara, who has to shoulder all the responsibilities of the family during his frequent absences of several months at a time.
The Central Asia Institute draws its funding from wealthy individuals and ordinary Americans who are convinced of the urgency of providing both boys and girls in impoverished areas with a balanced education. Without such opportunities for a better life, these populations could fall prey to extremists. The Institute emphasizes the education of girls since they were more likely than boys to remain in their villages after finishing school and thus become a powerful force for improving hygiene and maternal health care in their local communities.
Immediately after 9/11, funds were scarce and Greg received hate mail for his efforts to help Muslims. However, as time went on, his message about countering terrorism with books rather than bombs began to be much more sympathetically received. After Parade magazine made the story of his work the cover article of its April 2003 edition, donations for the work of the Central Asia Institute flowed in from American Christians, Jews and Muslims.
What Greg Mortenson has achieved is truly impressive. He exemplifies many of the qualities that are needed to improve life for people everywhere. He is able to see a person behind labels of nationality, ideology or belief and has dedicated himself fully to carrying out his mission, his particular contribution to an expanding web of hope encircling the globe.