Greg Mortenson, humanitarian and author of the book Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace… One School at a Time, arrived late to the theater at San Diego City College last week. It didn’t matter to the standing-room-only crowd. Mortenson received a hero’s ovation upon his appearance on stage.
When Mortenson was three months old, his parents took him from Minnesota to Tanzania in East Africa and worked as missionaries for 13 years. Mortenson returned to the United States only to experience prejudice and racism in high school. He was beaten up by teens who called him “African.”
After Mortenson’s sister, Christa, died of an epileptic seizure, he vowed to honor her. An avid climber, he set off in 1993 to scale one of the toughest mountains in the world—K2 in northern Pakistan—to leave Christa’s necklace at the summit. After 78 excruciating days, he failed.
Mortenson shared with the audience, “There’s an old Persian saying, ‘When it is dark enough, you can see the stars.’”
After failing to reach the top of K2, Mortenson spent time in the village of Korphe in northern Pakistan. He saw something that broke his heart. In a schoolyard without a building or a teacher, 84 children, 79 boys and 5 girls, wrote with sticks in the dirt to study. According to Mortenson, a third of the babies in this region die before the age of one, men worked for $400 a year and the female literacy rate is under 5 percent. Mortenson promised one of the students, a girl, that he would build a school for her village.
He went back to the United States and typed letters to celebrities in an effort to raise money. After 580 letters, Mortenson received one response—a check for $100 from Tom Brokaw. A school in the United States, Westside Elementary in River Falls, Wisconsin, heard about his efforts and invited Mortenson to speak. Afterwards, the children and teachers contributed over 62,000 pennies in trash containers to the cause. Since then, the organization they founded called “Pennies for Peace” has donated over 16 million pennies from 700 United States schools.
Mortenson sold his possessions. He contacted a renowned climber named Jean Hoerni, who donated the remaining funds for the first school. He also received help from the village of Korphe, which provided unskilled labor and some materials. Together, they built a school.
Mortenson moved from one end of the stage to the other as he spoke to the college audience. “There’s a saying in Africa, ‘If you educate a boy, you educate an individual. If you educate a girl, you educate a community.’ A boy will go off to lead his life. A girl will remain in the community, and her education is passed along.”
He continued, “In Third World countries, if you educate girls to the fifth grade, you reduce infant mortality. You reduce the population explosion, and you raise the quality of life index. In Pakistan and Afghanistan, some women walk three hours to school to sit on a mat in the dirt to learn.”
Behind him, slides of the people and villages in Pakistan and Afghanistan brought the audience into the most desolate regions he described with heart-rending detail. He said, “To understand poverty, you have to feel it, smell it, and taste it. The think tanks in Washington D.C aren’t going to be able to change poverty because they haven’t been there.”
Since 1996, Mortenson’s nonprofit organization called the “Central Asia Institute,” has helped build over 60 schools in the remotest mountain regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Mortenson talked about education’s impact on “jihad,” the religious holy war Islamic extremist groups wage against the United States and other Western countries. “In Afghanistan, sons need to get permission from their mother to go on a jihad. Educated mothers won’t allow their sons to join the Taliban.”
Mortenson ended his presentation with a staggering statistic of educational needs. “There are 145 million children in the world that can’t go to school.”
According to Jim Miller, director of San Diego City College’s Literacy Center, there was an overwhelming response to Greg Mortenson. “Every theater seat was full and there were people standing outside. People were moved by the stories and charmed by Mortenson. The compelling thing he does is he takes a huge geopolitical issue such as poverty in Afghanistan and he personalizes it so people can understand it.”
Luis Perez, counselor and Personal Growth instructor at San Diego City College attended Mortenson’s presentation and said, “I was amazed at the impact one person can have on so many lives. Greg [Mortenson] reminded me about the energy we carry and impact we can make when we combine our energy and willingness to give, but also stop and listen to the needs of the community we want to serve.”
For more information about Greg Mortenson and the Central Asia Institute, go to www.ikat.org.
Ray M. Wong is a freelance writer and self-syndicates a column called “Family Matters” to newspapers throughout the United States. Contact him by e-mail at email@example.com.