School-Building Author Inspires Us to Make a Difference
Brandon Sun “Small World” Column, Saturday, January 9 / 10
Holiday breaks mean visits with family and friends, turkey dinners, and sometimes a chance to catch up on one’s favourite pastime, in my case reading.
More than a year ago, I read the best-selling Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace…One School at a Time.
And just in time for this gift-giving season, out came the sequel, Stones into Schools: Promoting Peace with Books, Not Bombs, in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
I made sure I was given Stones and it was as good as its predecessor. These two inspiring personal accounts are not anti-military or anti-Western, but rather are pro-people and pro-education. The first book, which came out in 2006, is now required reading in the US military and in development, sociology and other university courses around the world. Both books are also perfect for the ordinary reader who just wants to know what is going on in that war-torn and impoverished region of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools are a combined chronology of the life, to date, of Greg Mortenson, a nurse-turned-mountain climber-turned development activist. The first book focuses on his early years as the child of missionaries in Tanzania who, when he returns to the US, gets an education, becomes a trekker, but doesn’t forget the lessons he learned growing up.
On one expedition, when he is sick and lost on a mountain trail in the Himalayas, he is rescued and brought back to health by impoverished villagers and he promises to return and help them build schools for their children, particularly in order to rescue girls from their limited option of an illiterate, harsh life and early death.
While most people might get on with their lives after such an experience, Greg is unable get these people out of his mind, and ultimately sells his possessions and changes his life in order to help them. He is obviously a driven person to start with, and once he gets up a head of steam, is impossible to stop!
The rest of Three Cups of Tea tells the story of his early US fundraising and school building efforts in Pakistan, in the poorest and most remote of locations, from the mid-90s to the early 2000s, including the fallout from the 9-11 Attacks and his own kidnapping by Taliban fighters.
His second book picks up the story as Greg’s organization, the Central Asia Institute (CAI), grows and meets with success in Pakistan, and is drawn into Afghanistan where poverty, war and terrorism make it more difficult for children, especially girls, to attend school.
He also must work through the devastating effects of the Pakistan-Kashmir earthquake that brought down thousands of buildings, including schools, on unsuspecting victims in remote, mountainous regions.
Stones into Schools documents his growing relationship with US Armed Forces in the war in Afghanistan as he pushes the idea that education and cultural sensitivity will do more for development and security than soldiers and bombs will. Throughout both books, Mortenson and his staff struggle to keep their work alive without directly confronting any side in the complicated cultural and political milieu – traditional religious leaders, ambitious community politicians, official militaries, Taliban fighters, frustrating bureaucrats, anti-Muslim Americans and many others.
These two books offer an inspiring story of the commitment, energy and will of not just one man, but also of all the people around him – his family, his staff, and the villagers who benefit from the CAI’s work. Mortenson is a great story-teller and also is expert at character development, bringing to life the people he works with or meets. He also writes with great conviction and humility, and tells of his own personal and financial struggles to keep the work going.
Over the course of the two books, he goes from living out of his car in order to finance his first school to having to direct a multi-million dollar organization. He meets his future wife at a fundraising event for mountain climbers where he is trying to promote his work, and they are married six days later! He has lunch with Pervez Musharraf, the military President of Pakistan at the time, to discuss his projects, but all he can think of is that he should be in the field helping the villagers get their schools up before winter, not wasting his time on fancy meetings.
The meaning behind “three cups of tea,” which Mortenson learns early on, is that your first cup of tea with mountain villagers is enjoyed as a stranger. By the time you have your third cup, you are one of them. Thousands of cups of tea later, he is a hero who has been the energy behind the construction of hundreds of schools, playgrounds and vocational centres, and who has paved the way for the emancipation of thousands of girls.
There is much to learn in these books, and much fodder for debate, about development, culture and conflict. There is also much to learn about the blood, sweat and tears it takes to make a better world.
Zack Gross works for the Manitoba Council for International Co-operation (MCIC), a coalition of more than 40 international development organizations.
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