Thursday, December 6, 2007

This Guy Is the Real Deal

Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace . . .One School at a Time
by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin

Loved this one. Makes me want to pack bags and head for Pakistan - or maybe not. I have to admit that I do not possess the courage under fire that Greg Mortenson has shown. In an earlier part of his life, he was one of those extreme climber dudes. Think Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air. Mortenson was raised by Lutheran missionary parents in Tanzania (then called Tanganyika), and he reached the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro at age 11! In 1993 he was trying to reach the summit of K-2. He had to turn back 600 meters from the top to assist another climber who had developed pulmonary edema (a common ailment at those altitudes). Anyway, on the way down the mountain, Mortenson got separated from his fellow climbers and got lost on the mountain. Dehydrated and exhausted, he wandered into a tiny village called Korphe, so obscure it is not even on most maps.

The people of Korphe, most of whom had never even seen an American before, showed tremendous hospitality to Mortenson and took care of him until he regained some of his strength. Mortenson developed a relationship with the people of the region (known as Balti) that was to change his life. Those who are interested can read the book for further details, but the short version of the story is that Greg Mortenson has devoted his life to building schools, women's vocational centers, and water treatment plants in some of the most remote and forgotten corners of the earth in Pakistan and more recently Afghanistan.

The Balti people are similar to the Sherpas of Nepal - many earn their living serving as porters and guides for the extreme climbers. The mountaineers, beginning with Sir Edmund Hilary, have over time brought the Sherpas and their hardships into public light but until Mortenson, no one had done that for the Baltis. This is probably because most Sherpas are Buddhist and most Baltis are Muslim. Greg Mortenson has never formally converted to Islam, but he respects that faith of its people and is able to forge bonds even with conservative Islamic leaders. "Conservative," however, does not equal "extremist." On two different occasions fundamentalist mullahs (Muslim clerics) issued fatwas against Mortenson, trying to have him banned from Pakistan. Why? Because he offered educational opportunity to girls and women. This was a small minority of Muslims, though. The vast majority of the Pakistani Muslims have welcomed Mortenson like a brother, because they see education and empowerment as the keys to a better life for their children. Mortenson understands that the only way to keep children out of the midrassas, the Islamic fundamentalist schools that are popping up like toadstools in that part of the world, is to offer a viable alternative.

Mortenson's story unfolds as the Taliban rise to power in Afghanistan, as Pakistan and India go to war (again) and against the backdrop of 9/11. He was often in harm's way as he carried out the work of the organization he helped found to build the schools (the Central Asia Institute). People like Greg Mortenson amaze me. Most of us want to make a difference in the world, and make a sincere effort to do what we can where we are. Most of us do not travel in an unsafe part of the world, away from our spouses and children, for months at a time and endure much physical hardship and danger in our effort to improve the lot of the world's most forgotten and ignored people. Talk about walking the walk. My hat is off to him, and my prayers with him.

This is an inspiring read. The one thing that felt strange to me is that Mortenson is listed as an author of the book, but the book blows his horn pretty loudly. From reading the story, my sense is that it was mostly (if not all) written by Relin after he extensively interviewed Mortenson and traveled to Pakistan and Afghanistan to visit the projects himself. Mortenson seems like a humble, unassuming guy but because he is presumably an author the book can sound self-aggrandizing, even when it is lauding Mortenson's humility. Relin is clearly supportive of Mortenson's mission (as well as a friend to him) and excited about the potential for that mission to change lives. I think the tone of the book is just enthusiasm spilling over, but I would be uncomfortable if I were Greg Mortenson with the "me me me meeeeee me me me!" tone that the book can take. Maybe it's unavoidable, because he clearly is the heart and soul of the CAI, and one of our nation's best hopes for peace.

If you are interested in learning more about the CAI, you can log onto to see what they are doing and how you can help. If nothing else I hope that the book reminds Americans that not all Muslims are crazy terrorists. Most of them just want to practice their faith and give their children some hope and opportunity. I believe that people who have hope and a sense of purpose in the world do not become terrorists, so I hope that Mortenson's work continues for a long time - or at least until there is no longer any need for it, because all children have a decent school to attend and a future to which they can look forward.

Reverent Reader


At 12/6/07, 6:50 PM , Anonymous Pam said...

Looking forward to this one -- for my book club in January!

At 12/6/07, 9:38 PM , Blogger Reverent Reader said...

GIRL - you will love it. What else does the book club have in the pipeline? LAK


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