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Building knowledge

Sat., March 26, 2011

Constructing schools in Afghanistan, Pakistan is Mortenson’s calling

Greg Mortenson sounded a little tired, a little winded, on the phone Tuesday from his home in Bozeman.

Was he jet-lagged from his return that morning from Afghanistan? Or was he tired from the daunting task of having built 178 schools, mostly for girls, in Afghanistan and Pakistan over 18 years?

“Oh, no,” he said, laughing. “I was just out shoveling snow.”

Mortenson, 53, is a Nobel Peace Prize nominee; the recipient of the Star of Pakistan, that country’s highest civilian award; writer of the best-selling “Three Cups of Tea” and “Stones Into Schools”; and apparently, when he has a coveted day at home, a Montana snow shoveler.

He’s also the first – and in many ways ideal – speaker in Gonzaga University’s Presidential Speaker Series.

GU President Thayne McCulloh said Mortenson is “emblematic of the kind of individual Gonzaga seeks to recognize.” He said Mortenson’s work “is not only a good in and of itself, but is essential towards constructing a just and lasting peace.”

When Mortenson stands in front of thousands at Gonzaga on Monday, he will deliver the messages that have made his books best-sellers:

• Anyone can make a difference.

• Education is the best way to empower people.

In his mouth, these are more than mere platitudes. Here’s the short version of Mortenson’s story, for those who haven’t already been engrossed in his books:

He was a dead-broke mountain climber recovering from a grueling K2 climb in a Pakistani village in 1993 when he saw children trying to do schoolwork with sticks in sand. He vowed that he would build them a school, to honor his deceased sister Christa.

It took years to raise the money, purchase the materials and haul them halfway up the Karakoram Range. The delays and frustrations mounted.

But with help from a Seattle philanthropist and thousands of small donors (many of them American schoolchildren), he finally got it done.

The ball kept rolling. Many other villages needed schools, too – and Mortenson concluded that this could be his life’s work.

Today, his organization, the Central Asia Institute, has built 92 schools in Pakistan and 86 in Afghanistan, mostly for girls and mostly in villages that had no schools before.

And when he says “building a school,” he means more than erecting some walls.

“We supply the teacher training and support, the skilled labor – which means masons and carpenters – and the materials like cement and rebar and plyboard,” said Mortenson.

“But the community has to match it 50-50 with free land and sweat equity, free manual labor and then, free materials like wood.”

About 68,000 students are attending classes because of these schools. Today, Mortenson is seeing the incredibly gratifying results of all of that work.

“In Pakistan, we’ve been working almost 18 years now, so we have a significant focus on scholarships,” he said. “Many of these girls have now graduated, so they’re in college, or medical school, law school, nursing, education.

“And then we have a teacher-training program and we have emphasized that quite a bit.”

It has been life-changing journey – and in some cases, life-threatening.

Once, Mortenson was held hostage by the Taliban for many days in a locked cell. Finally, he was blindfolded and taken to a remote clearing. He was surrounded by armed men, all firing weapons.

He was so dispirited, he wished they would just shoot him and get it over with.

It turns out, they had learned about his schools and were setting him free. They started stuffing money in his pockets and yelling, “For your schools! So, Inshallah, you’ll build many more!”

“One thing I’ve found very consistently, is that everywhere I’ve been in Afghanistan and Pakistan, (they have) a fierce desire for education,” said Mortenson.

“The exception is some of the illiterate mullahs who use illiteracy and poverty and isolation as a way to control people.”

Mortenson does not travel with armed bodyguards. But he does take precautions.

“Two days ago, we went to see a school in a Taliban area south of Kabul,” he said. “When we first started, they (the Afghan staff) canned the first drivers on the spot. And then they got another car and we didn’t tell the drivers where we were going. And we got a guy with a big beard and glasses, he looked like a mullah, in the front seat. And I was in the back, in a real shoddy car.”

He feels danger almost every day – but a different kind of danger.

“I’ve always said that if I die over there it probably won’t be a bullet, but a car accident,” said Mortenson. “The driving is horrendous and the vehicles are not maintained and the roads are horrible.”

And there are other perils. He said that in Afghanistan in October 2009, he picked up a case of “viral pericarditis, an inflammation of the lining of my heart, so I have to be pretty careful about exerting myself.”

When he gets discouraged, and he sometimes does, it’s about people in America “not understanding or appreciating how powerful education is as a transformative vehicle.”

“I hate to tell this to American kids, but some of our students walk three hours to go to school through sleet and hail and rain over winding mountain trails,” he said.

“They wake up at 4:30 a.m., they do their chores for two or three hours, milk their goats, get kindling, take the herds up into the mountains.”

Mortenson’s own personal journey is recounted in “Three Cups of Tea,” co-written with David Oliver Relin.

He spent his childhood partly in Tanzania, where his parents were missionaries, and partly in Minnesota. He worked as an emergency room nurse in California to support his mountain climbing habit for many years.

He met his wife, Tara Bishop, a clinical psychologist, at a fundraising dinner in San Francisco, and married her six days later. They have two children, and moved to Bozeman to be close to her family.

When “Three Cups of Tea” was published in 2006, Mortenson was unprepared for the book’s enormous impact. His institute’s database of donors contained around 5,000 names before the book. Now, it contains around 190,000.

He said that Spokane has been a “huge” center of support and he intends to come back in the fall for another event. He still spends several months a year in Asia, but the organization is mostly in the hands of local Pakistani and Afghan staff.

“Pretty much all of the decisions are made over there,” said Mortenson. “So I’m kind of like a cheerleader.”

Some cheerleader.

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