on 25 July 2006
These words, spoken by Pakistani Brigadier General Bashir, symbolize an underlying thread in this extraordinary story. The fight against ignorance resulting from illiteracy and complete lack of economic resources is the primary theme of award-winning Journalist David Oliver Relin's account of a man with a mission: Greg Mortenson. Ignorance of local culture and customs, racial and religious prejudice are intimately linked to the failures in achieving lasting peace in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Education of the young, and in particular girls, are offered as an essential tool against ignorance. Building schools in remote and isolated regions of Pakistan has been Mortenson's passion for 13 years. Relin traces Mortenson's travels and encounters for a period of two years, interviewing many friends - and a few sceptics - along the way and recording months of discussions with Mortenson himself. The result is an action-packed adventure story with a deep moral and emotional centre. It depicts ten years in the life of a man who turned failure into strength, growing into a great humanitarian and dedicated fighter for the rights of tens of thousands forgotten poor in the tribal areas of this powder keg region of Central Asia.
Overcoming ignorance has also been a leitmotiv for Greg himself. After abandoning his climb to the top of K2, the second largest mountain in the world, he had lost his guide and then his way on the descent. Close to exhaustion, he reached Korphe, a small village high up in the Karakoram range of the Himalayas. As the villagers nurtured him back to strength he became increasingly aware of the extreme poverty of the region and the dire conditions of the children's school. The village could not afford a school building and a teacher for only three days a week at $1 a day. The children sat on the ground in the open scratching the writing they had learned in the packed earth. Mortenson was touched by the warmth and generosity that the people had offered him and promised them to come back and build a school.
The obstacle course that Mortenson undertook to raise the funds for the school is vividly shared with us. Starting from nothing, living out of his car to save money to a benefactor's surprise gift, he managed to raise the funds to return to Korphe with the building materials stockpiled in a nearby town. Haji Ali, the Korphe village elder, accepts "Dr. Greg" into his family, recognizing his special qualities. The old man, himself illiterate, has a few lessons to share with him, important advice that will lead to the successful completion of the Korphe school three years later. The fundamental lesson was patience and listening: patience to develop relationships with the local community, sensitivity to local traditions and customs; listening to what the people had to say first and, with them, finding solutions to the problem at hand. It would also mean that real partnerships for school building developed where the local people put up the sweat equity to match his funds for building materials. Learning from his mistakes and initial naiveté Dr. Greg becomes a successful catalysts for building many more schools in other remote villages in Pakistan and later in Afghanistan. Over time, other essential programs, such as women vocational centres are also added.
Each return trip to Pakistan was a major step forward for Mortenson and his school program. What had started as a simple promise to one village, became his all-absorbing mission. The more he learned the more he became convinced that balanced, "non-extremist" education of children, and in particular girls, is a major building block in peace-building in the region. He found his vision mirrored that of many local leaders: village elders, mullahs, including the supreme leader of northern Pakistan's Shias, politicians and senior military officers. Increasingly, as his work became known, he could count on their participation and advice. They provided essential support when two fatwas were issued against him that would have forced him to leave the country. He opened a local office for his Central Asia Institute, staffed with a diverse group of advocates of his program, who took over the day-to-day management while he was "commuting" to the home base in Montana to raise the necessary funds.
Even since 9/11 and the war against the Taliban, Mortenson was able to continue his work, much admired by his local network of supporters. Relin's interviews confirm the overwhelmingly warm and positive attitude of local people toward the American Mortenson. Negative reactions, though, came from within the US, where people attacked him for "supporting the enemy". Mortenson stood his ground, arguing that lasting peace and security around the world can only be gained through education of the younger generations. Finally in 2003, following a major article on his work in Parade magazine, the tide turned for him also in the US. Donations poured into his small foundation, securing his ever expanding work.
"Three Cups of Tea" is not only a moving and heart-warming personalized story of what one person can achieve with determination and persistence. It is also a portrait of a part of the world that we should all know more about so that we learn to differentiate between enemy and friend. [Friederike Knabe]