I'm a little slow to get on the bandwagon for this one. I've been hearing about the book Three Cups of Tea for several years but just read it. The funny thing is that the person the book is about, Greg Mortenson, is in the news the last several weeks with allegations that his nonprofit organization, the Central Asia Institute, has misused funds and lied about the facilities it's built.
That's the bad news. The good news is that even if some of those allegations are true, I believe much more good has been done than evil in the life of Greg Mortenson. Maybe I just want to believe it because it's such a good story, but I just have this sense of trust for someone who talks about how educating people is the way to end terrorism, rather than bombing them.
For those of you who haven't heard his story, Mortenson was a mountain climber who went to Pakistan to climb K2. On his way home he got lost, and found himself in a small Himalayan village called Korphe. The people took him in and treated him with such respect and care that he felt like an honored guest, even a member of their family. He vowed to return and build a school for them, because he found out that their school-aged children studied outside (weather permitting) and wrote their school work in the dirt.
To make a long story short, after much trial and error he raised funds to build the school. Along the way he learned the language(s) of the region in which he worked in Pakistan, and through a generous donor he founded the Central Asia Institute. He has since built many schools, as well as clean water projects, bridges, and other humanitarian projects in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. He's also helped pay teachers who were working without pay, even if their schools weren't built by the CAI. You can see photos and read about the CAI's recent work here.
To me, Mortenson's work is amazingly inspiring. When he saw the situation of the kids in that village of Korphe, his life was forever changed: he had to act. He sacrificed a great deal personally in order to ensure that justice could come to that village in the form of a space in which to learn. Throughout Three Cups of Tea, some call him a "true American hero," and I couldn't agree more. What if our national response to 9/11 had been more similar to his work? Can you imagine how different the region of Pakistan and Afghanistan would be today?
Mortenson started working on his first school in the '90s, and continued visiting Pakistan and building other schools since then. He witnessed what life looked like there before and after the Taliban created a foothold in the area. Something I hadn't realized before is that in 1999 or so, the Taliban started building tons of madrassas--fundamentalist Islamic training schools. There weren't that many before then. People went to the madrassas because they didn't have much of an option--it was the only school available in many areas. People weren't necessarily interested in the fundamentalist agenda prior to that, but once they began going to the schools they got sucked in to that way of thinking.
Mortenson's work is also about empowering women. He has built many schools specifically for girls, because sometimes education is offered for boys only. He convinces villages and towns that educating women is important since they take care of the families, so having some knowledge of hygiene and how to take care of wounds, as well as other practical skills, makes the whole community better-off. He was even surprised that a simple thing like a bridge could empower women. In a remote village where he helped build a bridge, he realized that it allowed women to visit their families more frequently, which helped them feel less isolated.
I also appreciate Mortenson's respect for Islam. He learns about Islam and prays with the people with whom he works. Although he is not a Muslim, he respects the devotion of his Islamic friends to their prayers at set times. He respects the wisdom of the village leaders and imams. About one person he says, "He's the type of religious leader I admire most. He is about compassion in action, not talk. He doesn't just lock himself up with his books. Syed Abbas believes in rolling up his sleeves and making the world a better place. Because of his work, the women of Chunda no longer had to walk long distances to find clean water. And overnight, the infant mortality rate of a community of two thousand people was cut in half" (p. 201). I hope this is the kind of religious leader any of us aspire to be.
One quote that particularly stood out to me is this: "In times of war, you often hear leaders--Christian, Jewish, and Muslim--saying, 'God is on our side.' But that isn't true. In war, God is on the side of refugees, widows, and orphans." This, to me, is what the Quaker peace testimony is all about.This is why we refuse to wage war with physical weapons: not just because some book says so, but because we choose to be on the side of the good, the side of the unjustly oppressed. We refuse to oppress others in order to keep our freedoms or our stuff. And as Friends we have launched many a campaign and organization to do work similar to that of Mortenson's in the past. Hopefully we will continue to do so, and/or join with organizations like the CAI to do such work in our world today.
I don't think that education is necessarily THE answer--I don't even think it's the full answer that Mortenson is giving to Pakistani and Afghani children. What his work gives them is hope. There's another way. One doesn't just have to follow the path of the madrassas, or stay at home tending goats. There is another option, a humanizing option. In this case it comes in the form of education, but I'm not saying that education is God. People can see God through hope in their future, however. They can see God's goodness and love in the fact that they have the ability to break cycles of poverty. And hopefully the learning doesn't just go one way. Mortenson learns a great deal from the alpine culture in which he works, and the shortcomings of Western culture become painfully clear. Hopefully as we help others using the knowledge and skills that our culture has cultivated, we remember that we also have much to learn, especially about true happiness and contentment.