by Erin Walker, MLIS
On January 28th, I travelled to Kitchener, Ontario to hear Greg Mortenson, author of Three Cups of Tea and Stones Into Schools, speak to a packed hockey arena. The last stop on his Canadian book tour, Mortenson was there to share the story of his remarkable journey from a struggling mountaineer to an internationally acclaimed humanitarian.
His journey began in 1993 following a failed attempt at climbing K2, the world’s second highest mountain peak. While descending the mountain, Mortenson became separated from his group and lost his way in the Himalayas of northern Pakistan. Cold, exhausted, and very ill, he eventually stumbled into the tiny impoverished village of Korphe where he was welcomed with great warmth and hospitality.
During his stay, Mortenson observed the village children sitting outdoors, using sticks to scratch their lessons in the mud. The village could not afford the $1 a day salary to hire a teacher. Motivated to repay the village for the compassion and generosity they had shown him, he promised he would return to Korphe one day to give them what they needed most—a school.
As Three Cups of Tea recounts, Mortenson made good on his promise. But he didn’t stop there. Today, as co-founder and director of the Central Asia Institute, Mortenson has built 130+ schools in the poorest, most remote communities of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is also the founder of Pennies for Peace, an educational outreach program that helps raise funds for schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan while teaching students in the developed world about the lives of children in impoverished countries.
Mortenson’s story is both fascinating and incredible. In his talk, he reflected on the many hardships he has endured in his quest to make the world a better place. He’s survived kidnappings, travelled through lands riddled with landmines, weathered death threats from home and abroad, and endured lengthy separations from his wife and children. Despite all of this, Mortenson has remained committed to his cause.
Stones into Schools: Promoting Peace with Books, Not Bombs, in Afghanistan and Pakistan picks up where Three Cups of Tea left off. The book chronicles the Central Asia Institute’s expansion into dangerous and remote parts Afghanistan—-in particular, one region so remote that some Afghan officials refuse to acknowledge it as part of the country. He also recounts the CAI’s rebuilding efforts in Kashmir following the devastating earthquake that hit the region in 2005.
What’s more, Stones into Schools shines light on Mortenson’s humble and respectful approach which is at the heart of his success. It is about building relationships, respecting local customs, and listening to and learning from local wisdom. Mortenson believes that the United States’ counter-insurgency efforts in Afghanistan will fail without the input of Afghani tribal elders. “They are the real power in the country,” Mortenson said. “If you work with the local people, you can go into the most volatile areas and be very successful, but you have to involve the community.”
He spoke passionately about the importance of education, noting that there are still 120 million school age children in the world who are deprived of their right to education. The situation is especially dire for girls, particularly in parts of the world affected by isolation, war, and religious extremism. “Ignorance breeds hatred,” said Mortenson. “The Taliban’s primary recruiting grounds are the poor and illiterate segments of society, but when women become educated, they will discourage their sons from getting involved in terrorism.” He went to share one of his favourite sayings: “When you teach a boy you educate an individual, but when you teach a girl, you’re educating an entire community.” The subsequent impact on nutrition, health, infant mortality and the overall well-being of the community can be dramatic. To emphasize his point, Mortenson cited the story of Aziza Hussain, who after graduating from a CAI school, went on to study midwifery. Since her return to her village, where about 20 women a year died in childbirth, not a single woman has died giving birth.
The fact that books are making much more of a difference in Afghanistan than bombs is not such a radical idea to those in our profession. Mortenson’s simple and heartwarming message of peace and progress through education certainly resonated with me as a soon-to-be librarian. Meeting him briefly after his talk, I mentioned I was completing my MLIS. “I love librarians,” he told me. “Never underestimate the importance of the work that you do.” It was impossible to leave with out feeling inspired and called to action.
For more information about Greg Mortenson’s humanitarian efforts visit the Central Asia Institute’s website at http://www.ikat.org/. Better yet, pick up a copy of Three Cups of Tea or Stones Into Schools, if you haven’t already. If they inspire you to act in even the smallest of ways, it will be well worth the effort.
Erin Walker is co-chair of the Librarians Without Borders (LWB) student committee at the University of Western Ontario (UWO) where she recently completed her Master of Library and Information Science. In April 2010, she and other members of the UWO LWB committee spent two weeks in central Costa Rica building a school library for the village of El Humo de Pejivalle in the Cartago province.