A Conversation with Greg Mortenson — Author of NY Times Bestseller “Three Cups of Tea”

by Jeffrey Kaiser:

After an unsuccessful attempt to summit K2, the world’s second highest mountain, Greg Mortenson recovered in a small village in rural Pakistan. In return he promised to build a school. That was 1993. Since then, Mortenson, along with an organization he founded called the Central Asia Institute, has built or supported 131 schools in rural Pakistan and Afghanistan. Mortenson’s work not only provides schooling for 58,000 children but also has revolutionized the culture of education in this part of the world.

Mortenson with Gultori schoolchildren in Pakistan. (Courtesy Central Asia Institute)

Q: The story of how you got started in Pakistan, chronicled in the book “Three Cups of Tea,” has become fairly well known. But why did you keep going back to the region to build schools?

I started this as a promise to build a school in a little village in Pakistan called Korphe to honor my sister who had died from epilepsy. And once I got the first school, dozens of other villages started asking for help, and I realized that there is a very fierce desire in communities for schools and education. I have a quote on my bathroom mirror that says, “When you’re heart speaks, take good notes.” So I followed my heart. I’ve also realized that my whole life has kind of been preparing me for what I do now—I grew up in Tanzania and my parents were educators. Academically, I was planning to get my PhD in neurophysiology to study epilepsy, but in 1993 I found my heart.

Q: Why did your focus become specifically on educating girls?

Girls and women are marginalized. It’s much more difficult for them to get access to education. I also found disparity between how women are perceived publically—women are demure and oppressed—but when I talk to women, all of them want their daughters to get an education. Communities are very passionate about education, and it drives their hope and aspirations. If you ask any woman in rural Afghanistan or Pakistan what they, they will probably say two things: We don’t want our babies to die, and we want our children to go to school. So I’m doing this on their bequest. We don’t go seeking places to build a school; they come to us. If they didn’t want us to do I wouldn’t be doing this.

Torghu Balla schoolgirls in Pakistan. (Courtesy Central Asia Institute)

Q: Has Islam been misinterpreted in a way that has marginalized women?

In our schools we promote secular education. We have the basics: reading, writing arithmetic, science, math, etc. But we also teach hygiene, sanitation, and nutrition. We also have the village elders come in two or three times a week for storytelling. We also teach 4 languages in addition to their native tongue: Arabic, English, Pashto, and Dari, or Urdu in Pakistan. With regards to Arabic, we teach how to read, write, and understand Arabic. There are a lot of misperceptions about Islam. The Qur’an is very explicit about education. The first word of the Revelation to Mohammad the Prophet is Iqra, and Iqra means read. The first two chapters of the revelation basically say all people should embark on a quest for knowledge. The Qur’an also has a lot of inferences to hygienic codes and is explicit about the right to land ownership, especially for women and widows.

Q: Do you have advice for people who are traveling or spending time abroad and want to have some sort of impact?

Traveling is very important, and it’s critical that people spend time preparing themselves mentally, physically, emotionally, and academically. I find that a lot of aid workers or humanitarians after 20 or 30 years are burned out or cynical and bitter, and the real reason is they haven’t been taking care of themselves. The things I would recommend are, learn 50 words of another language. Learn about cultural nuances. Watch people. If you really want to have a birds-eye view of a society, learn 50 proverbs.

In Afghanistan one of the proverbs says, “God created the world and it was good, and then he took the leftovers and threw them into a pile, and that’s Afghanistan.” From our perspective that’s really sad, but from their perspective, they’ll say God saved the best for last. It just depends on perspective. When we talk about listening, it doesn’t mean just sitting down and listening. But it means looking at a situation from their perspective, rather than through our own myopic lens. That proverb really highlights the importance of perspective

Q: What has the U.S. Military learned from your work?

I’ve spent 17 years working in rural Pakistan and 12 years in Afghanistan with probably 78 months in the field. I’ve seen a tremendous learning curve in the last 6 years in the military. A lot of it has to do with multiple deployments, but more recently it has to do with a huge emphasis—coming from people like General McChrystal and other military leaders—being placed on meeting with shuras, the tribal elders. They have become a determinant in driving policy and mission. They are becoming the driving force behind creating a civil, stable society.

One difference I see in Afghanistan is that it is much more a warrior culture. When I go to colleges, one of the things I say is that I think the Afghan people are much more intuitive. We in the West have become so dependent and are so bombarded by TV, radio and the Internet. If you really want to develop intuition, you’ve got to be removed from that. We are a very linear and logical society, and we’re very strategic. We formulate plans, and if they don’t succeed, that’s it. For them, failure is a mere fork in the road. We’re learning that in a fluid dynamic society there is no such thing as failure. In the West, failure is the end of the road. I’m still learning that intuitive way of making decisions, but we need to balance this. We have to not only be linear, logical and strategic, but we have to listen to our heart a little more. Probably the best decisions I made were based on intuition. The worst decisions were the very strategic, linear, logical decisions that we were very deliberate about. The military is learning that process.

Jeffrey Kaiser ’12 is a Political Science major in Saybrook College. Contact him at jeffrey.kaiser@yale.edu.