Three Cups of Tea
One Man's Mission to
One School at a Time
In the aftermath of 9/11, when B52's were raining hell on the mountains of Afghanistan, and anything that smacked of the USA was viewed with suspicion at best and outright hostility at worst, one American was fearlessly travelling back and forth between the borders between Pakistan and Afghanistan, waging his own bloodless war against terrorism. This fascinating story is related with passion by David Oliver Relin, in collaboration with the man himself, Greg Mortenson.
The story began in 1993 with a failure. An unscheduled rescue operation on Pakistan's K2, the second highest peak in the world, robbed Mortenson of a chance to complete a long-time ambition to reach its summit. Dazed and disoriented, without food or water to sustain him, a weary and emaciated Mortenson stumbled into the remote Pakistani village of Korphe, in the North West Frontier, where he was nursed back to health by the locals.
As he recuperated, Mortenson, who grew up in Africa, where his parents taught in missionary schools in Tanzania, tried to get to know his hosts a bit better. Asking to see the local school, he was shocked to discover that the 84 children of Korphe learned their lessons out in the open, scratching letters on the ground. Moved by their plight, he made a vow to return and build a school there.
Back home at Berkeley, Canada, where he worked part-time as a nurse, he became aware of the enormity of the task that lay ahead of him. Virtually homeless, living in a Jeep, his meagre pay hardly sustaining him, there was no way he could fund his mission. As he began the exhausting task of writing to donors, he had to struggle to keep his optimism from flagging, as help didn't come easily. The first break came from a school venture called Pennies for Pakistan, whereby schoolchildren donated $623.45 worth of pennies into Mortenson's meagre fund. The real deal-sealer came from an unexpected donation of $12000 from Swiss-born physicist Dr Jean Hoerni, who shared Mortenson's love of mountaineering.
With his cash problems solved, Mortenson headed back to Pakistan, confident of swift progress. A long and eventful journey to Korphe revealed another major impasse to his plans: before the materials could be transported to the remote village, a bridge would have to be built to bear the loads. This meant dipping into his dwindling funds, and the probable failure of the entire scheme. Undaunted, Mortenson finally completed the project, and in doing so, discovered his mission in life. Over the next decade or so, he built some 61 schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan, as well as hostels, irrigation systems and more. Co-founder of the nonprofit organisation Central Asia Institute, he is a well-known, and indeed, well loved figure in Pakistan, and a powerful advocate for education in the Subcontinent.
David Relin uses a simple, flowing, and descriptive narrative style in the book, balancing amusing anecdotes as well as hard facts and interviews. If at times he seems a little too effusive in his praise of Greg Mortenson, the man's achievements certainly seem to merit it. The book is at once entertaining and informative, and makes for a very pleasurable perusal.
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(R) thedailystar.net 2008