20.02.2009 -

Greg Mortenson: the man who builds schools


In Pakistan, he is known as “Dr Greg”. Since starting without a penny and living in his car to save money, Greg Mortenson, a nurse by training, has devoted his life to education.

He is the executive director of the Central Asia Institute that promotes education and literacy, especially for girls, in remote regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan. His book, “Three Cups of Tea” has become required reading in hundreds of high schools and universities across the United States and the US Pentagon has purchased several thousand copies for its staff. A version for young readers was recently released.

Mr Mortenson will receive the Star of Pakistan civilian award from the government of Pakistan in honour of his contribution to the country. He spoke to EduInfo at the High Level Group on Education for All in Oslo, Norway in December 2008.

In 1993 you set out to climb K2, the world’s second highest mountain but you ended up building a school.

When my younger sister Christa died in 1992 of a severe epileptic seizure, I decided to climb K2 in Pakistan’s Karakoram in her memory. I nearly made it to the top but strayed from the trail. I walked 80 kilometres and came to the village of Korphe where I was taken in by the village chief Haji Ali. There was no school here. Instead, the headman led me to an open space where 82 kids were sitting on the cold ground without a teacher. A teacher cost the equivalent of a dollar a day. The village couldn’t afford that so shared a teacher with a neighbouring village. The rest of the time the children were left alone to practice their lessons. I made a promise to those children to build a school. I have been working in the region ever since, including eight years in Afghanistan.

How did you get started once you’d made your promise?

I knew nothing about fundraising and went home to type 580 letters, sold my car, climbing gear and collected $2500 dollars. My mother was a primary school teacher. One of her students said he would raise money and together the children ended up collecting over 62,000 pennies - $624. In 1995 we had all the supplies to build the school. The head imam himself who is not supposed to do manual labour carried the wooden beams up to the village to symbolize advocacy for education. Six weeks later the school was built.

You have since built over 50 schools in the Northern Areas. How do you go about setting up schools?

People in poverty know the best solutions and how to empower themselves. I grew up in Tanzania. My parents were teachers. My father started a medical centre and insisted that local people should be in charge of it and that is what happened. We now get dozens of requests to build schools and we are tough on communities. The money we give has to be matched by community participation. In all cases, communities provide free land, building materials such as wood, and labour. This gets local buy-in. You never make a deal without reciprocity. You need accountability and transparency. We build schools for $20,000 and communities can account for all the money spent. It’s interesting that schools that have been bombed by the Taliban in Afghanistan were most often set up by outside contractors. They are prime targets versus schools where local communities are invested.

Your story is told in “Three Cups of Tea” which has sold over 2 million copies. What is the story behind the title?

Haji Ali, the village chief in Korphe, told me that if I wanted to thrive in Baltistan, I had to respect their ways. “The first time you share tea with a Balti, you are a stranger. The second time you take tea you are an honoured guest. The third time you share a cup of tea, you become family, and for our family, we are prepared to do anything, even die.” Haji Ali taught me to share three cups of tea, to slow down and make building relationships as important as building projects.

When I first finished the book, the publishers insisted on changing the subtitle to “one man’s mission to fight terrorism” instead of “one man’s mission to promote peace” as I had it. The top managers disagreed arguing that only one in eight nonfiction books make a profit. But in Pakistan and Afghanistan, you never settle a deal without a bargain so I negotiated to change the subtitle on the paperback edition. That is what we did and it has been 96 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list. Promoting peace is based on hope. The real enemy is ignorance that breeds hatred.

You insist on the importance of educating girls but don’t you run into resistance?

You have to be persistent and build relationships. In one conservative village in northwest Pakistan, it took eight years to convince a mullah to allow one girl to attend school. Now in that same village there are over 250 girls going to school. I have had a fatwa against me for educating girls. It ended after a ruling by the Supreme Council of Mullahs stated that the Holy Koran tells us “all children should receive education, including our daughters and sisters”. It also concluded that “there is no law to prohibit an infidel from providing assistance to our Muslim bothers and sisters.”

You have succeeded in enrolling large numbers of girls in your schools.

You have to listen to the people. When I ask women what they want, most say ‘we don’t want our babies to die and we want children to go to school.’ In these remote areas, one in three children dies before reaching their first birthday. For the first time, women in the Northern Areas are being educated and we are seeing the first results of this. Mothers are asking their daughters to read the newspapers that their vegetables are wrapped in when they come home from the market place. For the first time they are getting news of what is going on in the outside world. This is very powerful.

We have helped several young women follow maternal health training after school. In the Charpusan valley for example, not a single woman has died in childbirth since there has been a maternal health worker there who is paid one dollar a day. Hundreds of girls have become teachers. Several are in medical school. Unless girls are educated a society will not change. Girls’ education improves the quality of health and life, reduces infant mortality and population growth. Pakistan has a 40 percent female adult illiteracy rate; its population is expected to double in the next 27 years.

Who are the teachers and how do you train them?

We run a teacher training programme three to four weeks twice a year that gives teachers skills not to teach by rote but to use indigenous knowledge to teach children. Fifteen years ago there were no qualified teachers in the areas where we worked. We had to use fifth graders or above. Now most of the students in our training programme are tenth graders. Older children help to mentor younger ones. The curriculum includes hygiene and nutrition and we get the elders to come to the class to teach children about their local culture. Children learn to read and write in Arabic. We have run into resistance over this as well. In many madrassas students only learn to read without understanding the meaning.

You have also been working in Afghanistan for the past eight years.

Working with tribal leaders, we have negotiated for and built 14 schools in Afghanistan. There is such fierce desire for education there, even in Taliban areas. The good news is that 6.5 million children between age 5 and 15 are in school; 2 million are female, against 800,000 in 2000. We have even hired former Taliban to be teachers in our schools – they end up being our biggest advocates for education. Working there is difficult. Some 540 schools have been bombed or shut down by Taliban, 90 per cent are girls’ schools. There is a lack of accountability in the aid money going to Afghanistan.

Have you seen evidence of education being radicalized?

In the 2005 earthquake, thousands of schools were destroyed in Pakistan. Only a quarter have been rebuilt today. Aid dropped 70 percent a year after the earthquake. In some cases extremist madrassas have been set up inside refugee camps. People go there because they are starving, they need shelter, medicine and support. There is a lot of down time in refugee camps. Education is the only thing kids have and they learn like sponges. Here international organizations have a role to play.

What is your perspective on the unstable situation that prevails in the areas where you work?

A Persian proverb says that “When it is dark, you can see the stars”. We tend to think about poverty in monetary terms. We should think about poverty as a lack of education, of the ability to make decisions. Education is part of the answer to peace. We are spending $20 billion on the military, $1 billion on antinarcotics and $80 million on education. With the money it takes to build a Tomahawk missile − about a million dollars − we could build over 30 community schools. A legacy of peace begins with education. And unless girls are educated, the world won’t change.

Central Asia Institute

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