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Greg Morteson: Grand failure leads to unexpected success in the last best places

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The first chapter of Greg Mortenson's best-selling book “Three Cups of Tea” is named “Failure.”

Failure is a strange word to be included in a book that’s been on the New York Times’ best sellers list since it was released in 2007, selling 3.6 million copies and having been published in 41 countries.

It’s a strange word for a man who has made over 680 appearances in 270 cities and towns, speaking to tens of thousands of people who flock to hear his story.

Failure is a strange word for a book that is now required reading for all officers enrolled in counterinsurgency courses at the Pentagon.

It’s a strange word for a man like Mortenson to use — a man who was named one of America’s Best Leaders by US News & World Report.

It’s a strange title for a chapter about a man who won the 2009 Sitara, or Star of Pakistan — that nation’s highest civilian award — and the man many say should have won the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize for spending the past 17 years of his life working on behalf of millions of children who have no access to a basic education.

Failure was, however, the catalyst for every success Greg Mortenson has experienced since 1993. If Mortenson had scaled K2, the second-highest peak on the planet, in the fall of 1993, he probably would have returned to the United States and continued his nomadic life, working as a registered nurse while saving money for his next mountain climbing adventure.

How lucky for the children of rural Pakistan and Afghanistan that failure once sat heavy on the shoulders of this gentle giant.

Greg Mortenson was born in Minnesota in 1957. Soon after his birth, his parents, Dempsey and Jerene, moved the family to Tanzania, where they would live near the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro until 1973.

During their stay in Africa, Mortenson’s father founded the Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Center hospital, and his mother created the International School Moshi.

Mortenson began begging his father to let him climb Kilimanjaro when he was 6. At age 11, his father relented.

Rather than enjoying his trip to the top of Africa, “I gagged and puked all the way up … I hated the climb. But standing on the summit at dawn, seeing the sweep of the African savannah below me, hooked me forever on climbing.”

Mortenson’s father was proud of the Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Center. He believed that the only way the hospital would succeed was if it was run by locals. His father said that within 10 years, every department head of the facility would be run by Africans. He was blasted for the statement, as Mortenson said at a recent appearance in Dallas. And they fired him.

After the family returned to St. Paul, Greg enrolled in high school. On the first day of school, he was beaten up by a bunch of bullies. They attacked him because he answered, “Africa” when asked where he was from.

Standing at 6 feet, 4 inches, he was a natural athlete. He played football in high school. After a stint in the Army, Mortenson led Concordia College in Moorhead, Minn., to a 1978 NAIA II National Championship. He then transferred to the University of South Dakota, where he earned honors degrees in both nursing and chemistry.

Mortenson’s father died early in 1981. When his mother received a progress report from the Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Center later on that year, her husband’s prediction had come true. Every single department head at the hospital was run by Africans. Empowering local people was important to Mortenson’s father — and it was a lesson Mortenson would put to good use some 20 years later, on the other side of the world.

Although he had three sisters, Mortenson was especially fond of the youngest, Christa. She suffered from epilepsy and severe seizures. Despite her limitations, Christa had a positive effect on everyone.

Christa was the nicest of us. She faced her limitations with grace. It would take her forever to dress herself in the morning, so she’d lay her clothes out the night before, trying not to take up too much of our time before school. She was remarkably sensitive to other people.

Christa loved baseball. “Field of Dreams” was her favorite movie. Christa died in her sleep in July of 1992, the night before she and her mother were to leave on a trip to Dyersville, Iowa, where the movie had been made.

If Mortenson had been successful in 1993, when he attempted to climb K2 in honor of his sister, he probably wouldn’t have gotten separated from his climbing team and wandered into the remote Pakistani village of Korphe, lost and sick and in need of rest.

In “Three Cups of Tea,” Mortenson describes the scene as he neared the village.

For the first time in many months, Mortenson became aware of his appearance. His hair was long and unkempt.

He felt huge and filthy and, in fact, told the audience in Dallas that it had been over 90 days since he had bathed.

He stooped, trying not to tower over the children who had gathered behind him like a comet’s tail.

Mortenson smelled the village … a mile before he approached it. The scent of juniper woodsmoke and unwashed humanity was overwhelming in the sterility of altitude. Thinking he was still on the correct trail, he assumed he was approaching Askole, which he’d passed through three months earlier … but nothing looked familiar. By the time he reached the village’s ceremonial entrance … he was leading a procession of fifty children.

Instead of finding Mouzafer, his mountain guide, he was met by a wizened old man, with features so strong they might have been carved out of the canyon walls … his name was Haji Ali … the chief of Korphe.

In Korphe, “the tightly packed warren of square three-story homes … would have been almost indistinguishable from the canyon walls but for the riot of apricots, onions and wheat piled colorfully on their flat roofs.”

Haji Ali led Mortenson into a hut and prepared a pot of butter tea for his strange guest.

Then, the headman leaned forward … and thrust his bearded face in front of Mortenson’s.

“Cheezaley?” he barked … “What the hell?

Mortenson did his best to explain what had happened — that he had come to Pakistan to climb K2, that he had become weak and sick and walked to the Askole hoping to find a jeep willing to take him on the 8-hour journey down to Skardu, Baltistan’s capital.

Haji Ali laughed at his guest.

“Met Askole,” he said. (Not Askole.) “Korphe.”

Too weak to put up a fight, Mortenson sank into the cushions on the floor of Haji Ali’s hut and fell unshakably asleep.

While he was recuperating in Korphe, he learned about the plight of the village’s children.

The children of Korphe reminded him of her. Failure was not an option for Christa — nor was it a consideration for the children of Korphe.

Often during his time in Korphe, Mortenson felt [Christa’s] presence …. Especially when he was with the children … Everything about their life was a struggle. They reminded me of the way Christa had to fight for the simplest things. And also the way she had of just persevering, no matter what life threw at her.

Mortenson asked to see Korphe’s school. Haji Ali took him up a steep path to a vast ledge where the view was exquisite, but Mortenson was “appalled to see 82 children — 78 boys and four girls — kneeling on the frosty ground, in the open” … the village had no school, and the Pakistani government didn’t provide a teacher … the village shared a teacher — to whom they paid $1 a day — with a neighboring village. Korphe’s children had a teacher three days a week. The rest of the time they “were left alone to practice the lessons [the teacher] left behind.”

There were no books, pencils or notepads. The children used sticks and copied their multiplication tables in the dirt.

Can you imagine a fourth-grade class in America, alone, without a teacher, sitting there quietly and working on their lessons? I felt like my heart was being torn out. There was a fierceness in their desire to learn, despite how mightily everything was stacked against them, that reminded me of Christa. I knew I had to do something.

Before he left Korphe, Mortenson promised Haji Ali that he would help.

I’m going to build you a school. I will build a school. I promise.

And, as they say, the rest is history.

He returned to the states not knowing how he would honor his promise to Korphe’s children.

In Dallas, he explained how his first fund-raising effort was a failure.

“I sent out 580 letters and received a $100 check from Tom Brokaw. My son, Khyber, did the math a while back and said, ‘Daddy, you spent $128 on postage and only got $100 back.’”Word of Mortenson's quest made its way to Dr. Jean Hoerni, a self-made Silicon Valley millionaire, himself a mountain climber with an affinity for the Karakoram Mountains in Pakistan.

Hoerni agreed to give Mortenson $12,000 to build a school in Korphe. However, as Mortenson describes in his first book, “Three Cups of Tea,” it wasn’t as simple as returning to Pakistan, purchasing building materials and beginning construction. There were bridges to build — both literally and physically. Plus, Mortenson had to learn patience.

Haji Ali told him: If you want to thrive in Baltistan, you must respect our ways. The first time you share tea with a Balti, you are a stranger. The second time you take tea, you are an honored 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. Doctor Greg, you must take time to share three cups of tea. We may be uneducated but we are not stupid. We have lived and survived here for a long time.

Mortenson says, That day, Haji Ali taught me the most important lesson I’ve ever learned in my life. We Americans think you have to accomplish everything quickly … Haji Ali taught me to share three cups of tea, to slow down and make building relationships as important as building projects. He taught me that I had more to learn from the people I work with than I could ever hope to teach them.

Mortenson learned patience and the importance of listening. He also learned the importance of building relationships with the elders. He also learned the importance of educating girls.

Mortenson quotes an African proverb: If you educate a boy, you educate an individual. If you educate a girl, you educate a community.

Last fall, Mortenson released his second book, “Stones into Schools: Promoting Peace with Books not Bombs,” which debuted at the #2 spot on the New York Times list.

“Stones into Schools” is told in first person and details the efforts Mortenson and his foundation have made in rural Afghanistan.

Mortenson’s work in that part of the world was the focus of his recent lectures in Dallas.

When the current administration decided to up its presence in Afghanistan, he said, no one consulted the elders. This is a great tragedy.

During an interview on BookTV to promote “Stones into Schools,” Mortenson said, “We could build 30-40 schools with what it costs to keep one soldier in Afghanistan.”

Mortenson says we need to “touch, feel, smell and taste” poverty like the kind he’s encountered in Pakistan and Afghanistan before we can really understand its devastation.

Hard currency goes a long way in the impoverished hinterlands of the western Himalayas, where $20 is enough to educate a first grader for an entire year, $340 can send a girl to four years of high school on a full-ride scholarship, and $50,000 is sufficient to build and outfit an eight-room schoolhouse and endow the teachers’ salaries for the first five years.

“Stones into Schools” chronicles his efforts to bring schools to the most remote regions of Afghanistan.

On of the main themes from “Stones into Schools” is the plight of the children of the Wakhan Corridor, the most remote region of Afghanistan, and includes an encounter with the horsemen of Kirghiz.

In October of 1999, Mortenson encountered a squadron of 14 Krighiz horsemen, “coming fast through a scrim of cold rain.” The men had been sent on their six-day mission by Commandhan Abdul Rashid Khan, to obtain a promise from Mortenson to build a school in the world’s last best place.

Instead of building schools in cities and towns, the Central Asia Institute, or CAI, works to “plant a handful of schools in the hardest places of all, empower the communities in these areas to sustain those projects, and then step back in the hope that government and other non-governmental organizations will start moving toward these points from areas that aren’t quite so rough, until the gap is eventually bridged. Surprisingly often, that’s exactly what happens."

Mortenson believes that if organizations like the CAI don’t step into the “last best places,” another generation of girls will be lost to illiteracy.

In addition to his passion for education, he also has a deep affection for the people of these remote areas: The folks who live at the end of the road are among the most resilient and the most resourceful human beings you will ever meet. They possess a combination of courage, tenacity, hospitality and grace that leaves me in awe. … The people who live in the last best places — the people who are most neglected and least valued by the larger world — often represent the best of who we are and the finest standard of what we are meant to become.

In “Stones into Schools,” Mortenson goes into great detail to discuss his staff — “The Dirty Dozen,” he calls them — on the ground in Afghanistan.

There’s Faisal Baig, a former high altitude porter, who insists on serving as Mortenson’s bodyguard. There’s Mortenson’s driver, Mohammed Hussien, who put dynamite in the car in case they encountered a landslide or avalanche on their trips. There’s Apo Abudl Razak, the 75-year-old cook who spent 40 years working for mountaineering expeditions. Haji Ghulam Parvi, a former accountant, serves as the CAI’s Chief Operating Officer. The remainder of Mortenson’s crew includes a porter, an illiterate farmer, a guy who used to smuggle silk, a man who spent 23 years in a refugee camp, an ex-goatherd and two former members of the Taliban.

The group’s indisputable leader is Sarfraz Khan — the CAI’s Indiana Jones — whose reputation as a rapscallion preceded him.

Mortenson and Khan bonded immediately, with Khan eventually becoming “the greatest friend” in Mortenson’s life.

Mortenson had a “go to” guy and Khan finally had a position that would utilize his boundless energy and change his life from “no much success” to a string of impressive accomplishments.

Together the two men would work with village elders to build more schools. They also did what they could to help those displaced by the 1998 earthquake.

As of 2010, Mortenson and his Central Asia Institute have established over 131 schools, which provide education to over 58,000 children, including 48,000 girls, in countries where few educational opportunities existed.

He has spent more than 74 months of the past 17 years in field in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Mortenson’s journey has not been without danger. He survived an eight-day kidnapping by the Taliban. He escaped a fire fight between feuding war lords by hiding for eight hours under animal hides in the back of truck. Americans threatened his life after 9/11 because he was providing Muslim children with education.

To date, Mortenson remains humble.

When it really comes down to it, I am nothing more than a fellow who took a wrong turn in the mountains and never quite managed to find his way home.

While the rest of the world measures Mortenson’s success with mathematics, he uses a different measuring stick:

If there is a metric by which I measure the achievements of the Central Asia Institute, it is not the amount of donations we receive each year, or the number of people who have read “Three Cups of Tea,” or even the number of schools we have built. In fact, it really has nothing to do with math and everything to do with the girls whose lives have been changed through education.

In the end, the thing I care most about — the flame that burns at the center of my work, the heat around which I cup my hands — are their stories. And, by God’s grace, what marvelous stories these women can tell.




To learn more about Greg Mortenson log on to:
Although it has not been offically announced, Mortenson will be a guest of the University of Texas at Tyler on Monday, April 12.
See www.ikat.org/events/calendar.
You can also watch www.mySSnews.com for the time and ticket prices.



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