Compassion is at the core of the character of Greg Mortenson, founder of an educational movement in Pakistan and Afghanistan. As told to David Oliver Relin in Three Cups of Tea, that compassion coupled with just enough cultural communication orientation is what saved his projects--mostly schools for village children, especially girls--and probably saved his life a few times too.
Even violent fundamentalist zealots love a humble compassionate fool, and Mortenson--if we believe his book--is clearly a man with an abundance of compassion and a great deal of humility. He also made many cultural errors and recounts some of those errors--at least some of which he became aware and was willing to share--in Three Cups of Tea.
The story: Mortenson, raised in Tanzania and Minnesota by Lutheran missionary parents, becomes a nurse and a mountain climber, using the former to support the latter. When he joins a 1993 expedition to attempt the world's second tallest peak, K2--on the China-Pakistan border--he becomes lost, nearly perishes, and wanders into the tiny village of Korphe, in Baltisan, Pakistan. The villagers nurse him back to health and he swears to Haji Ali, the elder village headman, that he will build a school for the children. He is serious and, after enormous struggle and setbacks (including building a decent bridge over the rampaging mountain river that hems the village uphill from the valley), he raises the funds, gets the materials, and the men from the village literally carry those materials to the village and build the school.
Along the way, circumstances conspired to make his project his life's work.
The mountaineering community more or less got behind his work, led by Jean Hoerni, an inventor and scientist and mountaineer. Hoerni, born in Switzerland in 1924, discovered that transistors could be made from silicon; hence, Silicon Valley. He was, naturally, wealthy, and gave Mortenson the funds for the Korphe School. Once the school was built, he and Mortenson founded the Central Asia Institute, devoted to such projects. Mortenson provided the work and Hoerni endowed CAI with $1 million just before he died.
This work of building schools for rural Muslim children in the wild reaches of Pakistan has been subjected to many massive pressures, including corrupt mullahs who are little more than religious mafiosa dons, demanding a cut of all economic traffic--even schools for impoverished villages in their purview. Mortenson had to seek Sharia law approval twice to override these fatwas against him in the region.
Second, the ongoing war between Pakistan and India over Kashmir erupted for the third time (1947, 1965, and then 1999) a year after the first Islam Bomb--Pakistan tested their first nuke in 1998, which emboldened them, and the Kargil War of May-June 1999 drove thousands of internally displaced refugees straight into the area where Mortenson was working.
Third, events in Afghanistan also sent refugees flooding that part of Pakistan and Mortenson was asked by some of the anti-Taliban warriors to come build schools in the most remote part of Afghanistan. He promised to try. His story in Afghanistan was immediately challenged by the events of 9.11.01 and that gave rise to Mortenson's relationship to the US military.
This is where his work enters a weird nexus of making it easier for the US military to win hearts and minds and thus make the US occupation of Afghanistan more successful by US standards--but also possibly produces more rural schools. After all, Mortenson and his CAI have built more than 130 of them in the two countries, in very fundamentalist regions, where everything revolves around Islam.
Will his projects survive the eventual evacuation of US troops from the region? This is unknown, of course, since most humanitarian workers know the risks of working with any armed forces. Once you hook up it's very hard to survive without them. There are excellent reasons that a few NGOs--e.g. Mercy Corps--never develop that dependency. However, Mortenson has a long and proven record of not trying to control curricula in his schools, never ever missionizing--indeed, he often prays along with other Muslims and dresses in modest local clothing. He is known for fiscal integrity, suffering privations in his early years in order to save his personal funds for building the first school and watching every penny of donated money to make sure he wasted none of it. Mostly, his relationships with locals and his role as the only outsider on staff, makes him and CAI far more respected on the ground and gives him a different orientation than some NGOs who are seen as outsiders attempting to missionize in some fashion. His work is not seen as lots of honkies descending to enlighten the savages, but rather as one guy who fell in love with a people and is working for their benefit.
We will see how that ends. While he is clearly promoting peace, he is not a pacifist, nor does he shy away from any military connections. Indeed, he is a US military veteran and routinely advises the US military and the Pakistan military. His partners in and out of that region are often former military. This means his notion of peace is somewhat skewed toward the negative peace, the imposed peace by threat of violence for infractions of the peace, but he is also doing so in a harsh, violent region of throat-slitting sacrificial rams, lambs and fatwa 'justice'. So far, so good. Will his schools actually bring peace some day? He says that educating the children, especially the girls, will provide part of that process, and of course this is correct, though a part of me wonders if protecting all this with the guns of the US empire or the Northern Alliance or the Pakistan military is sustainable.
Despite this sort of nonrelationship to nonviolence, I hope his basic program of school-building continues to succeed and I hope it survives Brand USA because that militarized logo is going down, worldwide. We shall see what rises in its place. A generation of women educated for peace would be ideal, and perhaps it will come to pass despite the contamination of assault rifles and air force menacing. Mortenson was critical of the US military bombing in Afghanistan, but seems fine with much of the rest of what the US military is doing there. A kinder, gentler empire, however, is not a likely path to peace. I worry for Mortenson's sustainable safety and for the ongoing protection of his schools, especially now that the Taliban is coming back to power.
Back to power? Yes, as predicted by many of us in the grassroots side of conflict forensics, that handwriting was on the wall from the day Bush chose bombs over bargaining. It may be a circuitous power-sharing route, but the harsh fundies are baaaaaack and I worry for the children who have benefited from the work Mortenson has done.
Mortenson, Greg, & Relin, David Oliver (2006). Three cups of tea: One man’s mission to promote peace…one school at a time. New York: Penguin.