Greg Mortenson wanted to climb Pakistan’s K2 mountain in memory and honor of his deceased sister, Christa. He planned to take Christa’s amber necklace and place it at the top of the mountain, but he never quite made it.
Thus, the first chapter in Mortenson’s book is titled, “Failure.” The book, “Three Cups of Tea,” has been a New York Times best-seller for over 170 weeks, sold over four million copies, and been published in 45 countries, even though his publishers told Mortenson to never start a book with the word “failure”.
Mortenson, also an internationally known humanitarian and philanthropist, was the keynote speaker at the university’s Center for International Studies: TCU Abroad and the 2011 Frost Foundation Lectureship for Global Issues Monday night.
The event commenced with the announcement that the university’s students and the Starpoint School raised $4,000 for one of Mortenson’s nonprofit organizations, Pennies For Peace, which raises awareness for impoverished children. At the beginning of his quest to found a nonprofit, Mortenson enlisted the help of his local librarian and typed 500 letters to various famous athletes, movie stars and politicians, asking for funds to assist his grassroots organization.
He joked about Tom Brokaw sending him a check for $100 and Brokaw now being embarrassed because Mortenson wrote about it in “Three Cups of Tea.” Mortenson’s other nonprofit, the Central Asia Institute (CAI), promotes community-based education in remote regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan, especially for girls.
“The reason I do this,” Mortenson said, “is to promote peace.”
After his failed attempt at scaling K2, Mortenson was descending the mountain when he took a wrong turn and, bewildered, exhausted and unwashed for 84 days, ended up in the tiny village of Korphe. While recovering from his descent, Mortenson was treated warmly and compassionately by the village people.
One day, he happened upon a group of children scrawling their school lessons in the dirt with sticks and was shocked to discover that no teacher was present. The villagers couldn’t afford to pay the teacher’s weekly salary.
One little girl approached Mortenson and asked him to promise he would help build a school. Three years later, in 1996, the Korphe school was finished.
Mortenson and the CAI are now responsible for having built more than 165 schools.
Having been raised in Africa and then seeing similar situations in Pakistan, Mortenson said only experiencing poverty firsthand can someone understand how he felt the undeniable need to help.
“Only touching, smelling, seeing and hearing poverty can you then be overwhelmed with the need to try to help, try to fix it,” he said.
The top priority, Mortenson said, has to be the education of girls.
Statistics Mortenson supplied on a PowerPoint presentation accompanying his speech said that educating girls to at least a fifth grade level has been shown to reduce the infant mortality rate, reduce population explosion and more.
“The bad news is that the Taliban has destroyed over 2,800 schools, mostly girls schools,” he said. “But what does this say? These big, bad men with guns and bombs, destroying little girls’ schools? It says fear. Their greatest fear is not a bullet; it’s a pen.”
Mortenson said he and his fellow nonprofit workers never received one dollar of federal money and they don’t do background checks. They just want to do whatever they can to get children in schools.
An education was one of the priorities listed by Afghan elders when Mortenson and company spoke about what really would help bring peace in that area of the world.
“Three Cups of Tea” has become required reading for all U.S. military commanders and special forces deploying to Afghanistan. Mortenson quoted General David Petraeus, commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and the U.S. forces in Afghanistan, as saying the three main points imparted by Mortenson’s book were the need to listen more to the Afghan people, respect them and to build relationships with them.
The author also said Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also supported the use of Mortenson’s book, emphasizing the need to understand a culture and a people. Mortenson advocated Mullen’s attitude of wanting peace.
“We cannot shoot our way to victory,” he quoted Mullen as saying.
Mortenson continues to build schools and assist needy children through his nonprofit organizations and released a second book, “Stones Into School: Promoting Peace with Books, Not Bombs, In Afghanistan and Pakistan,” in December 2009.
“If we really want to help, we must empower,” said Mortenson. “And the way to empowerment is through education.”