I feel guilty for having abandoned the blog in the past few days, but it’s been a whirlwind of work, meetings with friends, weekend trips, catching up, that I have barely any time to even check email. So I’m sorry if you have left a message that has remained unacknowledged.
But that’s not why I’m writing today. I just wanted to share with all of you the story of Greg Mortenson and his work to educate children, particularly girls, in remote areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Greg was a rock climber who, in 1992, after nearly dying in a failed attempt to climb K2, the world’s toughest summit, wandered into a remote village on his way down from the mountain, which he had hoped to conquer in honour of his sister Christa, who had recently passed away. Mortenson had taken the wrong path while following his guide and ended up on the village of Korphe by mistake. The villagers were quite surprised as no foreigner had ever been there before and Mortenson was received by the village chief, who took him to his house and offered him shelter. Comforted by their hospitality, he ended up spending weeks there recovering his strength and slowly doing what he could to pay back his hosts. Trained as a trauma nurse, he used his expedition medical kit to treat the local villagers, who lived one-week by foot from the closest doctor. He soon discovered that the village had no school and before he left, he promised Haji Ali, the chief, that he would come back to build him a school. After an extraordinary journey, Greg Mortenson has built over 60 primary schools – especially for girls – in the land that gave birth to the Taliban. He learned to speak Urdu, Balti, and other local languages and is respected throughout the region for the work he does to empower the local people and get them out of poverty. In one case, a village desperately needed a health care worker so Greg’s foundation sent a local young woman, Aziza Hussain, to be trained in a medical clinic at the closest larger city. I copy here the passage from the book:
With the nearest medical facility two days’ drive down often impassible jeep tracks, illness in Zuudkhan could quickly turn to crisis. In the year before Aziza took charge of her village’s health, three women had died during the delivery of their children. “Also, many people died from the diarrhea,” Aziza says. “After I got training and Dr. Greg provided the medicines, we were able to control there things.
“After five years, with good water from the new pipes, and teaching the people how to clean their children, and use clean food, not a single person had died here from there problems. It’s my great interest to continue to develop myself in this field,” Aziza says. “And pass on my training to other women. Now that we have made such progress, not a single person in this area believes women should not be educated.”
As Stephen Lewis has defended so strongly in his Race Against Time, educating women is the surest way to fight poverty and disease. And today, it is also the best way to fight terrorism and violence. In his book, Greg Mortenson talks extensively about Al Qaeda and the Taliban, and how they are able to recruit followers in remote parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan. They build thousands of schools, devoted to teaching their particular version of extremism, in remote impoverished villages failed by the public system. War becomes the only occupation they can aspire to and the only thing to give their lives any meaning. The best and the brightest are then sent to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, where they are indoctrinated further before sending them back home, where they are encouraged to take four wives and breed like rabbits, thinking “twenty, forty, sixty years ahead to a time when their armies of extremism will have the numbers to swarm over Pakistan and the rest of the Islamic world.”
As Ahmed Rashid, author of the best-selling book Taliban, says, we need many more of the schools that Greg Mortenson is building in that area of the world. I could go on about this for hours, so I’ll just leave you with a link to Mortenson’s site and an interview below. If you can, buy the book Three Cups of Tea, it’s definitely worth a read.