Friday, April 01, 2011

Guest blogger: "Three cups of tea" and girls' education are keys to Greg Mortenson's mission

Guest blogger this week is Linda Coatney, Cheyenne poet/essayist and fine ukelele player and singer. She reports on Greg Mortenson's March 29 presentation in Cheyenne. 

Greg Mortenson has humanitarian marrow in his bones.

As an adolescent, Mortenson lived in Africa with his Lutheran missionary parents and his then three-year-old sister as his father set up the Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Center in Moshi, Tanzania, which was opened in 1971. His father announced that, in ten years, the facility would be staffed by the citizens of Tanzania. A month later he was fired for having the audacity to think that Tanzanians could run their own hospital.

So Mortenson, who spoke in Cheyenne Tuesday night, is familiar with failure. The title of the first chapter in his book Three Cups of Tea is "Failure." It is the beginning of his prophetic journey in building girls schools, first in Pakistan, and then in Afghanistan. At 23, Greg's sister Christa died from a massive epileptic seizure on the morning she was to go on her dream trip to Deyersville, Iowa, where the movie Field of Dreams had been filmed. She was inspired by the film and watched again and again.

Mortenson decided that he would climb Kilimanjaro in Christa's honor. He brought her necklace with him and he planned to leave it as an offering at the top of the mountain to "whatever deity inhabited the upper atmosphere" (From Three Cups of Tea, pg. 9). He had summited "The Savage Peak" at eleven years of age, and had much climbing experience at other locations. Nothing to it to doing it again, he thought.

He ended up spending 78 days on the mountain, but never made it to the top. When he finally got down, a sick and exhausted Mortenson ended up in the village of Korphe, where the first school was built.

At the Cheyenne presentation, we watched a short film about the first school built in Afghanistan. On Mortenson's first visit to Afghanistan, he discovered classrooms of boys in the metal storage containers used by the Russians during their invasion and occupation of the country. He also saw that the girls had no place to hold class except outside on a hillside. It was here that he met Gomajin, a young boy who herded his goats while watching the progress of the school. He was anxious for its completion so that he could attend. But he stepped on a land mine and died from his wounds. In Gomajin's memory, his father learned how to remove land mines. There is a monument to Gomajin near the school. From the first board for framing, the villagers wanted a strong school, one that could withstand bombs.

The term “three cups of tea” means that with the first cup, you are a stranger, second cup a friend, and by the time you are drinking a third cup, you are family. But this is not a linear progression, 1-2-3, boom, you're in. In every village, there is an unspoken progression of bringing one into the social circle. It may take many cups of tea, not formally ceremonial, but an important indicator of acceptance and trust. Greg has taken many cups of tea in his 18 years in the field, and has been able to bring schools to villages where one would not think they would survive, let alone thrive.

Why girls schools? Educating girls has many positive rewards for the community. Women bring life and nurture it after it is here. Statistics show that when girls are educated, the birth rate drops, the infant mortality rate drops, the quality of life improves, and women go back and serve the community from a more informed place. It is a powerful thing when a woman can read the news. Isolation breeds fear. It becomes a vicious circle of fear and ignorance breeding ignorance and fear. Education is the only way to civility.

Mortenson, who lives with his family in Montana when not traveling, mentioned more statistics. Since 2007, more than 3,000 girls schools have been destroyed or shut down by extremist groups. There is a proverb that says, "The ink of a scholar is holier than the blood of a martyr." In 2000, there were only 800,000 students, mostly boys age 5-15. In 2011, the count was up to 8.3 million children, with 2.8 million of those girls.

In talking with the elders of these villages, Greg has been told that they don’t need firepower, they need brain power; that they want to be part of the decision-making process; that they want education; that if they don’t like someone, they will take care of them. Afghanistan is also sitting on a mining boom, and the rest of the world is waiting to exploit 

The subtitle on Three Cups of Teas is “One Man's Mission to Promote Peace...One School at a Time.” This was not the first choice of the publisher, who wanted to say something about one man's mission to fight terrorism. But Mortenson is adamant that he is doing this to promote peace. The book didn't sell with the publisher's subtitle, but Greg was able to get the publisher to agree that the subtitle would be changed if the book didn't at first do well. After the subtitle was changed, the book became a best-seller.

Mortenson also talked about the poverty in this country and how we must be willing to touch, hear, and be poverty to realize any formative changes to the situation. His Pennies for Peace program does this, and suggests the grass roots effort in towns across America of collecting pennies and getting the money to our most impoverished schools. This was his first fund-raising program, but it only began when he was asked to speak at a school about how to get the school built in Korphe. Up to then, he had typed hundreds of letters asking for donations, and only received one check back, from TV commentator Tom Brokaw. A young boy brought his pennies to Greg, and that is how Pennies for Peace began.

Our military mission in Afghanistan now includes soldiers who work at laying some groundwork for the beginning of a school in villages. Greg believes the most successful mission begins with empowering the members of the village. They must dedicate the land for the school, provide the labor to build, and get the materials to where they need to be. With this kind of investment, the village is not so willing to let the school be closed. When the elders of a village in Afghanistan played on the playground of a school, they told Greg they wanted a school in their village, a place where extremists had a strong hold, but only if it had a playground also. They told him that as children, they never had a chance to play, all they were taught was to fight.

Around the world, children are bought and sold into slavery, and at the youngest of ages, are taught to kill. Soccer balls are made by children in Pakistan. China and India have huge child labor forces. Children are mistreated, poorly fed, work fourteen-hour days, and fear abduction and/or molestation at night. Many just disappear. They are certainly not allowed to go to school, but many want to.

Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, gave a speech in which he tried to emphasize what it will take to make headway against the extremist faction in this part of the world. The only hope to supplant the extremist movement is through education, and understanding a culture in which we are too quick to judge as not in the least understandable. He says that hearts and minds cannot be captured by force. Maybe he remembers when Rep. Charlie Wilson was jeered out of Congress when he asked the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for $1.5 million to be put into education in war-torn Afghanistan, after the Russians had been ousted by Wilson’s bringing stinger missiles to the Afghan people.

Mortenson can just guess what the world might look like today if education had been the goal back then.

 As one village elder told Greg, the more bombs you drop, the harder the earth becomes. 

So Mortenson continues his work against the ill winds of prejudice and ignorance.

After his Cheyenne speech, he received a standing ovation from the 5,000-some attendees.

--Linda Coatney, Cheyenne

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