After a disastrous attempt to climb K2, former US Army medic Greg Mortenson had to be nursed back to health by the inhabitants of a remote and impoverished Pakistani village. He vowed to repay them by building a local school, and has now built more than 60 in similar areas across south Asia. Jonathan Foreman meets him
You might miss the girls’ school at the end of the Shigar Valley if you did not spot the small dented blue metal sign by the side of the road. It announces, in English: ‘In the Name of Allah, the Almighty: Jafarabad Community Girls School, Start May 2000. Visitors welcome.’
The school is a simple white L-shaped building with eight classrooms, all of which face the declining winter sun, and a small playground surrounded by a high cement wall. Sitting on the cold ground in neat shivering rows are a hundred little girls, who have come outside to welcome us. They are all wearing white headscarves (they are Shi’ite Muslims), their faces are chapped by the mountain dryness and cold. But they are the faces of progress in a place that has seen little for a long time.
Most of these girls will be the first literate women in their families. It is hard to appreciate how extraordinary that is until you spend some time in this isolated, extremely conservative corner of Pakistan’s Northern Areas. This is Baltistan, also known as ‘Little Tibet’, a spectacularly rugged former kingdom nestled between the Karakorams and the Himalayas.
Here rural schools are rare, girls’ schools even rarer, as the education of girls is condemned by religious extremists as un-Islamic. The Jafarabad school, along with 63 others in equally poor areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan, exists thanks to the efforts of a brave foreigner the locals call ‘Dr Greg’, who has been described as ‘a real-life Indiana Jones’ and spoken of as a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Bill Clinton has praised him and his two charitable organisations – Pennies for Peace and the Central Asia Institute (CAI) – and he has just co-authored a book, Three Cups of Tea, about his work, which has been on the New York Times bestseller list for months.
Dr Greg – or Greg Mortenson to give him his correct name; and he is a nurse, not a doctor – hates being called a hero. He fired his agent when she tried to sell his story to Hollywood. But how else do you describe a man – a white American – who has made it his life’s mission to build girls’ schools in this remote part of Asia, with no large organisation or government support behind him, and who has had to win over fundamentalist mullahs, opium-dealing warlords and corrupt bureaucrats?
Female education is a controversial and dangerous business in this part of the world. Just last year, pro-Taliban tribesmen in the North-west Frontier Province threatened to kill girls who went to the local colleges and to execute their teachers. Many girls’ schools have been bombed. Last year, one of Mortenson’s own schools in Afghanistan was attacked by the Taliban.
Mortenson likes to say that if he dies doing his work, it is most likely to be in a car accident on one of the region’s treacherous roads. But in 1996 he was kidnapped and held for a week by tribesmen in Waziristan, in north-west Pakistan. In 2003 he narrowly escaped being shot in a firefight between two opium gangs in eastern Afghanistan. He has had two fatwas handed down against him by hostile mullahs, one Shia and one Sunni. In both cases, local communities in Pakistan fought successfully to have them overturned in Sharia courts.
Mortenson has been amazingly successful in areas where others have come a cropper. Yet his organisation has no fancy offices or fleet of Land Cruisers like most aid agencies or non-governmental organisations (NGOs). Based for half of the year in Bozeman, Montana, he spends the rest of his time pounding the roughest roads of Pakistan and Afghanistan, operating out of austere rooms in freezing guesthouses. His handful of staff in Pakistan and Afghanistan are local men, whom he recruited in chance situations.
His Islamabad manager and chief fixer, Suleman, is a former taxi driver who picked Mortenson up at the airport when he was beginning his crusade. Sarfraz Khan, his right-hand man in the remote Wakhan and Charpursan valleys that straddle the Pakistan-Afghan border, is a former smuggler and Pakistan army commando, who rides and walks for days to villages far from any driveable road. He met Wakhil, his point man in Kabul, by chance in a guesthouse on his first visit there in 2002. His staff are evenly split between Sunni, Shia and Ismaili. ‘We send Sunni into Shia areas and vice-versa to show we can work together,’ he says.
His key allies include clerics, warlords, military officers, foreign mountaineers and several former members of the Taliban – one of whom is now a teacher at one of his schools in Kashmir – and an army of ordinary villagers desperate for their children to receive an education. ‘What I’m good at is putting together a team, finding the right people,’ he says. He has no pretentions to any other ability except willpower. ‘I’m just an average guy. I had to work really hard in school. Learning never came easy to me, but I’ve got those Midwestern ethics that force you to persevere.’
Mortenson was, in his own words, just ‘a dirtbag climber’ when he started on the strange path that has made him a bestselling author and an inspiration to Nato officers and peace campaigners alike. It was the early 1990s and Mortenson lived for rock and ice. Based in San Francisco, he supported himself by working as a trauma nurse, but spent most of his time climbing or running marathons. In the summer he would lead treks in Nepal or climb peaks such as Annapurna IV.
In 1993 he was invited to join a minimal-budget expedition to K2 – the world’s second highest mountain. Two climbers made it to the summit, but another developed severe altitude sickness and had to be rescued. Mortenson stayed with him and as a result spent far too long at ultra-high altitude. On the way out to the Baltoro Glacier, a disorientated Mortenson became separated from the group. Eventually, he stumbled into the tiny Balti village of Korphe.
The villagers took in the filthy bearded giant – Mortenson stands well over 6ft tall – and nursed him back to health. It was only as he recovered that he realised how impoverished his rescuers were: how the sugar they put into his tea was precious and expensive, that the smoky hovel he shared was actually the best house in the village.
When he was able to walk around, he asked to see the school. There was none. The children of the village would sit on a little plateau drawing with sticks on the ground, practising whatever a visiting teacher may have taught them. Something about their enthusiasm under such difficult conditions reminded Mortenson of his recently deceased sister, who had suffered from severe epilepsy. He promised to return and build a school.
Back in the US, Mortenson devoted himself to finding $12,000 to finance Korphe’s school. To save money he lived in the back seat of his car. He rented a typewriter and banged out 380 letters to various celebrities asking for help. (He had only one reply, from the American NBC newsreader Tom Brokaw who sent him a cheque for $100.) Mortenson sold his climbing gear for $800, then his car for $500.
Eventually, his luck began to change. A pupil at a school in Wisconsin, where Mortenson’s mother teaches, offered to help after being told that one cent would buy a pencil for a child in Pakistan. In six weeks, his class collected 62,345 pennies. (This Pennies for Pakistan campaign evolved into the organisation called Pennies for Peace, which has raised more than $100,000 for school supplies.)
Next, a friend wrote a brief article in the newsletter of the American Himalayan Foundation about the K2 attempt and Mortenson’s desire to build a school. It was read by Dr Jean Hoerni, a Seattle microchip pioneer and ardent climber. He sent Mortenson a cheque for $12,000, along with a note simply saying, ‘Don’t screw up’.
When Mortenson finally made the long trip up the Karakoram Highway, out east to Skardu and then by Jeep road and goat path to Korphe, the villagers were stunned to see him. Haji Ali, the village headman said, ‘Chisele!’ (Balti for ‘What the hell?’). The Balti people are used to climbers and trekkers promising help and then disappearing for ever.
Before beginning construction of the school, Mortenson travelled to the education ministry in Islamabad to seek permission. ‘It took four days to get to see the right guy. He looked in all these dusty files and said that in 1989 a school had been built there: “These villagers are pulling your leg.” But there was no school.’ As a local education official explained to Mortenson, while encouraging him to go ahead, ‘The school that’s supposed to be there is now someone’s 4×4 in Islamabad.’ In other words, Mortenson discovered, it was one of 3,200 ‘ghost schools’ revealed in 2000 when President Musharraf ordered a massive audit of Pakistan’s schools.
Mortenson’s first project was the template for those that came later. The CAI – Mortenson founded the Institute with Dr Hoerni in 1996 – usually provides the skilled labour, as well as materials like stone and steel bars. ‘The village has to come up with the land, wood, sand and subsidised manual labour. Each house gives a certain number of days. We try to get them to match what we’re giving. It’s not about money, it’s about getting the village to invest in the school.’ Money is given in front of the whole village or at an assembly of the elders, so everyone knows exactly how much has been received. Such transparency and intense local involvement make all the difference in a region where foreign aid efforts frequently fail.
In May 2005 riots broke out in Baharak, the gateway to Afghanistan’s Wakhan province, after Newsweek magazine erroneously reported that a Koran had been flushed down a lavatory at Guantanamo Bay. Every building with any connection to foreigners was burned by furious mobs, including the offices of the UN. But Mortenson’s CAI school was left untouched – protected by village elders who saw it as their own.
In an Afghan restaurant in Islamabad, Mortenson explains the evolution of CAI. ‘There was no initial plan,’ he says, but he has generally sought ‘to go into areas that are under-served, either because of physical isolation, religious extremism or because they are areas of conflict.’ He cuts a rumpled, bear-like figure in a dust-coloured salwar kameez and a black fleece. He looks pale and tired, but youthful for almost 50. He has a sheepish smile that occasionally widens into a mischievous grin. A modest man, he manifests no hard edges, no trace of cynicism or long-suffering moral superiority. When he talks it is obvious that the speeches he gives in America to raise money for CAI must be agony.
Mortenson has set up 55 schools in Pakistan and nine in Afghanistan. ‘In Afghanistan, eight out of nine schools are mixed because there was no school in the community. In that case we encourage boys to come but girls have to make up at least 20 per cent. In Pakistan, 35 out of 55 are girls’ schools.’ There is often serious opposition to the mixed schools. As Khan (the ex-smuggler) explains to me, this is partly because a new school threatens the wealth of mullahs who run madrassas (which charge fees for the instruction they provide).
The teachers that Mortenson and his staff hire are mostly local women, even if they are relatively under-qualified. ‘We tried bringing in outside teachers from Skardu and Gilgit but it didn’t work,’ he says. ‘There were problems with class and caste. They said, “These people are so backward, they live like animals. I can’t work here. I need more money.”?’ For him, the key is sustainability. ‘It’s important to entrust these communites to initiate and manage their own schools. You may not get as high results, but you get sustainable results.’
To help the schools become financially self-sustaining, CAI has funded poplar tree plantations: ‘They mature in three years and are good for building. The money all goes into the community pot.’ About a third of the schools are running independently, he says.
To persuade mullahs and local people that it is a good thing to educate girls, Mortenson and his staff use a variety of arguments. ‘Khan or Ali [the ex-Taliban] will approach the local mullah or headman and say, “If I wanted to marry your daughter, what would be the bride price?”. They reply something like five goats, which is about £100. But if she had a fifth-grade education [up to the age of 10], the price can be four times that. So even for people who don’t trust girls’ education, there’s a financial value to what we’re doing.’
Sympathetic mullahs sometimes travel with Khan, Mortenson’s envoy in the far north. They will point out that the Prophet’s wife was an educated woman and also that an educated mother will help educate her sons. In some communities, Mortenson and his team have only been able to persuade the locals to allow girls to attend until they turn 10. He sees it as an acceptable minimum, one that allows for basic literacy. (Female literacy in Pakistan is under 25 per cent, though the government claims it is closer to 40 per cent.)
Mortenson explains that ‘the marriage age is about 13 in rural areas. But when they have education, the age increases.’ He also likes to point out that though most of the 9/11 hijackers were educated men, ‘most had mothers who were illiterate’. Mothers must give their blessing to a son who wants to undertake jihad, Mortenson explains, and such a blessing may be less forthcoming from a mother who can read.
Mortenson believes that one reason why the Taliban is so anxious to destroy girls’ schools is that, ‘They are afraid that when these girls grow up they are going to lose sway over a large swath of an impoverished, illiterate society. If you educate a boy, you educate an individual. If you educate a girl, you educate a community.’
Setting the curriculum of the CAI schools has been a challenge. Broadly, they use Pakistan’s official curriculum for ‘Urdu Medium’ schools. This includes instruction in Pakistani studies and ‘Islamiat’ or Islamic studies. But CAI adds vital extras, such as classes in sanitation, nutrition and hygiene, and also efforts to preserve traditional cultures. In Baltistan, this means bringing in traditional storytellers, so that the children don’t lose their cultural identity as they gain literacy.
‘Doing work here is so fraught with mistakes and errors that it is worth spending years developing working models rather than saying we’ll educate every girl in Pakistan and put computers in every school,’ he says. ‘A lot is dependent on complex religious, social and economic relationships, using their system to come up with solutions. It’s more important to listen than to talk.’
The key to Mortenson’s unusual approach lies in his own childhood. He grew up in Moshi, Tanzania, where his parents had moved to work as teachers. His father founded the Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Centre, frequently defying the colonial expat community by involving local people in his work. Mortenson was educated in local African schools – he speaks fluent Swahili – an international school run by his mother and then a British school. His family moved back to America in 1972. At a tough urban high school in St Paul, Minnesota, he was beaten up by black children for saying he was from Africa.
‘It was my first real experience of racism,’ he says. Life in America was generally miserable. ‘My parents were completely broke and we were living with my grandparents.’ Four days out of high school, Mortenson joined the army, partly because his father and grandfather had done the same, but mostly because, ‘It meant I could get college paid for on the GI Bill.’ This was in 1975, the US Army’s post-Vietnam nadir, when it was awash with drugs and racial tension, though Mortenson’s training as a combat medic was later to come in useful. After his two years’ service he won a football scholarship to the University of South Dakota.
He had just been accepted into medical school when his father died of cancer. He switched to a neurophysiology graduate programme in the naive hope of finding a cure for his epileptic sister Christa. And he began to climb mountains, an interest sparked by an ascent of Kilimanjaro when he was 11. In 1992, he was climbing on California’s Mount Sill when he fell 800ft, smashing his humerus. At almost the same moment, his sister died. Her loss left him shattered and directionless. When, a year later, a climbing buddy approached him about being expedition medic for an assault on K2, he said yes, hoping the challenge would get his head straight. As things turned out, the experience gave his life direction.
From childhood, Mortenson’s hero had been Sir Edmund Hillary, whom he admired as much for his humanitarian work as for climbing Everest. It was at a talk given by Hillary in San Francisco, just after Mortenson had built his first school in Pakistan, that he met Tara Bishop, whom he married five days later. They moved to Montana and had their first child, Amira, the following year. The couple now also have a son, Khyber. These days, Mortenson only goes away for two months at a time instead of six.
Mortenson seems to operate almost entirely on the basis of last-minute decisions – ‘winging it,’ he says – which can make him infuriating to deal with. He is pathologically late and arrives in Islamabad a full week after we had arranged to meet. Even his book’s co-writer David Relin says that Mortenson operates on ‘Mortenson time’ and speculates that habitual lateness has to do with his childhood in Africa. He also points out that it is another thing that binds him to the Baltistanis, who have no tenses in their language and are notoriously vague in their own timekeeping. Yet it is Mortenson’s intuition that has made CAI so successful. ‘You need a strategy but especially in this type of society you need intuition because that’s what so much of their decision making is based on.’
One thing Mortenson knows for sure is that he doesn’t want to expand the organisation so that it becomes more like a conventional NGO. ‘I don’t want a big office and a tea-man and a chowkidar [watchman],’ he says. He doesn’t even want to have a local office worthy of the name. CAI operates out of room 6 in the Indus Motel in Skardu during the summer months. Otherwise, his office is wherever he and his staff are at the time.
In south Asia working for an NGO is a popular option for the children of the elite: it carries status and perks, such as smart modern offices. But Mortenson’s local staff don’t come from that class. Few of them are educated past their early teens. Their devotion to the cause of literacy – and to Mortenson – is deeply felt.
Khan, who travels around on horseback with a sat-phone and a laptop, recalls meeting Mortenson in 2000 when he was trying to help starving Kirghiz nomads in the Chapursan valley. ‘I see a very helpful man,’ he recalls. ‘He’s not saying, “I am big, I am American.” He goes to every poor home and sits with the people. In Pakistan, rich people have a different style. They don’t listen to poor people. Dr Greg is different, so the people like him.’ I see something of this in Islamabad and Rawalpindi. Men shake hands here and embrace, but Mortenson even shakes the hand of the person opening the door or the ‘boy’ who sweeps the hotel.
The title of his book, Three Cups of Tea, refers to an old Balti saying: ‘The first time you share tea, you are a stranger. The second time, you are an honoured guest. The third time, you become family.’ The book has been a huge hit in the US, selling more than 850,000 copies. Mortenson forced the publisher to change the strapline from ‘One man’s mission to fight terror, one school at a time’ to ‘One man’s mission to promote peace’. ‘I think that people yearn for peace, they’re tired of fighting terrorism,’ he tells me. ‘That’s based on fear, while peace is based on hope.’
He is uncomfortable with the public recognition the book has brought him, but acknowledges that its success has done enormous good for CAI and the schools. ‘It’s put me in front of diverse groups, from people at the Pentagon to feminists in San Francisco to anti-war groups.’
For a man whose life was once defined by climbing, it is surprising to learn that Mortenson hasn’t climbed at all since K2. ‘I’d find it hard to justify, having children and climbing really high. A lot of my friends have died climbing,’ he says, oblivious to the irony that his life is often in danger anyway. ‘Sometimes, I miss it, but what I’m doing now is far more rewarding.’
To find out more about the Central Asia Institute, visit ikat.org. ‘Three Cups of Tea’ (Penguin) is available for £8.99 plus 99p p&p from Telegraph books (0870-428 4112; books.telegraph.co.uk)