Greg Mortenson Takes Our Area by Storm
There were cheers and tears and stomping and jubilation and so much excitement in the air you could cut it with a knife when Greg Mortenson made his appearance at two public events on Tuesday, March 3, 2009.
The presentations at Logan High School at 1:00 p.m. and the Diamond Palace at 7:30 p.m. were sold-out events and included 1,500 children and over one thousand adults.
And no one was disappointed.
Greg Mortenson, author, mountain climber, humanitarian, veteran and AAUW member impressed attendees with his generosity, humility, passion for educating children around the globe and ability to both listen and inspire.
The visit of Greg Mortenson to our area was the culmination of one year of hard work on the part of AAUW and hundreds of volunteers and collaborators.
“Bringing Greg Mortenson to our area,” said AAUW President Randy Fewel during her welcome at the two gatherings, “was as tough as climbing a mountain and required the same passion, persistence and patience that Greg displayed in building schools for children.”
Greg began both talks with a video in which he and his daughter talk about his journey, which began by failing to reach the summit of K2 in Pakistan and ended by building almost 80 schools for children, especially girls, in remote, tribal areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan.
“I started my book Three Cups of Tea with a chapter entitled Failure,” said Greg. “The publisher,” he continued, “didn’t want me to use that word but I knew it was the right one. Many kids, me included, experience a lot of failure in their lives.” He went on to say he totaled a Honda at 16, failed to kick the winning field goal in college football game and failed to climb K2 to its summit to honor his sister Christa. Even in his darkest moments Greg remembers this proverb: When it is dark you can see the stars.
Greg went on to say that he feels passionately that every single child on the planet should have the right to go to school. He cited this statistic: About 110 million children don’t receive an education – 80 million of them are girls. “In Pakistan,” he said, “8, 10 and 12–year–olds work. In Cambodia, children work and ruin their health in the rice paddies.”
However what most impressed him, he said, was what mountains young people can move when they get involved. To date, 3500 schools have donated pennies to his non-profit Central Asia Institute.
Good News and Bad News
Greg passed along good news and bad news about the illiteracy situation in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The bad news, he said, is that since 2007 the Taliban has shut down 500 schools in Afghanistan and 200 schools in Pakistan. However he went on to say that isn’t the end of the story. The children who are being denied access to schooling have vowed to continue their education by whatever means.
The good news, continued Greg, using more statistics, is that eight years ago, before 9/11, some 800,000 children were in school in Afghanistan – mainly boys. Today, 7.2 million children, boys and girls, are going to school in the country.
“It’s a little known fact,” said the humanitarian, “but this is the largest increase in education in modern history.”
As so powerfully told in his book, Greg Mortenson underscored that change only happens when girls have access to education. “They help reduce infant mortality, they reduce population explosion, they teach literacy to the rest of the family and they write letters to put family members in touch.”
He talked about the example of Aziza. In her area in a remote tribal village in Afghanistan with a population of 4000, five to 20 women died during childbirth. After Aziza was trained as a midwife and returned to the village to practice that profession no women died in childbirth. And this record has lasted for eight years.
Remembering Haji Ali
Greg told many stories from his book but none were as moving as his memories of his mentor and Korphe village chief Haji Ali.
“Haji Ali had two great dreams,” he said, “that no babies die in his village and that the kids go to school.”
After watching Haji Ali night after night reading the Koran he was surprised to learn that he had memorized it and couldn’t really read. “Haji Ali realized that ignorance and illiteracy are the greatest enemies of the people. And we all need courage and compassion to overcome this.”
Before the chief died he asked Greg to go to his graveside and listen to the wind. Greg was puzzled and wondered what he meant and what he would learn. “In the wind,” he said, “I heard the voices of the children in school – and then I fully understood the words of this wise man.”
At the end of his presentation at the Diamond Palace, Greg Mortenson passed along some political opinions. “I don’t believe,” he said, “that there is a military solution for the problem of Afghanistan. It’s disappointing to me that Obama has sent more troops to the country. What is needed most of all is education.”
What the U.S. should do, he continued, is to listen to the Afghan people, ask the people themselves for solutions – and drink many cups of tea.