Saturday, April 16, 2011
Greg Mortenson is my Hero
In a time of petty politics and depressing news almost everywhere—it is uplifting to meet someone who gives you hope. This happened to me this last week when Greg Mortenson came to Birmingham last week. I had read both his books, Three Cups of Tea and Stones Into Schools. Both books set my mind reeling. Mortenson’s guiding principle is: “When your hearts speaks take notes.” Mortenson’s sister died from a massive seizure in July 1992. To honor his sister’s memory he decided to climb Pakistan’s K2 the world’s second highest mountain the Karakoram Range. On that climb he almost lost his life and was nursed back to health in a village called Korphe. Mortenson was moved by their love and care they gave him. While recovering he noticed a group of children sitting in the dirt writing with sticks in the sand. They had no schools. And so Mortenson followed his heart. He promised that village that he would help them build a school.
He had no idea where that promise would lead. Out of that effort grew a humanitarian campaign and Mortenson dedicated his life to promote education, especially for girls, in remote regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan. He faced enormous difficulties in his work. He was captured for eight days by the Taliban. He has survived two fatwehs from enraged Islamic mullahs, been investigated by the CIA and received death threats from Americans after 9/11 for helping Muslim children.
Yet he has kept going. He has built over 145 schools in rural areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan. He has helped provide education for 64,000 children—52,00 0f these have been girls. His idea was that if you educate girls you influence the whole community. Mortenson’s philosophy is so simple it seems unpractical. He believes in working with the local leaders and people. He does not believe in a top-down approach. He says if we would work with the tribal leaders in these countries that great changes could take place when the local people are empowered.
Remarkably, his work has been recognized by the Pentagon. His book, Three Cups of Tea has been read by General David Petraeus, the Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other leaders in the highest echelons of our government. He has spoken at West Point and the Naval and Air Force Academies to help troops deploying to Afghanistan understand cultural issues and tribal etiquette. Newscaster Tom Brokaw calls Mortenson “one ordinary person, with the right combination of character and determination, who is really changing the world.”
I once heard someone say that if you stood in the presence of art and you were moved to tears you would know you were in the presence of greatness. As Mortenson wound up his talk and answered our questions I felt tears in my eyes. I was listening to a very great man. We cannot do what Mortenson has done—but all of us can follow our hearts and if we take notes—who knows what will happen.