My thoughts have been much focused the last several weeks on Greg Mortensen's memoir with the same title as this post. It is the book I have recommended to other people the most this year, and I feel like the work he is doing deserves every bit of publicity it can get.
For those of you who aren't (yet) acquainted with this remarkable man and his work, the quick summary is that he was just a regular guy trying to have bigger and better experiences: after climbing for several years in California throughout the late 80's, he get an opportunity to try K2. Though not as tall as Everest, K2 is heralded as the most technically difficult of the world's tallest mountains and climbed by many fewer people. During the expedition, which ended rather disastrously, Mortensen became lost. A Balti porter (Baltis are the indigenous people who live at the base of the Karkoram mountains which are the part of the Himilayas in Pakistan. Think Muslim Sherpas) saved his life first, and then when he became lost again--4 months at that altitude makes you a little bit loopy--a group of people in a village called Korphe saved his life a second time.
And maybe his soul.
He was so touched by all they had given him in their poverty that he vowed to return one day and build them a school. He even did the research before he left and realized that for just 12,000 US dollars, he could build a beautiful school and supply a teacher for a year on land the villagers donated.
Back on the plane, finally leaving Pakistan, he realized just how difficult the promise would be to keep. He himself had nothing, and spent quite some time living out of his car and writing letters to famous, wealthy people on an old typewriter hoping to to get money for his idea.
Yada . . . yada. . . . yada. . . .
There are now 100 of Mortensen's schools operating in Northern Pakistan and Afghanistan. Want to know about the ellipses? You'll just have to read the book.
Just as when I read Madeline Albright's book last year, I was struck in these pages by how uniquely prepared Mortensen has been for his place in the world. There was hardly a chapter that went by in which I wasn't moved to tears by the enormity of what he has undertaken, and the guiding hand that has sustained him throughout. My attitude and understanding of Islam has changed and broadened. My appreciation for the life I have has deepened. My commitment to helping others has been strengthened.
I cannot think of a better book for your family or your book group to read this year. There is a version of his (first) memoir written for young adults, and there is also children's book for younger children that has some amazing illustrations. This "story" is accessible to anyone.
Mortensen's work in the Middle East says not only a lot about peace, but it also speaks to the things that work best in any school. Our broken American system might take some lessons from our Pakistani brothers and sisters, for all of their simple circumstances. His American board of directors is made up primarily of current and former educators. Though he speaks to politicians to gain support for his broader mission and to shed light on the problems in the region (which breed terrorism if not unchecked), politicians don't make decisions for him. Each of his schools takes a certain level of commitment from the community in land, materials and bodies. Though there is no standard curriculum, there are guidelines, which include no teaching of propagandized religious material. Girls have to receive every opportunity the boys do, and a small scholarship fund has been attached to his institute for the very best performing students.
Hearing the experiences of the girls, particularly, finishing up at one of these beautiful schools is so touching. These women will not raise sons to become terrorists. These women will not hate the United States.
Throughout the book this mantra kept running through my head, like a prayer, "Please let people understand this man and learn about his mission." Greg Mortensen has proven that a single man can change people's lives, can change people's perceptions, can break down stereotypes. So if a million, ten million, a hundred million Americans begin to see people in all parts of the world as brothers and sisters in need of our support and love, isn't it possible to change the world? If we see that poverty and ignorance are two branches of the same tree? If we can learn that alleviating the second will alleviate the first?
The American military spends tens of millions each MONTH for us to fight ideology in the Middle East. Greg Mortensen can build a school for $12,000 that will build new ideology which lasts for generations.
Those lovely children of the Indus Valley aren't the only ones in need of education. Oh, God, let us understand . . . .