TAFA: The Textile and Fiber Art List

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Three Cups of Tea: Building Schools for Peace

I just finished reading "Three Cups of Tea" by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin. My mind is reeling with the determination of this man, Mortenson, and by Relin's wonderful story-telling abilities. The story is basically this:

Mortenson, obsessed with mountain climbing fails at an attempt to top this big mountain in Pakistan, K2.

Image courtesy Central Asia Institute
K2, the world's second highest mountain. Pakistan.

There's bad weather, he gets separated from his companion, almost dies, takes a wrong turn and ends up in a little village, Korphe. The title of the book, "Three Cups of Tea" has a different meaning from what I expected when I started reading it. I thought that in Arabic circles, a guest was given a cup of tea on arrival, a second when negotiations were half-way finished and a third when it was time to go. In this context, the third cup of tea means that you are now family.

Image courtesy Central Asia Institute
Azerha with her children in Korphe Village. Pakistan.

The people of Korphe help Mortenson get his strength back and when he is well again, this big American guy who sticks out like a sore thumb now has a new family in this remote Pakistani village. Mortenson had a mission when he was climbing K2. His sister Christa, who had been ill as a child and suffered from epileptic seizures as an adult, had died of a massive seizure on her 23rd birthday. Mortenson loved his sister and pursued a career in nursing with the hopes of finding a cure for her. When he climbed K2, he had a necklace of Christa's in his pocket wrapped in a Tibetan prayer flag which he was going to plant on the summit in memory of her. Instead, after ending up lost in Korphe, he decided to build a school in her memory. This is how it happened:

"Often during his time in Korphe, Mortenson felt the presence of his little sister Christa, especially when he was with Korphe's children. "Everything about their life was a struggle," Mortenson says. "They reminded me of the way Christa had to fight for the simplest things. And also the way she had of just persevering, no matter what life threw at her." He decided he wanted to do something for them. Perhaps, when he got to Islamabad, he'd use the last of his money to buy textbooks to send to their school, or supplies.
Lying by the hearth before bed, Mortenson told Haji Ali [village elder who became Mortenson's mentor] he wanted to visit Korphe's school. Mortenson saw a cloud pass across the old man's craggy face, but persisted. Finally, the headman agreed to take Mortenson first thing the following morning.
... The view was exquisite, with the ice giants of the upper Baltoro razored into the blue far above Korphe's gray rock walls. But Mortenson wasn't admiring the scenery. He was appalled to see eight-two children, seventy-eight boys, and the four girls who had the pluck to join them, kneeling on the frosty ground, in the open. Haji Ali, avoiding Mortenson's eyes, said that the village had no school, and the Pakistani government didn't provide a teacher. A teacher cost the equivalent of one dollar a day, he explained, which was more than the village could afford. So they shared a teacher with the neighboring village of Munjang, and he taught in Korphe three days a week. The rest of the time, the children were left alone to practice the lessons he left behind." [pages 31, 32]

Instead of just getting some supplies as a thank you and tribute, Mortenson goes back to the United States, determined to bring back enough money to build these kids a school. He suffers all kinds of deprivation, comes back, buys the supplies, makes it back to this remote area, and the village rejoices. The men carry the lumber up on their backs where trucks are inaccessible:

Image courtesy Central Asia Institute
Porters carry roof beams 18 miles to Korphe School. Pakistan.

After all this hard work, Haji Ali tells Mortenson that this is all wonderful but that first they need to build a bridge (they had been using a box on a pulley system to get from one side of a pass to another) and that they needed clean water as so many kids were dying from lack of good water. Mortenson realized that in order to study, these children would first need to survive their first years. So, he goes back, suffers some more, makes all kinds of mistakes and blunders into his first large donation that makes it possible to build this first school. By then, he is hooked and this becomes his life's mission.

The Central Asia Institute was then formed although for the first years, it was Mortenson's dogged determination that represents the U.S. side of the operation. On the Pakistani side, grass roots leaders were invited by him and they helped him make the needed connections to open new schools all over this desperately poor region.

The common denominator in the building of these schools is that the village leaders want the schools for their kids, including for their girls. They beg, plead, line up, demand, cry, and pool all their resources together to make dreams become reality. This is not an American coming in and saying, "Get your kids educated!" This is about communities already starving for places, materials, tools, who have their own raw materials, their children, as central to their hopes and dreams. So, over time and much hard work, it starts to happen. Children who were learning outside, begin having their own schools.

Image courtesy Central Asia Institute
Girls study at an outdoor school in an Afghan refugee camp. Pakistan.

Image courtesy Central Asia Institute
Eighty-one boys attend school
in an abandoned truck trailer in Chiltan Village. Afghanistan.

Image courtesy Central Asia Institute
Patika schoolgirls study outside after the 2005 earthquake in Azad Kashmir. Pakistan.

Image courtesy Central Asia Institute
Lalander School. Afghanistan.

Mortenson's failed climb to K2's summit was in 1993. By the time 9/11 happened, he had already an established network of support in Pakistan. He has never tried to impose American or Christian ideology on these people. Instead, they use Pakistani curriculum along with extras like health and nutrition. Study of the Koran, of local folklore, of Urdu and other languages are also included. Mortenson's job is to insure that schools remain in good condition, that teachers are paid and that basic services the community needs are addressed. The goal is that eventually, these schools will become self-sufficient.

After 9/11 Arab monies also recognized the region as ripe for indoctrination. Overnight, Saudi money began building fundamentalist madrassa schools. Mortenson realized that his schools now served another purpose. They ensured a balanced education that would help children become reasonable adults. Thus, the subtitle, "One Man's Mission to Promote Peace... One School at a Time." As the region became more volatile, Mortenson's life was endangered by fundamentalist opposition in Pakistan as well as anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States. Finally, a couple of reporters reached wide audiences in a couple of stories of how these schools help relations between the United States and Pakistan, between Christians and Muslims. More money came in and Mortenson was able to fulfill another dream: to build similar schools in Afghanistan. The guy went by himself into wild territory that was heavily mined in Afghanistan and put his life in the hands of a local tribal leader. With machine guns pointed at himself, Mortenson explained who he was, that he wanted to build schools in the region and could they use his services? A local translator spoke excellent English and when they realized that he was Dr. Greg, a feast was ordered (with lots of tea) and work in Afghanistan began.

Image courtesy Central Asia Institute
Greg Mortenson with Gultori schoolchildren. Pakistan.

As I read this book, I identified with much of Greg Mortenson's philosophy and approach to life. We are both children of the 4th World, kids who grew up in another country and who have no real nationalistic ties. He was a Lutheran missionary kid in Tanzania and I was a Lutheran "mk" in Brazil. Growing up overseas, many of us naturally gravitate towards professions that have international or humanitarian dimensions. But, I don't have his stamina and determination. I don't like to be cold, am scared of heights, terrified of guns, and would never, never, never, be able to do what he does. But, I can and do rejoice in this man's gift to humanity, to all these kids, and to the contribution he makes to global understanding.

The highlight of the book, for me, was when one of his earlier female students completes her education in Korphe's school and walks into a meeting of a group of elders who are sitting with Mortenson and demands that she get a scholarship to complete her education off the mountain. She later comes back to continue to work with the village. Mortenson stresses the importance of educating girls and the village elders not only agree with him, but chuckle at this girl's spunk and welcome her leadership roles.

This blog is about fiber related issues. So how does this story fit in with that? Well, one of the things Mortenson realizes as he is building this school is that the village women also need a place to meet and money to get started in cottage industry production. All of the schools have an area where the local women can meet, sew and he has procured sewing machines for them. I read an article a long time ago about the connections local craft economies have with education, farming and production. Nature's cycles dictate when people can plant and harvest and in the winter, craft production is a natural filler and income generator when crops don't need tending.

On a broader level, everything we do is connected. Those of us who can't climb mountains can promote peace, understanding, conservation and other good things by the life styles we choose. We can enable others to practice their craft skills. We can develop our own. I find it tragic how people fight so hard for basic needs such as education, housing, health care, and the opportunity to have meaningful work and then once there is affluence, these basics lose relevance. We all have children in our communities who are neglected. We all have mountains to climb. And, we all have cups of tea that can be given out to our still unknown family.

Image courtesy Central Asia Institute
Greg Mortenson with Khanday schoolchildren. Pakistan.

These schools need continued support. Please visit the Central Asia Institutes's website and if you have children or work with children, see if their Pennies for Peace program is something you can start in your area. If you would like to purchase a copy of the book, use this link and 7% of the sales proceeds will go directly to help support the schools: http://www.threecupsoftea.com/

1 comment:

  1. thanks so much for this post and your blog in general,i really appreciate the connections you are making - so clearly expressed without making people wrong for not knowing - i get a bit tired of the consumerist/cosy approach to a lot of the craft blogs. i am a painter and mixed media artist,fundraise for action village india - check out their kalamkari project if not familiar - and have strong views on global goodwill, all of which make your blog a refreshing change and a haven i'm glad to have stumbled across! Will be catching up on your previous posts and recommending to friends!lazy daisy,nottingham,england


“Sing like no one's listening, love like you've never been hurt, dance like nobody's watching, and live like it's heaven on earth.”

“Whatever you say, say it with conviction.”

(Both by the master, Mark Twain)

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