March 11, 2009 / 11:37 AM / 10 years ago

Author Greg Mortenson drinks tea for peace

CANBERRA (Reuters Life!) - Greg Mortenson had no idea of the hate he would incite when he decided to devote his life to raising funds for schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Greg Mortenson poses with Sitara "Star" schoolchildren in Wakhan, northeastern Afghanistan in this undated handout photograph released to Reuters March 11, 2009. REUTERS/Central Asia Institute/Handout

It began when Mortenson climbed Pakistan’s K2 mountain in 1993 to honor his sister Christa who died from epilepsy.

He never made it to the top but on the way back, he got lost and stumbled into the Pakistani village of Korphe where the children were using sticks to write out school lessons in the dirt and could only afford a teacher every second week.

The kindness and generosity of the villagers made him determined to help them when he returned to the United States, so he raised money to build a school in Korphe, and since 1996, has built about 80 schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

But along the way he has faced death threats, a kidnapping, and considered giving it up when his own family was threatened.

His campaign to help bring peace, one school at a time, led to the Pennies for Peace program in which schoolchildren donate pennies to help fund schools in Central Asia and also to his best-selling book, “Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission To Promote Peace ... One School At A Time.”

Mortenson said it was in the village of Korphe that he learned that to do business in that part of the world you take three cups of tea — the first cup, you are a stranger, the second, a friend, and by the third cup, you become family.

His 2006 book has just been adapted into a young reader’s version with a foreword by animal rights activist Jane Goodall.

Mortenson, director of the non-profit “Central Asia Institute” which he co-founded and is a recent Nobel Peace Prize nominee, spoke to Reuters about his new book and his mission:

Q: Is the “Three Cups of Tea” system important?

A: Yes, as everything is based on relationships. We spend a lot of time talking to local tribal leaders and the Taliban. We get the local communities to run the schools. “Three Cups of Tea” is now in 29 countries and 2.5 million copies sold. It is also mandatory reading it the U.S. Pentagon for all officers who go into counterinsurgency training. It gives three main points — build relationships, listen more, show respect.”

Q: Why is education so important?

A: “We can drop bombs or hand out condoms or build roads or put in electricity, but nothing changes until girls are educated. There are several academic studies that show if we can educate a girl to the fifth class, three things happen — reducing infant mortality, reducing the population explosion, and improving the quality of health and life itself.”

Q: But why particularly girls?

A: “The way to curb population growth is female literacy. When girls learn to read and write in impoverished areas they teach their mothers to do so. When girls learn to read, you will see mothers unfold the newspaper... and ask the girls to read to them. This is the first time women can get accurate information about what is going on in the world.”

Q: So this spreads to older women as well?

A: “Yes. When someone wants to go for jihad (holy war) in Islam, they first need permission from their mother. If a women has education she is more likely to stop her son from getting into violence or terrorism. Also the key to democracy is not only education but land ownership. In Afghanistan widows may go back to their land but if they are illiterate they can’t stake a claim.”

Q: When did you start getting threats?

A: “It was after 9/11 that I started getting hate mail and threats from my fellow citizens. People were very angry that I was helping Muslim children going to school and they thought I was being counterproductive to the U.S. military effort. But my wife encouraged me to get out and talk about what we were doing. The real enemy is ignorance and ignorance breeds hatred.”

Q: Do you spend much time traveling?

Greg Mortenson poses in this undated handout photograph released to Reuters March 11, 2009. REUTERS/Handout

A: “I am in Afghanistan and Pakistan about four months a year but we have such fabulous community involvement that I am more a cheerleader or tea drinker over there now.”

Q: Who are your heroes?

A: “Mother Theresa and Sir Edmund Hillary who I have to thank for my wife. On September 13 1995 I was at a fundraising dinner in San Francisco and Sir Edmund Hillary was giving a speech and he was talking about the Queen’s Coronation and it was getting rather later so I went to the back for some air and there was a beautiful woman at the back in an evening dress and combat boots. Six days later we got married.”

Editing by Miral Fahmy

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