At the beginning of every year, I tend to take stock of what I have been reading through the holidays, finish up what is unfinished and begin the search once again for that “great” book. If you are a reader like me, you will know what I mean. During any given year, I will read dozens of good books, but very few great books. So recently I went on a reconnaissance trip to Barnes and Nobles (yes I actually browse at the competition on occasion) and stumbled across Greg Mortensen’s new book Stones Into Schools. As I read the flyleaf, I realized that he had written an earlier book called Three Cups of Tea that had become a New York Times bestseller. Out of habit, I decided to start at the beginning of the story and checked this book out from our local library. Little did I know how big an impact both of these books would have on me and yes, I found not just one, but two great books to start off the year.
Greg Mortensen is one of those rare individuals who makes crazy promises and actually keeps them. He was a mountain climber in 1993 who attempted to climb K2 in Pakistan and almost made it. About 2,000 feet from the top, he had to turn back and got lost on the way back down. This fortuitous turn of events led him to stumble into the remote village of Korphe, where he was welcomed and nursed back to health. During the time he spent healing in the village, he came to know and love the people and wanted to learn about how they lived. One day he asked to see their school and they took him to a high ledge where eighty kids were sitting outside in the cold writing in the sand. This scene and subsequent conversations so impacted him that he made the fateful promise to build them a school. This first book is the incredible tale of how he fulfilled that promise and much more.
Greg discovered the staggering need for schools and education in rural Pakistan and decided to do something about it. He was particularly struck by the lack of education and opportunities for girls in these conservative Islamic communities. His approach of learning to respect the local leaders and their desires for the community and insisting that the local community be responsible for the schools led to incredible results in spite of unbelievable obstacles that he faced along the way. His second book that has just been released, Stones Into Schools, continues the story from 2003 when he and his NGO (Non governmental organization) the Central Asia Institute made a stategic shift to begin schools in Afghanistan as well. Greg works with a motley crew of nationals that he calls The Dirty Dozen in both Pakistan and Afghanistan that take staggering risks to get the job done. In spite of all the dangers that they have faced, there are now over 130 of these schools in the remotest parts of Nothern Pakistan and Afghanistan.
What struck me most about these books is that Greg and his team were doing all of this at a time when the Taliban were active, the U.S. was bombing Afghanistan and part of the area that they worked in suffered a major earthquake. Even the U.S. military has now come to recognize the value of his work and makes Three Cups of Tea mandatory reading for new leaders coming into this war torn part of the world. The schools that CAI built function as a direct counterpoint to the Islamic madrasahs (schools) that have sprung up all over the same areas teaching their philosophy of hate and violence.
As I reflected on the story of Greg’s life and work, it struck me that his central belief in the power of education, literacy and reading is one that I not only admire but agree with whole heartily. He began his professional life as an emergency room nurse and then took the incredible risk to follow his heart and begin an organization that is changing the face of the world that we live in. Who knows how many children from his schools are now on track to become doctors, educators and business people instead of becoming a part of the Taliban or Al-Queda? I can only hope that I choose to lead my life with one tenth of the tenacity, risk taking and commitment that Greg has demonstrated as I lead our team to make the word of God available to the nations of the world. His life is such an inspiration and yet reminds me that our work will change the lives of people not only for today, but for eternity as well.