Pennies for Peace
By Samier Saeed
When Greg Mortenson grabs the microphone to speak in the full and steadily overcrowding gymnasium of Huntington Beach High School, hundreds of Americans greet him with a standing ovation before he utters a single word. Given the venue and the fact that many of the people there were indeed from Huntington Beach, one might expect Mortenson to be a Republican politician preparing to make a Congressional run. The truth is very different, but what Mortenson talks about is relevant to fighting terrorism: he builds schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Anybody can highlight the appalling conditions if education, especially female education, in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and anyone can give his money to help. But Mortenson is no mere activist, and what he has given to the region cannot be repaid in any currency known to man. And, with his unassuming, shy demeanor and incredible story, he plays the role of spokesman for the cause of Pakistan’s northern areas better than any Pakistani member of Parliament could do.
Mortenson grew up in Tanzania, where his father raised $6 million to found a hospital at the base of Mt. Kilimanjaro. In order to honor the memory of his sister, Mortenson set out to climb K2. He didn’t elaborate upon his attempt much in his speech, except to say that he failed (it so transpires that he and other climbers had to save the life of another climber, and the effort was a long and arduous one). After this debacle, he staggered back down the mountain. He was given some food by a Balti man he met at the base of the mountain, but unfortunately made a wrong turn and, instead of reaching the base camp of Concordia, wandered into a village called Khorphe. He fondly recounts the Balti custom which inspired the title of his book (co-written with David Oliver Relin): if one shares one cup of tea with the Balti, he is still a stranger, if he shares with them a second cup of tea, he becomes their friend, and if he shares a third cup of tea with them, he becomes a member of their family (the book’s name is Three Cups of Tea).
He shared those three cups as he recovered and served as a pseudo-physician for the village. One day, seeing that the kids apparently went somewhere each morning, he asked the village head, one Hajji Ali with whom he was staying, about the village school. The villagers were a bit reluctant to show him their “school”, but they eventually did and what he saw changed the course of his life. The children, it turns out, went to some random area of the village to try to write with sticks in the gravel. There was no teacher. Mortenson vowed to right this wrong by constructing a school for Khorphe.
His efforts were frustrated when he made it back to the United States. He found it difficult to raise sufficient money, despite having sold everything he did not need. His first bit of progress came when his mother, a primary school principal, had him come speak to a 3rd grade class about his efforts. The students of the class raised approximate $640 for the cause, the largest donation he had received to date.
There is no doubt that the gesture was touching, but it certainly did not help him significantly. Luckily for him (and children in Pakistan and Afghanistan), however, he was able to secure $12, 000 from Swiss industrialist and mountain climber Jean Hoerni, who himself visited the Karakorum Range a number of times. This allowed for the completion of Khorphe’s school.
Later, Hoerni would donate $1 million to found the Central Asia Institute, which, headed by Mortenson, focuses on educating village children, especially girls, in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The difficulty of acquiring the necessary funds is not the only thing which has impeded the Institute’s progress. Individuals and groups have found its goals (particularly that of female education) to be opposite their own. Mortenson himself had two fatwas issued against him, calling for his death. One was Shi’a and the other Sunni. A Shi’a imam helped Mortenson repeal the former, and Mortenson successfully contested the Sunni one in the Pakistani Sharia courts, where, he says, he was “given due process of law”. Both successes were rooted in the fact that the Qur’an prescribes education for all. Those were not the last times Mortenson faced death; however; after 9/11, he and his family began to receive hate mail from Americans, who felt the education he was providing assisted the terrorist cause. After consulting his wife, Mortenson decided to continue his work, certain of his conviction that what he was doing was not only morally responsible, but a hindrance to the terrorist cause. One hopes not only that he is right, but that more, both within and without Pakistan, see the merits of his view.
Pennies for Peace, from which this article derives its title, merely refers to the efforts of the Central Asia Institute to promote awareness of their cause among schoolchildren in the United States. A single cent is useful to the Central Asia Institute because such is the cost of a pencil in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The agenda of this wing involves having students raise money by contributing coins, thereby demonstrating the power of even small contributions by small people and cultivating international civic mindedness in the United States.
It should go without saying that every reader of this paper should attempt to contribute whatever he/she can to this cause. Too often do Pakistani-Americans concern themselves primarily with contributing to projects such as improvements to the local mosque, apparently forgetting that their countrymen lack the most basic amenities. Indeed, the areas in which the Central Asia Institute operate have remained literally untouched by civilization - which only makes the need for education in those areas more dire and further proves the potency of Mortenson’s work. Remember, the words “nation” and “state” are not synonymous. A nation is a group of people tied together by language, culture, religion, ethnicity, history - anything, providing that it knits together a large group of people. A state involves a government controlling a territory. Pakistanis in America might have moved to another state, but they will never cease to be members of the Pakistani Nation, regardless of their citizenship. It is the responsibility of the members of this nation to see to it that organizations such as the Central Asia Institute are given their utmost support.