Waiting to Have a Cup of Tea with Greg Mortensen
By A.H. Cemendtaur
Greg Mortenson with his fans
Approaching Greg Mortenson from a distance you would first encounter a very large circle of glossy advertising material featuring poor but fair-complexioned, photogenic children learning in schools built by the Central Asia Institute (CAI), Mortenson's non-profit organization; you would then meet a huge readership of 'Three Cups of Tea', Mortenson's bestselling book; and then there would be singers singing the 'Three Cups of Tea' song; and then finally you would meet the inner circle of diehard Mortenson fans holding their guru in the highest esteem. Being mesmerized by this setup it is easy to forget an important tenet of journalism: take a fresh, unbiased, independent look at the subject.
After attending two programs in the San Francisco Bay Area that featured Greg Mortenson, I made a list of things to do, before I would write a newspaper report on Mortenson and his excellent work:
1. Call the office of Central Asia Institute in Pakistan and ask them a few questions.
2. Read independent reports in the Pakistani newspapers on Mortenson's work.
3. Meet Pakistanis who have visited schools built by Mortenson and have talked to the villagers about the impact the schools are having.
I must confess to my readers that I failed in all three of the above. My call to the Central Asia Institute about their office telephone numbers in Pakistan is still unanswered (CAI's website does not provide that information). The Pakistani English newspaper reports I have read so far all derive information from Western sources which in turn rely on information provided in the book 'Three Cups of Tea' or obtained from Mortenson's interviews. Search Google in Urdu for Mortenson and you would find two links on Mortenson — both sources relying on Western news reports. Search the man in Farsi and you would find that the only Mortenson (or Mortensen) the Farsi/Darri world recognizes is actor Viggo Mortensen. You wonder what kind of ungrateful bunch Greg Mortenson is dealing with.
So let me limit the scope of this report to Greg Mortenson's recent visit to Northern California . Mortenson's March 3 visit to the Bay area was arranged by the Fremont branch of the American Association of University Women (AAUW). In the afternoon, Mortenson spoke to children and adults at Guy Emanuele Pavilion of Logan High School in Union City. Around 1800 people attended that program. In the evening Mortenson gave a speech at the Diamond Palace in Fremont. Almost 900 awe-struck people listened to Mortenson's life story and how he got into building schools for children in the far flung northern areas of Pakistan and in Afghanistan.