Nation & World

Sanders Theatre features talk on building schools for peaceful world

6 min read

In the remote and mountainous Baltistan region of Pakistan, the beverage of choice is paiyu cha, a mixture of green tea, salt, baking soda, goat’s milk, and a rancid yak butter called mar.

This Balti delicacy is “stinkier than the most frightening cheese the French ever invented,” said Greg Mortenson.

He’s the one-time mountain climber and adventurer who, since 1993, has devoted his life to building schools in the farthest reaches of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Mortenson, who addressed an audience of 1,200 Nov. 8 at Harvard’s Sanders Theatre, believes that books are a better weapon in the war on terror than bombs.

Education limits the influence of jihadists and fundamentalist imams, who have a monopoly on literacy in many regions of Central and South Asia, he said. “The real enemy is ignorance.”

His Central Asia Institute has built 64 schools in very remote areas, and runs 36 others. There are 547 teachers, and close to 25,000 students. On average, a child in these remote villages can be educated for a dollar a month, said Mortenson. “With a pencil and education, you can have hope.”

The occasion for his visit was Cambridge Reads, a citywide book club now in its fifth year of inviting authors to speak about a single work. Mortenson co-authored “Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace … One School at a Time” with journalist David Oliver Relin.

The title refers to the way of doing business in Pakistan and Afghanistan. With the first cup of tea, you are a stranger. With the second, a friend — and with the third cup, you are family.

Relin spoke at Sanders too, and was so touched by talking at Harvard that from the podium he took a picture of the audience for his mother.

The event was co-sponsored by the city of Cambridge — one of about 100 U.S. cities in the past decade to adopt the idea of a municipal book club — and by Harvard’s Office of Government, Community and Public Affairs.

“Three Cups of Tea,” in its paperback edition, has spent 40 straight weeks on The New York Times best-seller list. Relin called it “the little book that could,” since its popularity was not immediate but grew through word of mouth.

The two authors now are the veterans of 18 months of periodic book tours, and have appeared at 250 schools.

Relin, who spoke first, explained the urgency of finding peaceful ways of fighting terrorism and the ignorance that breeds it. “It’s immoral,” he said, “not to speak about politics at a public gathering like this.”

A single U.S. “smart bomb” costs $25,000 and has a one-in-three chance of hitting its target, said Relin. That’s enough money to build a single Central Asia Institute school, which will last for generations and educate thousands.

The American war on terror in Iraq and Afghanistan has a humanitarian component, he said — but successful projects so far only account for one-thousandth the cost of the war, which will reach $611.5 billion by the end of this year.

“Is that how you spread democracy,” he asked, “and build nations?”

Thomas W. Simons Jr. Ph.D. ’63, the former ambassador to Pakistan, took the stage with the two authors. (He’s now a visiting scholar at Harvard’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies.)

A career diplomat (1963-98), Simons didn’t want to get political. But he praised “Three Cups of Tea” and acknowledged that “there’s nothing better for the world, there is nothing more curative for the world, than education.”

Relin read brief passages from the book — reminders, he said, of “the great, moderate, peace-loving people at the heart of the Muslim world.”

In September 1993, Mortenson personally experienced that great peaceful heart of the Muslim world. It was after a 78-day attempt to climb K2, a 28,267-foot peak that straddles Pakistan and China and is the second-highest mountain in the world.

He had set out as a tribute to his 23-year-old sister Christa, who had died the year before. But Mortenson, sidetracked by rescuing a fellow climber, failed by 600 meters to reach the summit. Exhausted, filthy, and disoriented, he had lost touch with his guide when he staggered into Korphe, a remote Balti village in northeastern Pakistan.

It was there, Mortenson told his audience, “that I found a greater mountain to climb.”

In Korphe, the American adventurer saw a sight that changed his life: 84 children — 79 boys and five girls — in an outdoor classroom, scratching their lessons in the dirt. Among them they had seven chalk slates — devices that Mortenson calls “the local laptops.”

Rashly, he says now, Mortenson promised to repay the kindness of the villagers by coming back to build a school.

He made his way back to Berkeley, Calif., where he described himself as “a dirtbag climber living out of a car.” Where was he going to get $12,000 to keep his promise?

Mortensen sent 580 letters to celebrities, explaining his goal and asking for money. The effort yielded one $100 check, from Tom Brokaw.

By the spring of 1994, he had sold all his possessions and cashed in a retirement account to scrape together just $2,400. In the end, it was not celebrities who saved the cause, but “it was children, in their innocence and purity,” said Mortenson.

What was to become “Pennies for Peace,” a donation fund now in 378 schools in 50 states, brought in enough money for a start. (This year, the drive brought in 11 million pennies, or $110,000.)

The most efficient highway to nation building and to peace is universal schooling, said Mortenson — and educating girls is the most important of all. He counts among his inspirations Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen, Harvard’s Lamont University Professor and an advocate of the culture-shifting power of getting girls into school.

Educating girls decreases the birthrate, enhances public health, and reduces poverty, said Mortenson, a former U.S. Army medic and trauma nurse. Infant mortality also goes down. (In villages like Korphe, one of every three infants dies in the first year.)

He said building schools is just one way to build relationships with people in disadvantaged nations, where 148 million children don’t have access to schools.

Understanding one another is at the heart of lasting peace, said Mortenson. “It’s about relationships, and three cups of tea.”