Greg Mortenson was a veteran mountain climber. It was a singular event on one of his climbing expeditions that completely changed the direction his life would take. He attempted to reach the summit of K2, the second tallest peak in the world, in Pakistan’s Karakoram, located in the Himalayas; this attempt failed. During his descent on the afternoon of September 2, 1993, he accidently was separated from his group and got lost. As a result of his missteps, he no longer was in possession of all of his vital equipment, for it was being carried by his porter, Mouzafer. Fortunately, he was ultimately rescued by Mouzafer who went on to become his close friend and ally.
On the seventh day of their descent, they finally came upon trees and arrived at the village of Korphe. He was greeted by a village elder, Haji Ali, who welcomed them with memorable hospitality. The village of Korphe was perched on a rocky shelf some eight hundred feet above the Braldu River. The stone houses of the village seemed to blend into the steep canyon walls. Something drew Mortenson to Korphe; he was impressed by the rugged perseverance and toughness of its people. Any romantic notion he held of these people was dispelled, however, when he learned that many of the children suffered from Kwashiorkor, an extreme form of malnutrition that often leads to death. Mortenson used his experience as a trauma nurse to lend his assistance.
The defining moment for Mortenson came when he asked to see Korphe’s school. What he saw shocked him – eighty-two children, consisting of seventy-eight boys and four girls, doing their lessons outside with no teacher in sight. They did not have a school. Mortenson reacted to this situation by stating, “I felt like my heart was being torn out. There was a fierceness in their desire to learn, despite how mightily everything was stacked against them. I knew I had to do something.” He finally told Haji Ali, “I’m going to build you a school.”
Mortenson had an uncanny ability to adapt to unusual situations. This quality can be readily explained by his unusual upbringing. Greg’s parents were adventuresome and his father convinced his wife to respond to an acute need for teachers in Africa. As a consequence, Mortenson grew up in Tanganyika (now called Tanzania). He was a student in an international school founded by his mother. He was surrounded by children from twenty-eight different nations. He grew up happily oblivious to race and ultimately mastered Swahili. He also had a sister, Christa, who was grievously ill and who ultimately died. His sister’s death had a devastating effect upon him. It was these experiences growing up that probably helped him have empathy for the suffering of others and contributed to his sense of being a citizen of the world.
Following his initial stay at Korphe he returned to the United States. He was so determined to fulfill his promise to build a school that he sent out 580 appeals for funds; all of his grant applications were rejected. He eventually received 12,000 dollars from Jean Hoerni, one of the co-founders of Intel. They would establish a friendship that would last until Hoerni’s death. With this money, he immediately returned to Pakistan to build the school that he promised.
As luck would have it, when he returned to Korphe with the building materials, he found, to his dismay that they were in desperate need of a bridge instead. Although he initially felt dismayed and defeated, he did end up building the bridge, especially when it became clear that construction of the bridge was an urgent matter of survival. It was Jean Hoerni who financed the bridge that spanned the Upper Braldu River.
Eventually the school at Korphe was built. Mortenson received assistance from George McCown, a climbing buddy, who offered some 20,000 dollars for his own expenses while building the school and Edmund Hidlay also became involved in this project. Hidlay was involved in building schools and clinics in Nepal during the 1960s and 70’s.
Mortenson discovered that building the school was no easy matter, for he had to successfully navigate through the convoluted and complex politics of the region. He managed to develop the friendship and loyalty of influential locals to expedite the process. One of the central aspects of Mortenson’s goal was to open up education for females. This produced no end of difficulty for him, but he was passionate about his project, and was blessed with boundless determination.
Hoerni was so impressed with Mortenson’s resolve and success that he suggested that Mortenson establish a foundation, with Mortenson as its director. The goal of this foundation would be to build one school per year within the Muslim communities of Pakistan. With Hoerni’s help this foundation was, in fact, created – Central Asia Institute. The Institute exists to this day.
A recurrent theme in Mortenson’s descriptions of his challenging experiences attempting to oversee his school-building projects was the cultural divide he had to overcome, for he had a restless energy and impatience that are characteristics endemic to the West. In one particular instance, while noticeably discouraged about the progress of the construction of a school, Haji Ali reassured him in the following way, “I thank all-merciful Allah for all you have done. But the people of Korphe have been here without a school for six hundred years.” This was a very sobering lesson for Mortenson; it put his sense of frustration in proper perspective.
As stated earlier, much of his success can be attributed to his ability to adapt to changing surroundings. In his own words, Mortenson describes the following experience, “I was torn between trying quickly to learn to pray like a Shia and making the most of my opportunity to study the ancient Buddhist woodcarvings on the walls.” Mortenson concluded that he had learned enough about the people to conclude that they were probably sufficiently tolerant to accept an infidel, such as himself, praying in their midst.
The Central Asia Institute offered permanence and stability to Mortenson’s mission. He extended the reach of his organization to the Peshawar – the capital of Pakistan’s wild west. The students of Peshawar’s madrasses – Islamic theological schools – were the Taliban. On account of Mortenson’s emphasis on educating young girls, a fatwa, a religious ruling, was issued against him. This was an attempt to abort the construction of any more schools in Pakistan. In mountain villages, the local mullahs possessed more real power than the Pakistani government. In spite of this impediment, the building of schools accelerated. This was due in part to the fact that Mortenson had the support of Pakistan’s supreme Shia cleric.
On January 12, 1997 his dear friend and benefactor, Jean Hoerni died. This was a severe blow to Mortenson, for he had lost the one man who had given him unerring support and treated him like the son he never had.
The achievements to date of this one man with a vision are impressive. As of 2009, 8 and 1/2 million children attend school, girls representing 40% of the overall enrollment as a direct results of his efforts. Mortenson has founded 131 schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan with a population of 58,000 students. The underlying conviction that propels him forward is that true and lasting peace cannot be won by guns, but rather through books, notebooks and pencils. His ambition is to promote educational opportunities for women throughout Pakistan and Afghanistan. His stunning accomplishments are a testimonial to the impact an individual with a vision can have.