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Greg Mortenson: 'Ordinary Oprah'


Finally, every so often we like to have conversations with ordinary people who do extraordinary things. It's a segment we like to call Ordinary Oprahs. Today we speak with author and human rights activist Greg Mortenson. Since 1993, Greg Mortenson has dedicated his life to building schools in remote areas in Pakistan and Afghanistan, with a focus on schools for girls.

Despite hate mail, kidnappings, even attacks by the Taliban, Greg Mortenson has built nearly 80 schools and runs four dozen others. To chronicle his life's work, he published a book in 2006 called "Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace…One School at a Time."

The book spent more than 100 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, and now he's come out with a children's version of that book, as well as a picture book called "Listen to the Wind" that illustrates the way of life for children in Afghanistan and Pakistan. And Mr. Mortenson joins us now to talk about his work. Welcome to the program. Thanks for speaking with us.

Mr. GREG MORTENSON (Author, "Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace…One School at a Time"): Hello, Michel.

MARTIN: Tell us about the title of the book, "Three Cups of Tea."

Mr. MORTENSON: Well, the first chapter in "Three Cups of Tea" is the word failure. When I submitted the original manuscript to Manhattan, they said, you know, Greg, in the U.S. you'd never start a book with the word failure. But I insisted on that because, you know, we all fail in our lives, we make mistakes.

I decided to climb K2, the world's second highest mountain. It's in northern Pakistan. It's a very difficult treacherous mountain. I spent 78 days on the mountain. I didn't quite make it to the top. I stumbled into a little village in northern Pakistan, a very rural village, was met by the village chief. They helped nurse me back to health and several days later I walked behind the village, and I saw 84 children sitting in the dirt during their school lessons.

There were five girls, 79 boys. What really struck me, though, was that there was no teacher there. And I said, where's your teacher? And they said, Master -meaning teacher - Hussein is in the next village because we can't afford his daily one dollar salary. So that day in '93 I made a promise to try and get a school built there.

I spent three years and one day he said, if you want to do business here, it takes three cups of tea. What it means is that the first cup, you're a stranger, second cup, a friend and third cup, you become family. And for a family, we were prepared to do anything, even die.

MARTIN: So then what did you do?

Mr. MORTENSON: I came back to the States. I had no clue how to fundraise, so what I actually did is I went to a local library in Berkeley, California. I told the librarian my dilemma - I had to raise 12,000 bucks to build a school in Pakistan. So we looked up the name of 580 celebrities and movie stars and sports heroes. I was computer illiterate at the time, so I hand typed 580 letters over 10 weeks. Dear Michael Jordan, dear Sylvester Stallone, you know, dear Oprah.

And guess what happened? Nothing happened. And then around Christmastime I got one check back from Tom Brokaw, the newscaster, for $100. Then I sold my car. I was actually - was living in my car because I wanted to save money to get the school built. I sold my books. I sold my climbing gear. And I was also working as a nurse. I had to raise extra money for plane tickets and other supplies. Once I started the first school, I realized this is what my life is meant to be, is to promote education and help kids go to school and that's very clear.

MARTIN: How do you decide where the next school should be?

Mr. MORTENSON: Well, first of all, the one goal is where there is no schools, and especially for girls, and that often is areas of physical isolation, religious extremism or areas of conflict. But the village that gets a school is basically the one that wants it the most. When we set up a school, we provide skill labor, materials, most of all, teacher training. But the community has to provide free land, free resources, free sweat equity, free manual labor.

And then we also start a poultry farm, poplar tree plantation, women's vocational centers, so this community can now even start to generate revenue to make that school sustainable.

MARTIN: We keep hearing about communities that try to build schools for girls, and then other people in the same community burning them down. And I wondered if you'd ever had that experience where there's a struggle over whether a school for girls will be tolerated, or supported or not?

Mr. MORTENSON: Since 2007, the Taliban and other groups have bombed, or destroyed or shut down 500 schools in Afghanistan and over 180 schools in Pakistan in the last two years. What's interesting is that about 80 to 90 percent of those schools are girls' schools. They're not boys' schools. We have had one school attacked by the Taliban. It was two years ago, 2007. It was in a village called Olander(ph) in Charasiab Valley, which is south of Kabul about an hour and a half.

About 14 Taliban came in at night. They beat up the night watchman and the next day they said if anybody comes to school, we'll kill you. The headmaster got on his bicycle. He pedaled about 23 miles. He went to the local commander. Now, he's somewhat of a shady guy, but he also has two daughters in school, and so he rounded up about 120 men. He came in with his militia. He killed two Taliban and then, for lack of better words, he extracted information from the other Taliban.

And he found out they had gotten $3,000 to shut the school down from the local mullah. So today, some of those men are in prison and two days later, the school was reopened. He appointed 12 Askari, which are - Askari is like militia men - to guard the school. And they have orders that if anybody tries to hurt or harm the school or the students, that they should just shoot them.

MARTIN: What I'm hearing you say is - I'm hearing you express some frustration that the stories of the people who are trying to stop schools from being built get heard in this country, but what I'm hearing you say is we're not hearing about the great desire, the great thirst for schools, for education that also exists in these parts of the world. Is that right? Am I hearing you right?

Mr. MORTENSON: I think, I think, Michel, yeah, you hit it right on. You know, everywhere I go, I find this fierce desire for education. Really, what education does is it gives opportunity, but it also gives hope. And when a girl learns how to read and write, the first thing she often does is write a letter for her mother to her family. Because when women are married off, their maternal ties are severed, so they can't communicate with their family. That's very empowering.

We also see people coming home from the marketplace, and they have vegetables or meat wrapped in newspaper, and then the mother very carefully unfolds the newspaper and asks her daughter to read the news to her. And that's the first time that woman is able to get information of the world is a big place and a very dynamic place. And women get very, very excited. Today, in Afghanistan, there are 7.2 million children in school in Afghanistan, including two million females.

In 2000, there were only 800,000, mostly boys, in school. It's the single most largest increase in school enrollment in any country in modern history, and nobody in the U.S. is aware of it.

MARTIN: Did you ever want to give up? Did you ever think about giving up?

Mr. MORTENSON: The only one time I really wanted to, where I felt like quitting, was after 9/11. When I was in Pakistan, everywhere I went, people sought me out. They asked for forgiveness for something they had nothing to do with. I remember a very poor elderly widow named Hawa(ph), who brought me five eggs and put them in my palms and said, please take this to the widows in New York.

When I came back to the States, it was Halloween day, 2001. I went to my office, and I started getting hate mail and - I got death threats. These weren't from people in Afghanistan or Pakistan, they were Americans. Some people called me a traitor. Some people said, you know, I should die a painful death because I'm worse than the enemy, I'm one of us who's helping, you know, girls of Muslims go to school.

And the more I do this, I am convinced, you know, we can drop bombs, or hand out condoms, or build roads or put in electricity, but without education, nothing's going to change.

MARTIN: One of the things that I'm hearing you say is that people in this country are very afraid of the Taliban, and they're very - but that there are elements and forces within these countries already that are strengths that people can build upon, to build positive relations with people in these countries. And I'm wondering, why do you think we don't know that?

Mr. MORTENSON: When I wrote "Three Cups of Tea," I picked the title, but the publisher in New York picked the subtitle. Originally, it was "One Man's Mission to Fight Terrorism…One School at a Time." And although I'm a military veteran, I was opposed to that because I feel what I do to promote education, it should be about promoting peace. And, well, I think the real thing, though, is fighting terrorism - that is based in fear. But promoting peace is based in hope.

And the real enemy, whether it's in Africa, or Afghanistan or here in the U.S., the real enemy is ignorance. And it's ignorance that breeds hatred. And as I go around the U.S., I have talked to, you know, hundreds of groups, liberals, conservatives, Jews, Christians, Muslims, the military, think tanks, universities, and I find that Americans, we are a good people, we're a compassionate people, but we also, as you mentioned, we seem to live in fear and somehow we just don't quite get it that if we could reach out a little bit, if we could have just a little bit of cultural sensitivity and have a few cups of tea and build relationships, we could really make a difference in the world. And I think people would start wanting to interact with us a little bit more.

MARTIN: Greg Mortenson is the author of The New York Times bestseller, "Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace…One School at a Time. He's built nearly 80 schools and runs more than four dozen others in remote areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan. He joined us from Yellowstone Public Radio in Bozeman, Montana. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Mr. MORTENSON: Thanks, Michel.

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MARTIN: To read an excerpt from Greg Mortenson's book, "Three Cups of Tea," please visit our Web site at And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.