Disclaimer: The photo above only serves as a visual representation of the circumstance; it may or may not be affiliated with the individuals and NGO mentioned below. Links shared are not affiliated. 

“Do you see how beautiful this Koran is? I can’t read it. I can’t read anything. This is the greatest sadness in my life. I’ll do anything so the children of my village never have to know this feeling. I’ll pay any price so they have the education they deserve.” – Haji Ali, Three Cups of Tea

Greg Mortenson has inspired millions of people after his first book Three Cups of Tea, was published in 2006. The last chapter of the first book, “Stones into School” became his second book that described his struggles together with his loyal group of companions – which he called the Dirty Dozen – to build even more schools in isolated villages in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

An introvert by heart – as he claimed in this remarkable book – and known to many as soft-spoken and gentle; he has managed to touch so many lives.

In a rural community that is almost unreachable and inaccessible by the modern world, building a school seemed like a pipe dream.  In the late 1990s, this dream became a reality. A common man whose initial failed expedition to reach the second highest mountain in the world, K2, turned it into a life-changing mission to provide young girls the education that they were once denied. His plan was initiated in 1993 and it was mainly inspired by the kindness and hospitality of the residents from the isolated, poor Pakistani village in the Karakoram Mountains. His failure to reach K2 was indeed a blessing in disguise.

Thousands of bricks and fundraisers later, he established the Central Asia Institute (CAI).

If you have read the first book Three Cups of Tea, you would remember the struggles Mortenson went through to fulfil his promise to Korphe. He fundraised successfully in America but later found it was impossible to transport supplies from the giant gorge to Korphe without a bridge. So, he – with the help of the locals – built a bridge after another fundraiser in America.

Photo: Wikimedia via CCO

Although the conservative Muslim villagers of Korphe were warm and friendly, it was not easy to advance that relationship and build trust with a foreigner like Mortenson. So, everything took time and a few cups of teas. The most profound lesson from the Three Cups of Tea was this: “If you want to survive in Baltistan, you must respect our ways,’ Haji Ali said, blowing on his bowl. ‘The first time you share tea with a Balti, you are a stranger. The second time you take tea, you are an honored guest. The third time you share a cup of tea, you become family, and for our family, we are prepared to do anything, even die,’ he said, laying his hand warmly on Mortenson’s own. ‘Doctor Greg, you must make time to share three cups of tea. We may be uneducated. But we are not stupid. We have lived and survived here for a long time.” – Haji Ali and Greg Mortenson, Pg. 150.

Mortenson described this as the “most important lesson he’s ever learned in his life”.

Stones into Schools, on the other hand, tells the story of a promise that he yet again made to an impoverished village – but this time in Afghanistan – after he was approached by a group of Kirghiz horsemen from Wakhan Corridor, who travelled far for him. Despite the rise of the Taliban, and therefore restriction of entrance by foreigners to Afghanistan, Mortenson and the CAI managed to reach the Wakhan Corridor, even if it took them an entire decade. They didn’t let that decade go to waste; they built schools along the way. To realise this promise, Mortenson pretty much relied on random locals who were not necessarily experts to get some jobs done. It just goes to show how passionate these individuals – the CAI and locals alike – as they had brought hope to so many young girls and boys, despite limited communication with the outside world. They had, in the end, empowered so many children – especially girls – and created a better future for them rather than being stuck in the cycle of poverty.

Photo: Syaza Izzah Morni

“I don’t know what your destiny will be, but one thing I know: the only ones among you who will really be happy are those who sought and found how to serve” – Albert Schweitzer, Stones into School 

As much as Mortenson was a hero by so many nations and leaders worldwide, he made a scandalous mistake. Unfortunately, in 2011, donations had dropped tremendously due to an alleged scandal on the schools’ fundings and that the stories told by Mortenson in his books were deemed untrue. Not only had this affected the image of Greg Mortenson, but the schools which he and the Central Asia Institute had worked hard for. I didn’t want to believe this wholeheartedly because I read the book. As I have felt inspired by his work, the scandal –  which I have only found out about recently – almost broke my heart. Triggered by curiosity and benefit of a doubt, I researched and wondered where the schools and students are now if CAI is no longer active.

Luckily, my suspicion on the authenticity of the scandal was not entirely true and was rather exaggerated- the truth was documented as a film, 3000 cups of tea. That’s when I realised that mainstream media can twist a story easily and magnify one mistake over the changes that he brought to the young girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Despite the struggles and scandal, the Central Asia Institute stands strong today. Of course, mistakes were made and they existed as lessons CAI and many other NGOs out there. The point is: young girls are getting the education they need despite war and political conflicts.

The success stories and the downfalls also remind us that we, after all, are just human beings who are bound to make mistakes when overwhelmed. What I find so astonishing about Mortenson and CAI is their ability to learn from their mistakes – not mask them – and not let that hinder their main purpose to start in the first place.

“When you take the time to actually listen, with humility, to what people have to say, it’s amazing what you can learn. Especially if the people who are doing the talking also happen to be children.”- Greg MortensonStones into Schools

There are too many lessons that one can get from reading both books, especially from the people whom Mortenson encountered. These people from Korphe and Wakhan Corridor, are often misunderstood just because they live in a country controlled by extremists.  It is people like Mortenson that break the barrier between two sides, in which one side is thought to be the enemy. In reality, they want the same thing as all good people in the world; they hate terror and they want peace.

It is by empowering young girls through education that some of the most complex problems in the world can be solved, as teaching girls are often equated to teaching the whole nation. It’s worth a cause to follow to support, in my opinion. As a fellow human, I want these people to get the same rights as all of us who are privileged to have them. As a fellow Muslim, it’s a practical step alongside lots of prayers, to help our brothers and sisters who are in need even if they are thousand miles away.

“If you teach a boy, you educate an individual; but if you teach a girl, you educate a community.” – Greg Mortenson, Stones into Schools.