Archive for November 10th, 2007

I live in a country that wallows almost obscenely in abundance.  

One of our biggest health care crises is the epidemic rise of adult onset diabetes, which is largely caused by eating too much of the wrong foods and not getting enough exercise.  In our news lately, we have been horrified to discover that cheap plastic toys imported from China are contaminated with lead.  We don’t apparently care about the phalates, or our trade balance; just the lead based paints.

We are in the middle of a housing/lending crisis caused by greedy people greedily buying large luxurious homes that are far more expensive than they could afford and then having reality check their fantasy of being filthy rich and suffering foreclosure.   No one involved in or discussing this “crisis” is mentioning or even questioning why a two person family requires more than 2500 square feet of living space. 

The world is facing a crisis of epic proportions.  Global warming is going on at an unprecedented and unpredicted rate, the price of fuel is at record levels and unlikely to drop, and yet still people feel free to drive vehicles that get 14 miles per gallon.  Even worse, they drive these vehicles the 3 or 4 miles it takes them to get to work, and then complain that they can’t lose weight, and then pay $25 or $30 a month for a gym membership so they can work out, driving their gas-guzzling behemoth there in an added ironical act.  None of these people seem to realize they could buy a nice bicycle and achieve the same purpose, and for a whale of a lot less money. 

On the political front, we are engaged in a war on terror with the Islamist hordes, a term I use because it shows up in the news and which I admit I am not exactly sure what it defines.   We are characterized by them as The Great Satan, they are routinely depicted in our news as crazed religious fanatics.   Our country is busy spending billions of dollars prosecuting a war in the Middle East at the same time that we cannot find the money to provide health care to our people.  

Down in Springfield, a large city nearby here, there is a group of people who are suing the school district.   They are not suing because their children are graduating functionally illiterate.   They are not suing because the school system is suffering from a record number of drop-outs and teen pregnancies.   Oh no.   The issue that is so important that they are planning to consume several hundred thousand dollars of the school district’s monetary resources defending the suit is that their poor daughters are forced to play softball on public ball fields, the schools do not provide them on campus softball fields!  The boys have baseball fields and it just isn’t fair! 

This opening polemic brings me to the subject of a book I just read:   “Three Cups of Tea”  by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Read.  Personally, I believe every person in America should read this book.   It is that important.

Greg Mortenson was a climbing bum.   He worked as a Registered Nurse and saved money by living in his car so that he could go off and climb mountains.   His passion finally resulted in his being invited to become a member of a party attempting to climb K2, the second tallest mountain in the world.   The attempt on K2 was not a success, at least not in terms of actually reaching the summit.

In the aftermath of the attempt, Mortenson became friends with the residents of the village of Korphe, a tiny, primitive community high on the flanks of the Karakoram mountain range.  There, people lived in stone houses, where they cooked over yak dung fires which also heated their homes.   They ate what they could grow in the fields that were carved into the side of the mountains, augmented by meat from ibex which they hunted with ancient black powder muskets left over from the British occupation of India.  There was no electricity, no running water.  People walked wherever they were going, even if that was 15 miles down the mountain to the next town.  There was no medical care.   The village school . . . 

“Mortenson told Haji Ali he wanted to visit Korphe’s school.  Mortenson saw a cloud pass across the old man’s craggy face, but persisited.   Finally, the headman agreed to take Morteson first thing the following morning.

After their familiar breakfast of chapattis and cha, Haji Ali led Mortenson up a steep path to a vast open ledge eight hundred feet above the Braldu (River).   The view was exquisite, with the ice giants of the upper Baltoro razored into the blue far above Korphe’s gray rock walls.   But Mortenson wasn’t admiring the scenery.  He was appalled to see eighty-two children, seventy-eight boys, and the four girls who had the pluck to join them, kneeling on the frosty ground in the open.   Haji Ali, avoiding Mortenson’s eyes, said the village had no school, and the Pakistani government didn’t provide a teacher.  A teacher cost the equivalent of one dollar a day, he explained, which was more than the village could afford.   So they shared a teacher with the neighboring village of Munjung, and he taught in Korphe three days a week.  The rest of the time the children were left alone to practice the lessons he left behind. . .

. . . the children sat in a neat circle and began copying their multiplication tables.   Most scratched in the dirt with sticks they’d brought for that purpose.  The more fortunate, like Jahan (Haji Ali’s daughter), had slate boads they wrote on with sticks dipped in a mixture of mud and water.  “Can you imagine a fourth grade class in America, alone, without a teacher, sitting there quietly and working on their lessons?”  Mortenson asks.   “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, that reminded me of Christa (his dead little sister).  I knew I had to do something.”

What Mortenson did is chronicled in the pages of this book.   He went back to the United States, burning with the promise he had made to Haji Ali: 

“I’m going to build you a school” he said, not yet realizing that with those words,the path of his life had just detoured down another trail, a route far more serpentine and arduous than the wrong turns he’d taken since retreating from K2.   “I will build a school,” Mortenson said.  “I promise.”

The story of how he accomplishes this feat is inspiring.   He worked persistently, in the face of two fatwas initiated by village mullahs, in competition with the madrassa schools teaching jihad that are funded by money from Saudi Arabia, in the face of indifference back in the United States.   Mortenson eventually founded the Central Asian Institute, and so far they have built over 50 schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan, schools which teach girls as well as boys, schools that teach the basics of education: reading, writing, mathematics, history. 

I believe that when we run to our convenient fast food outlet and decide to spend a dollar adding fries to our order we need to think about the fact that in Pakistan it costs one dollar to pay a teacher for a day.   I believe that when we look at our cars and decide we need a $30,000 Suburban rather than a $10,000 Kia, we should be aware that it costs only $12,000 to build a five room school in Pakistan.    

I will close this review with the words of Brigadier General Bashir Baz of Pakistan.  This conversation took place in 2003 in Rawalpindi during a meeting Mortenson had with him:

Bashir paused to watch a live CNN feed from Baghdad.  Staring at a small video window inset into the flight manifests scrolling down his monitor, Bashir was struck silent by the images of wailing Iraqi women carrying children’s bodies out of the rubble of a bombed building.

As he studied the screen, Bashir’s bullish shoulders slumped.   “People like me are America’s best friends in the region,” Bashir said at last, shaking his head ruefully.  “I’m a moderate Muslim, an educated man.   But watching this, even I could become a jihadi.   How can Americans say they are making themselves safer?”  Bashir asked, struggling not to direct his anger toward the large American target on the other side of his desk.  “Your President Bush has done a wonderful job of uniting one billion Muslims against America for the next two hundred years.”

“Osama had something to do with it, too,”  Mortenson said.

“Osama, baah!”  Bashir roared.   “Osama is not a product of Pakistan or Afghanistan.  He is a creation of America.  Thanks to America, Osama is in every home.   As a military man, I know you can never fight and win against someone who can shoot at you once and then run off and hide while you have to remain eternally on guard.   You have to attack the source of your enemy’s strength.  In America’s case, that’s not Osama or Saddam or anyone else.   The enemy is ignorance.   The only way to defeat it is to build relationships with these people, to draw them into the modern world with education and business.  (emphasis added by reviewer)  Otherwse the fight will go on forever.”

Read this book.   Visit www.threecupsoftea.com  for more information.   If you purchase books online, go through this website and 7 percent of all your book purchases will go toward a girl’s education scholarship fund in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Read this book.

Read this book.



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