Serena Freewomyn

Books, Not Bombs

Filed By Serena Freewomyn | March 31, 2008 9:40 AM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Politics
Tags: Afghanistan, Greg Mortenson, Pakistan, Three Cups of Tea, War on Terror

Greg Mortenson is changing the world. If you haven't heard about him and his mission to bring schools to Pakistan and Afghanistan, you NEED to read the book Three Cups of Tea! It is the very moving account of Mortenson's efforts to eliminate poverty along the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan by educating the region's children, especially the girls.

Jan07.jpgMortenson's mission began in 1994, when he failed to summit K2, the second tallest mountain in the world. On his way down from the mountain, Greg got lost and by a simple twist of fate, he wandered into a small village called Korphe. Korphe is in the Bradu Valley, a very impoverished area on the northern border of Pakistan. The main source of outside income comes from mountaineers who are hoping to scale K2. After Greg's climb, he was suffering from frostbite and exhaustion. The people of Korphe nursed Greg back to health and in return, Mortenson promised to build them a school. He had no idea that the course of his life was about to change.

Mortenson lived in his car for over a year in order to save up money to build that school. He didn't know the first thing about grant writing or fund raising. Luckily, he met a fellow mountaineer with deep pockets who wrote him a check for $18,000 on the spot. When Greg got back to Pakistan and purchased all of the supplies for the school, he realized that the people of Korphe needed a bridge as much as a school, so he had to call his donor and ask for more money. Thankfully, the bridge and the school were both completed. But Mortenson didn't stop there. He founded the Central Asia Institute, which now operates 58 schools in the region.

0251_ThreeCups_D.jpg Three Cups of Tea isn't just a hippie, feel-good book about some ignorant white guy "helping" the world's poor. It is a wake up call that every American needs to read. The poverty of Pakistan and Afghanistan has made both countries a fertile breeding ground for terrorism because people don't have any other choice. The Taliban's madrassas are some of the only schools in the region. If that's the only chance you had to educate your child, what choice would you make? After graduating from one of these schools, if you had no other job options, would you sign up to become a "freedom fighter" with the Taliban?

The US government encouraged the people of Afghanistan to fight the Soviets in the 1980's, but after the breakup of the USSR we abandoned them. Similarly, now that we have obliterated what little was left of their country, we have also abandoned them. The paltry amount of foreign aid that was approved to rebuild Afghanistan has been diverted to build airfields in Iraq. The longer the US occupies this region without extending a humanitarian hand, the more we will foment hatred towards the US and nurture the seeds of terrorism that are planted in the madrassas.

Mortenson and the Central Asia Institute are providing people with options. Their website says that their mission is to "promote and provide community-based education and literacy programs, especially for girls, in remote mountain regions of Central Asia." More than 50% of the students in CAI schools are girls. And before a school is built, CAI gets a commitment from the village elders that it will educate its girls up to the fifth grade. The community is involved in every step on the planning, construction, and day to day operations of the schools. Mortenson has worked tirelessly for the last decade to ensure that these schools are embedded within the communities they serve and sustainable for the long run.

Three Cups of Tea is one of the hottest books on the market right now. If you look for it at your local library, you're bound to see a waiting list 20-30 people deep. Why not purchase the book directly from CAI so that 7% of the cost goes directly towards CAI projects? (Your order will be processed through Amazon. Normally, I don't support Amazon. But hey . . . if the money is going towards CAI, I'll bend the rules just this once.) Their website also tells you how you can get involved in this mission for peace. You can also listen to a discussion from last week's Diane Rehm show.

So many of us talk a good game about wanting to make a difference int he world, but a lot of that is just talk. I, for one, talk a lot. There are very few Greg Mortenson's in this world. I hope the popularity of his book will mean that more Americans will at least bust out their checkbooks.


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Terrific post, Serena. People need to hear it about terrorism having its roots in poverty. The same goes for the international drug trade and the illitic traffic in wild-animal parts -- people grow coca and kill endangered animals because they're poor and have no better options to feed themselves and their families. The hide of one jaguar will feed a poor Brazilian family for a year.

Even in the United States, where we have the highest per-capita number of people in prison in the world, many of those people are there because -- as you pointed out -- crime was the best option.

As poverty grows worse in the U.S., with families going bankrupt and jobs being outsourced and more people living on the streets, we will surely see "domestic terrorism" growing...and we won't be able to blame it on the Taliban.

Patricia, you're so right (as per usual).

I'll have to check it out. Thanks Serena.

(I'm not sure if my previous attempt to comment somehow violated the ToS or if it's caught in moderator limbo, so I will briefly post something similar)

Serena, did you posit the link between poverty and terrorism, or did the book? I think the distinction is critical, as if it was your interjection, I fear your call to arms may be unfaithful to the author and his work. Either way, I think there is something morally suspect about using terrorism-prevention as the rational to aide other countries, particularly when poverty is actually not a leading cause of terrorism.

Dave, thanks for your question. I agree, this is an important distinction.

When Mortenson started his work, he saw it as a means to pay back the people of Korphe for taking care of him. Once he started, he realized just how broad the scope of the region's poverty was, so he didn't stop with Korphe.

Greg was in Pakistan when the Twin Towers went down. And the people of Pakistan urged him to leave for his own safety. He said no, because he still had several projects to see to completion. And when the US invaded Afghanistan, he traveled to Kabul to begin an assessment of the school system there. Despite everyone telling him to go, he stayed. And now there are 58 schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan that are funded by CAI.

Mortenson's work is clearly motivated by a love for the people of Pakistan and Afghanistan. He's not a puppet of the US government and his primary motivation is not to prevent terrorism.

However, Mortenson does make the link between poverty and religious fundamentalism that fosters acts of terrorism. And I think he makes an excellent case for it. When people have no options, they become desperate, and this makes them willing to commit acts that seem to be illogical (such as blowing yourself up on a bus full of people). Mortenson clearly argues that the US had better start playing a humanitarian role in the region instead of bombing Iraq and Afghanistan to nothing. Because if we don't, the hatred that is fomenting there will continue to fester, which makes someone like Osama bin Laden more popular.

I think you should read the book. It's an important lesson for all of us.

Serena, thanks for getting back to me.

I haven't had a chance to look this book up locally to skim it over, but I can say with absolute certainty that his conclusion is wrong; the poverty-terrorism link is a myth, empirically disproven many times over. His assessment about the logic of suicide attacks is equally as flawed. Behind these two myths I feel is an interesting privileged Western bias that we all need to own up to.

The end result of his work is phenomenal, but I fear that some of the reasons behind it are reprehensible.

Dave, would you mind explaining the warrant for your argument?