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The Paula Gordon Show 

Tea and Empathy

Greg Mortenson


... educator, nurse and humanitarian.  The kindness of Pakistani villagers who cared for Mr. Mortenson after his failed 1993 attempt to summit K2 inspired him to create The Central Asia Institute. He now works with local people across Pakistan and Afghanistan, building almost 60 schools where girls as well as boys are educated. Mr. Mortenson’s book, Three Cups of Tea, tells his powerful story of building peace, one school at a time, in some of the most remote places on earth. When not in Central Asia, Mr. Mortenson and his family live in Montana.


Bringing peace to the world is adults’ Job One. And we’ve failed, says Greg Mortenson. How do we turn this failure into a future for our children? Educate girls, he says. Mr. Mortenson is a former mountaineer who now works with local people building schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan -- some of the most remote places in the world -- with a special emphasis on educating girls.

No “pollyanna” here, Mr. Mortenson’s luminous work began in failure -- he failed to summit K2 in 1993. He probably would have died had not the illiterate and desperately poor local villagers in a remote Pakistani village taken him in and cared for him. Mr. Mortenson decided to repay their kindness with what they wanted most -- a place for all of their children to learn. He concentrates on educating girls for many good reasons.

Provide a girl with a fifth grade education and infant mortality goes down. That decreases the population explosion. It also improves the basic quality of health and life itself, he says with three quick reasons for his emphasis.

Plus, an educated mother is much less likely to condone violence or terrorism when her son comes to her for her essential blessing for the traditional quest, clearly misunderstood in the West now that negative connotations have become associated with Jihad. Under Islam, all young men must pursue their quest, their own Jihad, and Islam does not condone suicide or killing civilians.

Ultimately, education will also help women have the right to land ownership and inheritance, Mr. Mortenson also believes. It is their right under the Shariat law. And finally, educated women are more likely to stay home and improve their communities, where educated men typically leave to live in cities.

Building relationships, one person at a time, is at the heart of Mr. Mortenson’s work and growing successes. Like most of us, Greg Mortenson had to learn to listen, another gift from these villagers. His stories of the importance of learning from local wisdom and traditions seem endless, from tribes in the wilds of Afghanistan to tribes in America’s Pentagon.

Listen to your heart and intuition he counsels. Learn about humility and
compassion.  Take the time that is essential and required to nurture what is important -- that “third cup of tea” from which Mr. Mortenson takes his own inspiration.  He suggests we each begin in our own way, by serving our fellow men and women wherever we find ourselves.

When Greg Mortenson looks into the eyes of his own children, he sees the children of Central Asia. We owe it to them all to do whatever we can to leave a legacy of peace, he insists -- he’s witnessed first hand the ravages of war and violence against humans and the earth. These children also give him the courage and stamina to go back time and again to do the hard work of building peace -- one person, one school, and one cup of tea at a time.


[This Program was recorded February 6, 2007, in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.]

Conversation 1

Greg Mortenson summarizes half a lifetime living in indigenous societies and listening to his heart, his intuition and local people for Paula Gordon and Bill Russell

Conversation 1 RealAudio6:37

Conversation 2

Growing up in Africa helped him learn the important of building relationships, Mr. Mortenson says, telling the story behind his book’s title Three Cups of Tea. He compares the time it takes to build relationships to typical hurried American life, then puts the Asian concept of time in perspective. He illustrates the opportunities that unfold from unexpected hardships and opportunities with stories of tribes in Asia and in America, from the Pentagon to local women’s groups.

Conversation 1 RealAudio9:15

Conversation 3

Mr. Mortenson shine lights on local traditions with stories from remotest Afghanistan, reinforcing a vital lesson: building relationships requires that we listen to and learn from local wisdom.  He describes how disputes are settled in Pakistan. He compares the importance of maintaining community to America’s disavowal of human casualties and devastating results of the Bush Administration’s abject refusal to talk with Afghani leaders after “9/11”. Traditional tribal societies have been disrupted by arbitrary modern political boundaries, Mr. Mortenson reminds us, then tells how Islamic justice has supported his work where Western pretensions have failed.

Conversation 1 RealAudio12:53

Conversation 4

Continuing the story of fatwas against him, Mr. Mortenson describes how both Shiite Ayatollas and the Sunni Shariat Court -- the Islamic Court of Law -- affirmed his work educating girls, assuring him full rights of due process protection. He compares his experiences in Pakistan to America’s treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. The concept of justice is explored. After noting his childhood in Tanzania, non-traditional anti-war books are explored, including those by Alexandra Fuller and Ha Jin. Mr. Mortenson expands upon the power of compassion.

Conversation 1 RealAudio12:46

 Conversation 5

After Greg Mortenson and Bill Russell compare their experiences in Afghanistan, Mr. Mortenson tells stories of Freedom Fighters there. He tells why he calls his experiences in that country “turning stones into schools.” Pennies for Peace enters the conversation. Girls’ education is the most important thing we can do, Mr. Mortenson says, and explains why.

Conversation 1 RealAudio9:18

Conversation 6

Mr. Mortenson puts mistakes and failures in the context of the Persian proverb, “When it is dark, you can see the stars.” After describing his vibrant extended family system, he describes our failure to bring peace to the world, eager for us all to leave a legacy of the kind of peace that comes with relationships based on compassion and love.

Conversation 1 RealAudio4:51


Greg Mortenson’s radical kindness in building peace, one person at a time, one school at a time, offers both hope for the world and a powerful example for us all. “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.”

We also delight in his daughter Amira’s involvement in this work and are deeply respectful of the essential support and encouragement his remarkable wife and entire extended family provide. Their strength in keeping the proverbial homefires burning is as essential to his work as is the material support we all can provide – whether a little or a lot -- to further his work.

Additional Links:

Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace, One School at a Time is published by Penguin Books.

You’ll find more about Greg Mortenson and his work at his website and those of nonprofit groups Central Asia Institute and Pennies For Peace.

Amira Mortenson, Greg’s young daughter, is active in Pennies For Peace. Intent on funding a school herself, Ms. Mortenson collaborated with renowned jazz singer Jeni Fleming and songwriter Jake Fleming in producing the “Three Cups of Tea” CD. Proceeds from it also help support Jeni and Jake’s non-profit corporation Hand Me Down Some Silver, Inc., which supports music education and young people producing their own recordings.

Former  supermodel and businesswoman Iman also presents a unstereotyped view of Muslim people and cultures.  Geneive Abdo and Reza Aslan also offer unfamiliar perspectives.

Like Greg Mortenson, Beck Weathers had a searing adventure in the Himalayan Mountains and, like Greg, Beck has a wife who makes life worth living.

Former BBC reporter Aminatta Forna is also helping to educate Muslim young people, especially women, in remote places by helping the local people make their own choices and decisions.  Unlike Greg, Aminatta is working with relatives in her own country, Sierra Leon.

Karin Ryan has also experienced the negative impact of America's human rights abuses on the global effort to improve human rights and well-being.

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