Monday, August 31, 2009
Greg did well enough in school. But when he was a college student, a nursing major, he did not have much focus beyond that. He had no apparent sense of purpose, other than an impossible plan to climb a towering mountain.
The son of Lutheran missionaries in Africa, he did not have much time for capitalist ambitions. He was nearly always broke. Something of a loner, he had little time for campus connection, considering the sports and glamour and popularity culture frivolous. Mountain climbing. The out of doors. These were his obsessions. He did not speak a great deal about his family. His father succumbed to cancer too soon. And his sister, disabled with learning challenges and the onset of menacing, unscheduled seizures, well, she also died too soon. If you knew Greg, you might come to the conclusion that his interest in medicine came from his affection for a sister who suffered much.
There was a sweetness in the unselfish, low key Mortenson family that you might miss, unless you sat Greg down and grilled him with perceptive questions. You would have learned about his father’s unheralded accomplishment in Tanzania. People there in Africa will never forget. But the folks back in Minnesota who sent him to the field and then lost track of him when he came home with a needy daughter never understood how he managed to start the first medical school in that developing nation. The school his father built is today the largest and finest healthcare training center in the whole region. It is the primary provider of physicians and surgeons and med techs and nurses for Tanzania and beyond. But Greg knew. He was proud of his father’s achievement. As a student, he lived for long periods out of the back of his car.
Now, twenty-five years after college graduation, Greg Mortenson has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. The accolades he has received, from honorary doctorates to awards from colleges and relief agencies and educators from all over the world, is a stunning collection, indeed. He is an unlikely hero.
How he got from a starving, obscure student to a highly recognized advocate for education in neglected parts of the world is the essence of his book, Three Cups of Tea, a hands down favorite on the New York Times bestseller list. When Greg attempted to climb the second highest peak in the world next to Mount Everest, K2, stretching between Pakistan and China, he failed. The climb nearly killed him. In a small high altitude village at the foot of the massive granite mountain, kindly, patient villagers nursed him to health. As he gained strength, he noticed that the children studied their lessons in an open field, in the wind and direct, searing sunlight. Weather dictated the assembling of these students and their teachers; often foreboding clouds signaled no class on any given day. Mortenson made a promise to his benefactors. He would to do what he could to build a school building in their town. No one took him seriously, even though they bowed gratefully at the sentiment.
To everyone’s surprise, he kept that promise. How a visionary young nursing student went on to build hundreds of schools all over Central Asia in impossible circumstances is a compelling story. It is a living, breathing example of how vision mobilizes and transforms. The book will challenge many assumptions. At the outset, Mortenson had no idea that his schools would be built in the same neighborhood as the Taliban, Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden.
Mortenson’s tenacity is inspiring, and reminiscent of the players I’ve come to know in our Global Freedom movement. The plight of children in the war zones of Pakistan and Afghanistan, where opium war lords rule with loaded guns and iron rods is eerily similar to the plight of Dalit children in India. Untouchables in India. Unreachables in Pakistan. Without education, things remain the same – unless someone reaches out and overcomes the odds.
Mortenson’s story reminded me of the heroes I am getting to know who sacrifice to build those schools in India that defy more than three thousand years of intentional banishment. The results are equally dramatic. Mortenson’s schools have changed the course of history in a region that would otherwise know only wars and thuggery, exploitation and oppression.
But now, there is hope.
Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2009