© Justine Burt 2010. All Rights Reserved.
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
July 18, 2010

Map of Pakistan

To get to Northern Pakistan, you fly from:


To arrive at Korphe, the last village before the 28,000-foot K2 peak, you drive for days up into the mountains. Narrow roads that are cut from the sides of mountains have sheer faces 2,000 feet up and 1,500 down to the river below. In the village of Korphe, they will serve you Patyu cha, a drink consisting of green tea, salt, baking soda, goat's milk and slices of rancid yak butter.

This is the world Greg Mortenson stumbled into when he got lost after stumbling off the glacier near K2. When he left Korphe with the dream of returning to build a school for them, he had no idea how challenging this task would be.

Once they started construction, the work went very slowly, too slowly for Greg. He was pushing people hard to hurry and finish. One day Korphe's chief Haji Ali said "Greg, We've been here for hundreds of years and we're grateful to Allah for what you're doing to bring the candle of light to our people. But you need to do one thing. You need to sit down and be quiet and let us do the work."

Bridge and School

Soon after, the Korphe School was completed.

Once a few schools had been completed, Greg's safety was threatened when a very conservative mullah (a male religious leader) issued a fatwa against him. A fatwa is a ruling on a point of Islamic law that is given by a recognized authority. But a higher council of 8 mullahs met and after much deliberation, officially proclaimed by letter:

"Dear Compassionate of the Poor, our Holy Koran tells us all children should receive education, including our daughters and sisters. Your noble work follows the highest principles of Islam, to tend to the poor and sick. In the Holy Koran there is no law to prohibit an infidel from providing assistance to our Muslim brothers and sisters. Therefore, we direct all clerics in Pakistan to not interfere with your noble intentions. You have our permission, blessings, and prayers."


Whenever Greg visited one of the CAI schools, he asked each child what their goals for the future were, especially the girls. One of the girls at the Korphe School was named Jahan. She wanted to be a doctor. Years later, in 2002, when Greg was visiting Korphe, Jahan came up to him and reminded him of this. She said she was ready to begin her medical training and needed 20,000 rupees. She unfolded the piece of paper on which she had written a petition, carefully worded in English, detailing the course of study in maternal health care she proposed to attend in Skardu. Mortenson, impressed said "This is great, Jahan. I'll read this when I have time and discuss it with your father."

"No!" Jahan said forcefully, My class starts next week. I need money now!"

She was the first educated women in a valley of 3,000 people. She didn't defer to anyone. She wanted to start a hospital and tend to the health problems of all the women in the Braldu. He beamed at the granddaughter of Haji Ali.


While Greg Mortenson had many friends in Korphe, it was dangerous for an American to travel throughout the country. "Don't go any place alone," Haji Ali had told him. "Find a host you trust - a village chief would be best - and wait until he invites you to his home to drink tea. Only in this way will you be safe."

By the year after the Korphe school as built, 1996, the Taliban controlled two-thirds of the country. This extremist groups proclaimed bizarre edicts that forbade:

The Taliban's Department of the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice enforced their edicts. Young Taliban patrolled the streets in pickup trucks wielding AK-47s and whips made out of radio antennae. Women were forbidden from going outside without being accompanied by a close male relative and clad in an ink-blue burkha. Women could only be treated by female doctors, but women physicians were confined to their homes. Teaching girls and women to read and write was outlawed. By 2009, the Taliban had attacked at least 478 schools, most of them catering to female students.

Interestingly, before a boy or young man joins the Taliban he customarily asks the blessings of his mother. More educated mothers generally forbid this which is why the Taliban started recruiting in the rural, less educated areas. All the more reason to focus on building schools in the distant, rural areas like Korphe, Khane and Kuardu.

Greg with Kids - 9/11

Soon after Sept. 11, 2001, there was an inauguration for Kuardu's primary school. One of the local mullahs made a speech: "These two Christian men have come halfway around the world to show our Muslim children the light of education. Why have we not been able to bring education to our children on our own? Fathers and parents, I implore you to dedicate your full effort and commitment to see that all your children are educated. Otherwise, they will merely graze like sheep in the field, at the mercy of nature and the world changing so terrifyingly around us."

After the ceremony, mothers from the village walked up to Greg one by one and pressed freshly laid eggs into his hands. The eggs were an offer of their condolences to the widows and orphans as a result of 9/11. They asked him to carry these eggs as tokens of grief to the widows they longed to comfort themselves

After President Bush's 2001 decision to go to war in Afghanistan, there were between 2,700 and 3,400 civilian deaths between Oct. 7 and Dec. 10th. This was rarely mentioned in the press. Only when pressured by reporters did Donald Rumsfeld mention the "collateral damage."

Greg Mortenson was invited to give a presentation at the Pentagon about his work building schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan. He figured anything he said wasn't going to change the Bush Administration's approach so he told them what he really thought.

He explained that in Afghanistan, the warring parties held a jirga before doing battle. This was to discuss how many losses they were willing to accept since the victors were expected to care for the widows and orphans of the rivals they had vanquished.

"People in that part of the world are used to death and violence. If you say, we're sorry your father died, but he died a martyr so Afghanistan could be free and if you offer them compensation and honor their sacrifice, I think people will support us. Even now.

"But the worst you can do is what we're doing - ignoring the victims - to call them "collateral damage" and not even try to count the numbers of the dead. Because to ignore them is to deny they ever existed, and there is no greater insult in the Islamic world. For that we will never be forgiven.

"We've launched 114 Tomahawk cruise missiles into Afghanistan so far. Now take the cost of one of those missiles tipped with a Raytheon guidance system, which is about $840,000. For that much money you could build dozens of schools that could provide tens of thousands of students with a balanced nonextremist education over the course of a generation.

"Kids aren't being offered a bright enough future. We need to give them a reason to choose life over death. "

After his presentation, a Pentagon official approached him and said "How many schools could you build with $2.2 million? Greg answered 100. The Pentagon official continued, "We could make it look like a private donation from a businessman in Hong Kong." Greg realized his credibility in that part of the world depended on him not being associated with the American government, especially the military. And yet many within the military were becoming frustrated with the lack of progress in the war. They realized how effective building schools was, and wanted to do more to help.

2005 Earthquake/ Chinook Helicopters

In Urdu, the term Qayamat means apocalypse. This is how people there referred to the 7.6 magnitude earthquake that struck Pakistan at 8:50am on Saturday, October 8, 2005. That day was during Ramadan. At 8:50am, many people had just enjoyed their pre-dawn meals and were resting or getting ready for the day. Children were already at school. They go to school there on Saturdays.

After the great dark roar and extreme shaking, roofs fell in on families at home. Concrete walls without rebar disintegrated, collapsing whole roofs down onto children in the schools. In the chaos, boys tended to run, girls tended to huddle amongst themselves. This is why in the schools so many more girls died than boys. The people who lived were stranded without water, shelter, food. Later that day it started to rain, not just a light sprinkling, but a heavy deluge.

Within two days of the quake, U.S. Chinook helicopters had flown in straight from the war in Afghanistan. They ferried bulldozers, trucks, and other heavy equipment to clear and rebuild the main roads. Return flights brought the severely injured to hospitals. They hauled in tents, roofing materials, medical supplies, flour, cement, baby formula. The 6,000 tons of material helicopters delivered in the first three months are credited with keeping half a million people alive over the ensuing winter.

Everyone loved the Chinooks and their crews who were invariably greeted with waves and cheers and hordes of kids. The pilots could not believe the people of Pakistan actually liked them. In the coming years, many of these pilots and their crew members would look back upon those weeks as the highlight of their military careers.

After the devastation, Mortenson's Central Asia Institute, now formally a non-profit with several employees and a sizeable endowment, was trying to figure out how to help. Donors demanded they do something and sent sleeping bags, tents, and winter coats for distribution. But the main thing people of Pakistan needed was clean water and medical supplies. They weren't as concerned about building new schools at that point.

CAI staff went out and listened to what people needed. They helped organize rerouting mountain springs that had been cut off by the shifting landscape. Only later did they try to find out why the schools that remained standing were still only half full. It turns out that many of the children were too traumatized to come to school. CAI found out that the children would feel safer at school if they had something to hide under in case of another earthquake, so they built or rebuilt desks.

The Wisdom of Children/Playgrounds

After things settled down a little in Pakistan, Greg was having dinner with his family when his daughter Amira asked: "Hey Dad, what kinds of games do the children in your Kashmir schools play?" He said he didn't know. "Well, you should get those kids some jump ropes." And she threw him a sharp look, as if a switch had just been flipped in her mind. She started asking nearby gyms and sporting good stores to collect jump ropes for kids in Pakistan and Afghanistan. They collected over 2,000. This effort evolved into building playground equipment for kids at some of the schools.

In spring 2009, a group of elders who sympathized with the Taliban visited one of their schools in Afghanistan. They requested a tour of the facility. As they walked into the compound, they put down their weapons. The leader of the group spotted the playground and broke into a big smile. For the next half hour he and his companions gleefully sampled the swings, the slide and the seesaw. When they finally quit playing, the leader announced that they did not need to see the inside of the school. "But don't you want to look at the classrooms?" asked the principal. "No, we have seen enough. We would like to formally request you to come to our village in order to start building schools. But if you do, they absolutely must have playgrounds."

At the most recent count, the Central Asia Institute has built 131 schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan for 58,000 students. This means a lot in war-torn countries like Pakistan and Afghanistan where getting women to a 5th-grade education results in a significant drop in the infant mortality rate.

There are a few lessons that those of us who work on social and environmental issues can learn from the Central Asia Institute's work.

  • Take time to learn the community's needs
  • Listen with humility
  • Have a bold vision
  • Be doggedly persistent
  • Look at challenges from a child's point of view - you might be surprised at what happens


    Mother Theresa said: "What we are trying to do may be just a drop in the ocean. But the ocean would be less because of that missing drop."

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