Pittsburgh -- Greg Mortenson, co-author of the best-selling book Three Cups of Tea, will speak at Robert Morris University at 2 p.m. Wednesday, April 28, in Rogal Chapel. His talk is free and open to members of the RMU community.
Mortenson also will talk at 8 p.m. at Heinz Hall as part of the RMU Pittsburgh Speakers Series, which is open to subscribers of the speakers series. Mortenson’s talk will close out the series’ 2009-10 season.
Mortenson is the co-founder of Central Asia Institute, a nonprofit that builds rural schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and Pennies For Peace, which connects 2,700 American schools with struggling students abroad. Three Cups of Tea was Time magazine’s Asia Book of the Year, and it has remained on the New York Times bestseller list for 91 weeks, with six months at the No. 1 spot.
A former night nurse and mountain climber who grew up in Tanzania and hiked Mt. Kilimanjaro at the age of eleven, Mortenson is the only foreigner on Pakistan’s national education reform committee. President Asif Ali Zardari recently presented Mortenson with Pakistan’s highest civil honor, the Sitara-e-Pakistan—the Star of Pakistan—in thanks for the 15 years Mortenson has worked to promote education and literacy among Pakistani youth.
Mortenson’s dedication to Pakistan’s schools began accidentally. In 1993, after the death of his younger sister, Mortenson resolved to honor her memory by climbing to the top of K2, the world’s second highest mountain. Thwarted by storms and altitude sickness, he had to abandon his climb, and instead ended up recovering in Korphe, a local village.
He encountered great generosity as the locals fed and housed him, but also great deprivation—the children held school outdoors, writing their lessons out with sticks on the dirt they sat on. The literacy rate was 3 percent and one out of every three children died in their first year. Mortenson promised he’d return to Korphe to build a school.
Mortenson followed through with that promise, and the completion of the Korphe school marked the beginning of his longtime dedication to education in the region, a dedication he comes to naturally as the son and grandson of teachers. Mortenson and his Central Asia Institute have established approximately 80 schools and many women’s vocational centers in the rural and often volatile regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Institute-built schools provide access to education for over 28,000 children, including 18,000 girls.
As the United States launched massive military campaigns to fight terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan after 9/11, Mortenson, a veteran Army medic, became increasingly convinced that investing in education, especially of women, is key to overcoming extremism. “You can drop bombs,” he says, “hand out condoms, build roads, or put in electricity, but until the girls are educated a society won’t change.”
Despite strong partnerships with Islamic leaders, military commanders and tribal chiefs, Mortenson has faced determined opposition. He has survived two fatwas against him by enraged mullahs objecting to the secular education of girls, escaped a firefight between feuding Afghan warlords, and lived through an eight-day armed kidnapping by the Taliban. He has also endured two CIA investigations into his work and received myriad death threats and hate mail from fellow Americans who criticize his support of Muslim children. But he’s also witnessed firsthand, again and again, the ways in which education transforms society.
Mortenson spends half of every year in Pakistan and Afghanistan and much of the other half traveling the US, lecturing about promoting peace, prosperity, and empowerment through education. He has spoken at approximately 60 universities and more than 400 elementary and secondary schools, on Capitol Hill, at the Pentagon, and to churches, mosques, synagogues, civic groups, and conventions across America.
Tom Brokaw described Mortenson as “one ordinary person, with the right combination of character and determination, who is really changing the world.” U.S. Rep. Mary Bono says, "I've learned more from Greg Mortenson about the causes of terrorism than I did during all our briefings on Capitol Hill. He is a true hero, whose creativity, courage, and compassion exemplify the true ideals of the American spirit.”
Mortenson, 50, lives in Bozeman, Montana with his wife, Dr. Tara Bishop, a clinical psychologist, and their two children, Khyber and Amira.