Loading

PRESIDENT'S FORUM

Dave Relin

I want to thank a lot of people in this community who have come together to create this evening. We already met at the library and I was amazed to see the sixth-graders and Girl Scouts and older people and book groups, and community leaders and professors and all of that has confirmed what I have been suspecting for a long time that "Three Cups of Tea" has indeed become a cult. I'm glad we recruited all of you to be here this evening. I'd like to thank my mother who is sitting on an uncomfortable chair in the aisle she just had hip surgery and I want to thank her for making her first trip away from home to be here for this evening, so thank you. I want to specifically not thank President Mark Gearan for scheduling a radio interview 4:45 a.m. my time after I arrived here at midnight last night but fortunately I come prepared. The double shot is just a remarkable invention and I'm not getting anything from Starbucks for this but I hardly endorse it and I hope this will improve our experience together, so Mark here's to you.

Most importantly I want to thank President Gearan for something that he told me about a family member's reaction to "Three Cups of Tea." I had the pleasure of meeting his daughter, Kathleen, earlier this evening, and she's a sixth-grader and her class is reading "Three Cups of Tea" and Mark told me that after his daughter had read the book that's he came home and said the following: "You know, before I only heard bad things in the news about Pakistan and Afghanistan but now I understand they are just ordinary people like us." If people who read "Three Cups of Tea" got nothing else out of the book than that I would consider the book a success so thank you Kathleen for our thoughts on the subject.

What we're going to do together here tonight is I'm going to blather on for a little bit without a lot of visual aids and then I'll move into what I hope is the most entertaining part of the evening. I'm going to show you three photos that I made from the northern parts of Pakistan while I was reporting "Three Cups of Tea" and I'm also going to show you some photos from the project I am currently working on. I just returned from several reporting trips but what I'm going to do before we get to that is I'm just going to try to talk about the process of how I came to be traveling and writing and trying to convey a story like "Three Cups of Tea." I lied. I guess I'll go with one visual aid. I blame my parents for making me a journalist because they wouldn't let me have a motorcycle. In college I got a really extraordinary graduation present, I think my parents knew I was itching to see the rest of the world and when I graduated from Vassar. I got a card and I opened it up and the light was kind of poor in the restaurant where I was reading it and the card said your graduation present is a plane ticket to anywhere in the world.

I had to look very closely at the card to make sure it was a two-way ticket. I was able to ascertain that they were planning to let me back to the United States after my trip and so I thought long and hard about where I wanted to go. In college I had studied Asia and Asian politics and English so I knew I wanted to write but I also knew I didn't know a whole lot and I really needed to experience some of the world. So I decided I would go to India and I left in the fall after my graduation and I went to India. I arrived in the city of Jiapur and saw this motorcycle, a Royal Enfield bullet. It was from the 1940s it was really shiny and delightful looking. I didn't know how to ride a motorcycle but it seemed like a really terrific idea to buy it and to ride through some of the worst traffic in the world. So I bought this motorcycle but it was sort of a poor decision because it was really more of piece of sculpture than a means of transportation. It was very shiny it was very pretty I mean just look at the thing. But as an A to B device it really didn't do the thing and so I would ride this out into the countryside and break down everywhere and I would break down on lonely stretches of road, I would break down in small villages and everywhere I went people invited me into their homes. People poured me tea, they figured out ways to fix the motorcycle they would take wire or bits of tin cans or whatever was on hand and patch the thing together so I could get to the next place. I learned something I think I learned the first absolute lesson in my lesson while I was with this motorcycle. I learned several things from books but this was the first real gut lesson of my life because I was invited into home after home after home in these really poor areas. I learned something that has been an absolute truth to me ever since and that is: people with the least offer the most.

It was true in India; it was certainly true in the northern areas of Pakistan. It's been true in the last year in Rwanda and Ethiopia, in Nepal and every place I've been. The people with the least offer the most. So I thought this is what I want to write about. But how do I do that? I came back to the U.S. I used that second half of the round trip ticket and I proposed all sorts of fascinating stories. Proposed I would take a bicycle trip around Africa and I proposed these types of stories to National Geographic, all the magazines I wanted to write for. There was a strange silence on the other end of the line. Strangely enough, National Geographic didn't want to send me to the other side of the world to do what I wanted to do as a 22 year old. The first paying assignment I had for a magazine instead was on how to refinish your wood floors for Reader's Digest. It was a start but it certainly didn't put me where I wanted to be. Soon after I went to a lecture by a writer I admire very much named Grace Paley. This is a subliminal way to tell you that you might actually get something out of listening to a writer at a public forum so I'm just trying to lodge that thought in your mind.

So I went to see Grace Paley speak and she was a writer I particularly admired because she was able to tell young writers who were a little self absorbed that there's a big world out of there. She said stop staring at your belly button and get out there and be a part of it. And then she said something that really knocked me out that evening she said "I believe that the duty of a writer is to listen to the stories of the powerless and to tell those stories to the powerful." Listen to the stories of the powerless and tell those stories to the powerful. Well I felt like I was struck by lightening when she said that. I felt like she put into words what I hoped to do. I felt like she mapped the career path that I hoped to travel and so with a lot of speed bumps along the way that's what I began trying to do.

There was a lot of unfascinating journalism along the way. I think the absolute low point in my journalistic career was when I was going to interview basketball player Michael Jordon who at the time was one of the most famous people on the face of the earth. Instead of getting to spend time with him, I was held by security guards off to the side for 20 or 25 minutes while Mr. Jordan moisturized his legs. I watched him work the moisturizer in the left leg and then his right leg and then down to the calf and then he missed a spot and he went back and worked the moisturizer in a little bit more and finally I was escorted forward for my time with the great man. And what he had to say was not much. He talked about how the team has to come together, how you have to take it one game at a time. Up close, I found that famous people weren't particularly interesting. I thought-- how much of our culture is devoted to every one of their words? Yesterday as I landed in Newark and as I walked into a bookstore at the Newark airport there was a giant display kind of hitting you in the hip before you got through the door and just at the top it said the word "celebrity." There were books and magazines and there were details on Brad and Angelina and how they're getting along and who lost weight and it amazed me at the time and it amazes me now how a percentage of our culture obsesses about the comings and goings and the whims of celebrities.

So time to take Grace Paley's words to heart, I tried to start writing about people representing the powerless, reaching out to the people with the fewest resources who were trying to do something about it. Up close with them I found a very different experience. I found that these people were a lot more interesting, and they seemed happier. I thought, "I'm on to something." So we came up to the period of 9/11 and 9/11 presented another conundrum, another question about how do we deal with this world that we've now been bequeathed, how do we deal with this upheaval, and what I was asking myself at the time –"What is the duty of a writer at this kind of junction?" I thought, we are spending all of our time as a culture stereotyping and lumping together this gigantic group of people and in fact, every time I turned on the television I would see them same phrases that just drove me crazy over and over again. You would see a talking head on CNN or Fox or somewhere with a so-called expert speaking. Underneath the talking head there would be a little scroll that seemed to say the same thing. "Why do they hate us? That question drove me crazy. Mostly because I thought it was a stupid question. I thought everything about it was wrong--the "they" and the "us" -- the fact that a quarter of the earth's population more than a billion people would be lumped together into a "they" --that someone from Morocco or Saudi Arabia or Indonesia would be the same because they happen to be Muslim.

I thought, what could I do about this as a writer? I wrote one story about an Iranian American family who had a beloved grandmother on the second plane to the World Trade Center. I talked about the impact on that family and I tried to make the point that we're individuals. These are not faceless groups. And then about this time I was invited to one of my closest friend's weddings in Brooklyn. I was dressing the groom, my phone rang and on the other end of the phone was a very pushy and persuasive magazine editor and he said, there's someone is my office who you really need to meet. I said, "I'm dressing the groom this probably isn't the best time." And my friend Michael, who's a very kind person, said "just be back for the ceremony." So I rushed into the offices and I walked through a door, and you know how in retrospect your mind plays tricks on you? I'm sure it was an ordinary office door but at the time it sounded like a dungeon door swinging shut behind me. I was pushed into this room, the editor closed the door behind me and he didn't go in himself and I heard this "errrr clank" sound behind me in my mind and the sound of sort of padlocks being pulled over the door and locked shut. The implication was we're going to lock you in this room and let you work it out or we're not letting you out in time for the wedding. Well I walked into the room and in front of me was this person. It was a lot to take in because he was 6 foot 4 inches and he was wearing a business suit in the way only a person who doesn't wear business suits can wear business suits. Everything about it seemed pulled to the side and either too tight or too loose, the knot on his tie was pulled all the way to the side and as I looked up and down and got to his feet I saw that with his plaid business suit he was wearing a pair of brown, after-ski moccasins. And this was Greg Mortenson.

I thought-- this is an interesting person. He doesn't really belong in this world, but what world does he belong in? So we sat down and Greg took out maps and charts and notes and started telling me what he'd been doing: working to build schools in Pakistan primarily for girls. Within a few minutes he asked, "Will you write a book about this?' And I said, "I can't imagine anything more important than that." So I got into the process of chasing Greg Mortenson all over the world for the next few years. So why did I jump at that opportunity, why did I want to drop everything I was doing to write a book about a person who didn't know how to wear a suit and couldn't put the proper shoes on with the suit? I think I realized that all of these so called experts, all of these talking heads on TV, seemed to me to be very often off course. Talking about military solutions to terrorism. But Greg made a lot of sense. He was talking about fighting the root causes that create terrorism. The causes like poverty and ignorance and the people who take advantage of those conditions and recruit terrorists. I thought, here is someone who is rolling up his sleeves to deal with the root causes and what could be more important than trying to tell that story. So I began chasing, and waiting or and traveling with and listening to Greg Mortenson.

Along the way I met a lot of interesting people, generals and school teachers and students in Pakistan, and I met supporters who worked with Greg around the U.S. and elsewhere. But the person who really sticks in my mind is the person who said something so obvious. This is during my first trip to Pakistan; I was sitting in an office with a general and he was trying to arrange a flight for Greg and I up to the northern areas of Pakistan but while we're sitting around his office talking, the general said the following: "You know you can never fight and win against someone who can shoot at you once and then hide and run while you have to remain eternally on guard. You have to attack the source of your enemy's strength. In America's case that not Osama or Sadam or anyone else, the enemy is ignorance. The only way to defeat it is to build relationships with these people, to draw them into the modern world with education and business. Otherwise the fight will go on forever." Well if you take away nothing else from this evening I hope that clear voice will lodge in our voice.

The enemy is ignorance. I hope those points of view stick in your cranium just a little bit. And now we are going to shift things just a little bit and move onto the visual part of the evening.

So this is the machine (motorcycle) that forced me to become a journalist by stranding me and that was the beginning of several trips, often on two wheels and often travelling by very inefficient means to get to the places where the powerless, the underserved, the people with the fewest resources lived. This is a friend of mine names Dunlap Ke. And Ke is exactly my age. I convinced someone to finally send me on one of these trips eventually and a bicycling magazine sent me to Vietnam to ride my bicycle from Saigon in the south and about 2,000 km to Hanoi in the north and along the way I traveled with various people. I traveled with my good friend from the Iowa Writers Workshop, Jim Sullivan but I also traveled with Ke and I learned a lot from him. I learned that what I learned from books was not as powerful as what I could learn from people.

Ke was born in what was then Vietnam. His father was a soldier for the North Vietnamese Army and Ke grew up under the B-52 raids that our country sent to his country. His father was killed by one of the bombs that wiped out his position and so it was a cultural exchange for the two of us biking across Vietnam. Ke told me that when you know an individual, the big issues of the day melt away and you kind of connect, person- to –person. So I pedaled back to Vietnam and to other places in Asia frequently. The bike was really a terrible motorcycle. It was very nice to look at but it didn't work very well. This, on the other hand, is the world's worst motorcycle; this motorcycle built in Eastern Europe, it's famous in Vietnam because you can fix it with virtually anything. It's also famous because you can't go 5 to 10 km without something falling off. Often it would be a muffler or a pedal or a piece of a handlebar. Just to give you a sense of the incredible drama and glamour of working as a foreign reporter most of the time.

This is a picture that was taken a few years ago while I was writing about landmine victims in central Vietnam. Not long after this picture was taken I rode around the corner here. I rode into a village, and as I came into the village, there were three elderly women sitting on the ground with their blankets spread in front of them selling fruits and vegetables. I pulled up to them thinking that I would buy something. I hit the brakes and just as I stepped on the brakes, a horn went off for some reason. The horn went off with this strangled water fowl noise and then it fell off. So I thought I'm not going to get particularly far in Vietnam without a horn. So I put down the kickstand and got off the bike to retrieve it and as I stepped over the bike I reached down to pick up the horn, I stepped in something very warm and moist and unpleasant. I looked down, and I was standing up to my ankle in buffalo turd. The worst part of it was that I was wearing sandals. So I looked around quickly hoping no one else had noticed, and I saw the three women over by their fruits and vegetables bent forward with their faces in their hands laughing their heads off at me. So I didn't get away with that one.

But what I was doing in Vietnam was the same process that I'm talking about, listening to the stories of the powerless and telling those stories to the powerful. More than 30 years after what we call the Vietnam War, though the Vietnamese refer to it as the American War, all this time later in central Vietnam, the place that was most heavily bombed and mined, there's someone every single day that steps on an old mine and loses an arm or a leg or their lives. In fact the problem is so wide spread that they even hold a Special Olympics in Vietnam for landmine victims. These are some of the athletes that I was interviewing. So there are times occasionally, sadly, where you can't travel on a motorcycle and occasionally you have to turn to your feet. This is a trip I was on last year, and I was travelling to this area. This is Mt. Everest here, and I had been asked by two Sherpa climbers, who were remarkable mountain climbers, if I would come after the success of "Three Cups of Tea." They wondered if I would come and help them raise money for schools in the Everest region, which was having funding difficulties. So I went and visited their village; this is the school here that Sir Edmund Hillary built when he first summated Everest. This is the school they built when they came down from Everest. So I went and interviewed the students, and we raised money, and the school, which was going to have to let the teachers go managed to put aside enough money to continue on. Mission accomplished.

I thought I've walked a lot more than I really wanted to, but at least something good came out of it. Now I can go home. But life has a strange way of throwing curve balls at you, and this is the curve ball that was thrown to me at that moment. I started getting more and more heated e-mails from this doctor, right about this time. After "Three Cups of Tea" started getting attention, it seemed to me I was getting stalked by most of the humanitarians in the world in the nicest possible way. This doctor said while you're in Nepal, I built a hospital with my Nepalese partner. Would you please have a look? I think you'll find it very interesting. What I didn't know about Jeff (the doctor) at the time and I learned very quickly, was that Jeff was one of these strange people, who seems to be able to do everything better than anyone else. Jeff went to Harvard Medical School; he was the captain of the Yale tennis team. He went to Oxford and studied philosophy. He climbed Mt. Everest the hardest way it's ever been climbed, up the last unclimbed face and then he wasn't done; he didn't feel like going back to medical school right away. He climbed the Seven Summits, the highest peak on each continent. And then after that he decided he would do humanitarian work and was posted to Nepal. And he thought, "I've got a Harvard degree. I can teach these doctors that I meet in Nepal all of the latest tricks, all of the Western technology that they may not be familiar with. And so he went to apprentice with a Nepalese doctor. But the thing is when he went to Nepal he found out that the doctor was actually light years ahead of him. He grew up on the border of Tibet and Nepal in a village with no school, no running water, no electricity. His father walked him 17 days across the border of India, so that he could put him in boarding school. He was such a brilliant person that by the time he finished school, he graduated No. 1 in medicine in all of India. And he decided he was going to go back to his own country and tackle the biggest health problem there. Even though he had all sorts of lucrative offers from around the world, he decided he was going to go back to Nepal and try to tackle an epidemic of blindness. He began going out to the countryside and going out to rural Nepal and Tibet, going to places which had the highest prevalence of blindness in the world, and trying to do something about it. He invented a type of surgery that could cure the largest type of blindness in the world.

Cataracts affect about 200 million people around the world. In our country, it's a function of aging; as you get older, the lens of your eye begins to get a bit clouded, but in developing countries, cataracts are a function of poverty. Children get them, young adults get them, older people get them in great numbers. Cataracts are caused by poverty, they're caused by poor nutrition, they're caused by injuries, living in a very difficult way where you're chopping wood and working with knives. There they took a procedure that costs about $3,000 in our country and figured out a way to do it for about $15 a patient. Together they formed an organization called the Himalayan Cataracts Project, and since they've done about 500,000 free sight-restoring surgeries across Asia, and now moving into Africa. This is a picture of me last year, and I should tell you I'm one of the most squeamish people on Earth. I thought about medical school, and when I had to deal with a cadaver during one of my biology classes in high school, I turned about the same green color as these walls. So for some people, I'm saying, it might be no big deal when you're going to watch hard metal instruments pierce human flesh. For me, it was a challenge, and you can see this look on my face as I'm about to see this first eye surgery in Nepal.

Now this is a woman that I met on this first trip, she is 52-years old, a tailor, and by the time she had come to this place, she had gone completely blind. Her family became increasingly poorer; they didn't own land. They began to sell off everything they could to support themselves because she could no longer sew. Finally when her son was in a bus crash, she sold the last fine thing that they had in their home, her sewing machine. When her husband heard that the Cataracts Project was coming to a rural area in Nepal, he decided he would get her there. I asked him "How did you get her here? This seems very difficult." And he said to me, "We took a taxi." I looked around, and there were no roads, and I couldn't figure out what he meant. And then he pointed at himself and said, "I'm the taxi." So he had carried his wife in a basket on his back for several days to get her to this temporary surgical center. And then I watched her go through the process of having cataracts surgery.

The surgery that he has perfected takes about six minutes a patient. So he had operated on all of these people, and this is early the following morning as they're waiting for their bandages to come off. And here she is at the first moment after being blind for several years, the very first moment when her sight was restored. Now unfortunately what she was looking at this big moment in her life was a sweaty, unshaven, American journalist, squatting in front of her with a camera. I asked her how her husband looks. And she said, "The same. He's still handsome." So this was one of these moments in your life that if you're wise and you listen to the vibrations, you act. I had come to Nepal simply to travel with these mountain climbers, to raise money for a school. But at this moment, when her eyes had opened, I realized I had found the subject of my next book. And I spent the last two years, travelling and working on this project.

The strangest thing happened the following day, when I went to check on the patients and I walked into the recovery ward, I heard this voice speaking perfect clear English saying, "Excuse me sir. Yesterday I couldn't see at all. Now I'm seeing perfectly well. Do you think you could find the doctor who did this for me so I can thank him?" So I went into surgery and grabbed the doctor who was there to perform the surgery. And I said, "I know you're busy but you really have to come meet someone." [He comes to the patient who says] "You're my brother, and I'll never forget you." And then he invited us to his house for the Ethiopian coffee ceremony. Now the doctors couldn't leave, but I decided to go. In Ethiopia, it's a beautiful ceremony. You roast the coffee beans over coals, and you walk up to the guests, and you waft the roasting coffee beans in their face. You spread popcorn and grass on the floor so the whole room will smell wonderful for the coffee ceremony. And the coffee was prepared, and it was served, and I had one cup, and then I had another cup, and I started to get up and leave because this was rocket fuel. That double expresso I had from Starbucks was nothing compared to this stuff. So I tried to go, and they grabbed me, and they literally held me in my seat. They said, "You can't go! You can't go! You have to have a third cup. We believe that if you spend time together and you have three cups of coffee, then that's the blessing cup, and we'll be friends, and we'll have a relationship forever." I kind of looked around for hidden cameras. I thought, "Nobody knows me here. They don't know I'm the "Three Cups of Tea" guy." I thought I once again travelled to a remote place, to the other side of the world, and found the same things hold true. So I just want to pause on this photo for a moment. This is definitely the least flattering photo of myself I've ever projected in an auditorium, but this photo is very meaningful to me because it's a picture that was taken with my camera by a boy that was blind the day before. So from coffee to tea, I just want to point something out. This is not a small teacup. This is a large, man-sized ordinary teacup in Pakistan. This is a very very large hand. And it belongs to a very large person.

I made three trips to the northern area of Pakistan. And since we've been talking about motorcycles and vehicles, I just want to pause on this vehicle particularly because this is a helicopter built in the late 1950s. The Pakistanis have a nickname for this helicopter. They call it the French Flute because it really shouldn't be flying after all these years, but somehow it still is. This is how things go in Pakistan, and much of the developing world. You use things until they wear out. The problem was I was about to get in this thing and fly over the tallest mountains in the world, and so I was hoping the French Flute would just keep flying a little bit longer. Now the other thing that was going on here was that I wasn't wearing my shalwar kameez properly. When I first arrived in Pakistan, Greg Mortensen asked that everyone travels with him wear the shalwar kameez as a mark of respect to people in the remote, conservative communities where he worked, but what he doesn't do is give you operating instructions. If you've never worn a shalwar kameez, the shalwar part is about six feet wide, and you have to wind a little strap through the waist, and you have to tie it just so. Nobody told me this, and we were running for the helicopter. So my first few trips in Pakistan, my first few days, I had the waistband, hanging down my leg like an elephant's trunk. It's sort of the Pakistani equivalent of having your fly unzipped. As we arrived in all these villages of northern Pakistan, I kept getting the strange sensation that something wasn't quite right. I heard I was going to a quote "scary Islamic country" but everyone seemed so cheerful. They were always pointing and laughing. Eventually people were kind enough to tell me how to wear the clothing.

What I saw out the window on that helicopter those first few trips was scenery like this. And as I was first travelling around Pakistan and I'd look out the window of the helicopter, I think I had a skewed view of what life was like on the ground in these villages. This is in the far northwest of Pakistan, near Afghanistan. This is a high altitude village, and you can see of the homes of the village here on the relatively flat areas. What I didn't realize at first was how incredibly hard life is in a village like this. If you happen to live in these homes here or these homes here, and if you're lucky enough to have access to the good farm lands here or here, then you're going to work in very short growing season, for 10 or 12 hours a day just to try to put aside enough food for the very very long winter when the trails close, the snow comes in, and you can't get supplies in from the outside world. But if you don't have access to the good land, you might have to do your incredibly difficult, labor intensive farming on a slope like this or a slope like this. This always comes back to me when I think about a slope like this. This is a buckwheat field here. So imagine that your job is to wake up every day, go out of your house at first light, climb up this switchback trail, dig a little irrigation ditch here so you can get a trickle of glacial melt water to irrigate your field, and then on this 45 degree slope, do incredibly hard and physical labor just so you can put aside enough food so your family doesn't go hungry in the winter. Seeing this is when it really clicked for me. The people in villages like this didn't lack schools and clinics and roads and electricity because they were lazy. It was because they were engaged in an animal struggle to survive. They were stuck in a cycle of poverty. And I really can to feel, going from village to village like this, that with all of the wealth in our culture, with all of the excess, with all of the fat, it's our duty to help people in places like this to break this cycle of poverty. It's the least we can do. It's simple for us to pay $30 a month for the salary of teacher in that community. It's the very least we can do.

I arrived at the village of Korphe, and Korphe, if you've read "Three Cups of Tea," is where a lot of the early part of the book takes place. Korphe is where Greg builds his first school and where he recuperated after K2. This is Greg here. We had just gotten out of the helicopter, and all of these people ran to the helicopter and embraced Greg, embraced him like long lost family. I stood by thinking, "This is very strange. This is a place where Americans are supposed to be hated or feared. Yet he's getting greeted like long lost family." And then I thought, 'It can't possibly transfer. He's built this relationship over a decade. I could come here for five years and nothing like this would happen to me." And then five minutes later it happened to me. Now, just before this picture was taken, I was shown the Korphe school. Young girls came up to me and showed me the school with incredible pride. One particular girl, a 12 year-old, said, "You know. I've heard bad things about America. I've heard people say a lot of things. But for us, Americans are the kindest people. They're the only ones who've ever cared to help us." I think it was hearing that just snipped a cord in me. You know, as journalists, we're trained a particular way. You're supposed to be objective. Ideally in theory, journalists are supposed to hover over their subjects from a distance, looking down on them dispassionately. But what you can see in this awkward smile on my face is that my journalistic objectivity is just kind of drifting out of the top of my head like smoke because I'm realizing that at this moment this is a story I don't want to be objective about, that I can't be objective about. I'm going to be as accurate as I can. I'm going to try to get the facts right. But there is right, and there is wrong. There is good, and there is bad, and what is happening in this place I'm thinking is good. I want as many people to hear about this as possible. I want this story to be replicated in as many places as possible. So we travelled by road when we couldn't get a helicopter, when the weather came in, when we weren't travelling quite as far.

This is a picture I took when travelling up to the far northeast of Pakistan, to Kashmir, the militarized border with India. This is what the village looks like when you come down out of the helicopter and you're on the ground in a village like Korphe. Look at the land. Look at the incredible labor that it takes to carve out a flat place to live, to carve out terraced fields to farm. It's an incredibly dangerous place because huge boulders fall down the mountain sides and wipe people's homes off the face of the Earth. As you get up to the top of the Hushe Valley and beyond, you get past the foothills, you get to the high peaks of the Karakoram Himalaya, and this is what they look like. Now Karakoram Himalaya to me truly is the roof of the world. There are 64 mountains higher than 20,000 feet all within a hundred square miles. It's just incredible how many of these peaks are pushed together. The tallest one of them, the second tallest mountain in the world, is K2. Well now if you've read "Three Cups of Tea," you know that Greg first went to Pakistan to climb K2 in 1993, and things didn't go particularly well. His expedition chose to go up this route, the West Ridge, rather than the traditional route, the easier route, up K2. It's already arguably the hardest mountain to climb on Earth, and they decided to do it a harder way. Well the expedition got in trouble, and one climber, a French climber got in terrible trouble about this high in the mountain. The rest of the expedition really completed one of the most amazing rescues in mountaineering history. Tying him up in his sleeping bag, and wrapping ropes around, and lowering him like a baked potato down ridge after ridge after ridge while he was unconscious because he had pulmonary edema. He had flooding of the lungs due to high altitude. Often he was unconscious, or often he was spitting up pink foam, and so he couldn't get himself down. Finally they pulled him seven miles down this ridge through an ice fall, and finally back to the base of K2, where he was evacuated by Pakistani army helicopter. As you might imagine, he didn't get to keep his toes, but he was rescued. Greg Mortensen and the rest of the expedition saved his life. He was able to go back to France and recuperate. And eventually he wrote Greg a letter that said, "Well I lost my toes, but I have wine. I have women. I'm climbing again. Life is good."

Greg had to get down from the base camp of K2. And if you know something about the geography of the area, if you're at the base of K2 and you're exhausted from a mountaineering rescue and you've got to get down to safe ground, you can't call for the valet and have your SUV brought over. You've got to walk out of there, and it's about a 70 mile walk over very difficult terrain. If you read the book, you know that things didn't go well for Greg. He got lost on the glacier on the way out. He had to sleep alone at night; he could have very easily frozen to death or been killed. Eventually, through the help of his porter, Greg got down off of the ice and on to firm ground and worked his way back to a Jeep that would take him home. Now Greg was meant to cross over this ridge and continue down this trail here. You can all see this trail really clearly in the photo. For someone who lived in this area his whole life, that trail looks like I-90. There's no way you can miss it. They were very confused that Greg had somehow missed this ridge and didn't continue down this trail. But Greg [went the wrong way.] I wanted a souvenir of this moment, so I asked Greg if he would pose on this ridge because it seemed to be an important moment to me. It's the moment where everything changed because if you think about it, if Greg's life had continued down this path, then he probably would have returned home to San Francisco, continued climbing, continued his work as a nurse, but because his life took a detour down this bank of the river, the lives of tens of thousands of Pakistani and Afghan were changed forever.

Well Greg walked into the village of Korphe, and after a ceremonial bath in the river, he was invited into a home and this is where Greg recuperated as he was preparing to head home. After he felt a little bit better and he began to walk around the village, he realized just how poor a place it was and he made a very impulsive promise. "I'm going to build you a school. I promise." Now it's very easy to say something like that if your name was Oprah, and you have resources and a forum to raise money. If you're a climbing bum sleeping in the backseat of your grandmother's Buick and showering at a climbing gym to save money, then chances are it's a little difficult for you to raise money. So Greg came home to the Bay area, and he embarked on what I think has to be the least efficient fundraising campaign in human history. He wrote 580 letters by hand. You know, I just want to point out that the computer had been around for 30 years at this point. Five hundred and eighty letters by hand to celebrities. Dear Sylvester Stallone. Dear Michael Jordan. Dear Oprah, I'm trying to build a school. Of the 580 letters, he got one back from Tom Brokaw with a check for $100 and a wish of good luck. Finally, someone, a very cranky guy, an engineer in Seattle donated the money, giving Greg $12,000 and saying, "Now you're not going to run off to Mexico and have sex with your girlfriend on this money? You're really going to build a school, right?" Greg said, "Yes, yes I promise." He returned to Pakistan and set to work building a school. So this is the first school, the Korphe school several years into the process of trying to build this school. Things were going very very slowly. Greg was trying to walk around, push people to work faster, but it just wasn't working. He didn't realize how the community worked. He didn't yet realize they were subsistence farmers. They couldn't take a lot of time away from growing crops. They could just spend a little time, when their food was secured, building the school. And so he was pushing people and prodding them, writing down how many hours individuals worked.

Finally [one of the locals] took him aside and said, "Listen. We thank the blessings of Allah that he's brought you here and that you've done so much for us. But now would you do one thing more?" Greg said, "Sure, anything." The man said, "Good. Then sit down and shut up. You're making everyone crazy." And then he brought him to his house and waited quietly while his wife made butter tea. And when the tea was ready, he said, "We're not stupid here in Korphe. We're just poor. But we've lived, and we've survived here for a long time. And if you want to survive here, if you want to succeed here, you need to learn our ways. You need to have three cups of tea. The first cup of tea, you're a stranger to us. The second cup of tea, you're an honored guest. And if you stick around to have a third cup of tea, you really get to know us and our ways, then you become family. And for our family, we're prepared to do anything, even die." Well that of course was the great lesson of Greg Mortensen's life. That's what's enabled him to succeed building schools in one of the most hostile and difficult places on the planet.

Of course, it doesn't mean you literally drink three cups of tea and all is well. In fact, Greg and I have joked a bunch of times that the book should have been called "Three Million Cups of Tea" because to get anything done in Pakistan, you've got to have a dozen or two. But it's a metaphor. It means listen to people. It means you can't be an expert. You can't be what we're taught to be in America all too often; you can't be a know-it-all. You can't parachute into another culture, and say, "Here's what I'm going to do for you." You have to take the time and say, "What do you need?" And you have to listen, and then working together you can accomplish something. So a few months later, after he was demoted from the foreman of the construction project to just a very interested onlooker, the first school was completed, and that's the Korphe school today. Now, after learning the lesson of three cups of tea, things went more quickly. Petitions came in, other communities wanted schools. And today there are 131 schools spread across the high mountains of Pakistan and Afghanistan, educating 58,000 students, and about 44,000 of them are girls.

Now why is it so important to educate girls? Why is the focus on educating girls? It's because in this culture, like so many other cultures, the girls are the ones who are truly powerless. The girls get the fewest resources. In many of these remote villages, there may be a school for boys, but there are very often no schools for girls. The emphasis of the Central Asia Institute's work has been to educate all children, especially the most underserved, especially girls. Why particularly is it so important to do that? Because if you want to change a culture, you can do all sorts of good things for them; you can put in clean water, you can put in medical clinics, you can put in electricity and so on, and all of that will be helpful. But if you want to pull the lever that really transforms a society, the one lever that development experts are in almost complete agreement about, that changes everything is educating girls. Educating girls just to a basic fifth grade level, just to a level of literacy, changes everything. A family's income would double over the course of a generation if a girl is educated. Girls will pour their resources back into the community. Typically, in these remote places, in developing countries, girls will stay in the community and ensure others are educated while boys will leave and seek jobs in big cities or larger places. So when you sink resources into educating girls, you can really transform a place. So that's been the mission of the Central Asia Institute. Now there've been obstacles of course. We all watch the news. We've all seen the terrible violence in Pakistan and Afghanistan. There are lots of people who don't want girls to be educated.

This is a picture of a girls' school, fortunately not a Central Asia Institute school, but a girls' school nonetheless, that was destroyed by extremist Taliban. There are other obstacles as well, natural obstacles, incredibly difficult terrain. How many people in this room, while we're all stepping forward and donating and dealing with the crisis in Haiti and we're yet again rocked by a terrible human crisis, how many of you remember an equally bad crisis in October 2005 in the mountains of Pakistan? How many of you remember the earthquake in Pakistan? I'm seeing maybe 10 hands in this very large room. Now this crisis in Pakistan happened at the same time as Katrina and the same time as the Asian Tsunami, and unfortunately, if things aren't on television and you don't see images, the world doesn't pay attention. Now this is a terrible catastrophe. An earthquake struck on a Saturday morning, a school day. Two point seven million people were homeless in an instant. Seventy-eight thousand people were killed in the first minutes of the earthquake. Nine thousand schools collapsed. The earthquake brought some of the poorest people in the world to a terrible situation and while some people responded, the world in general did not mobilize.

This is a picture, today, of what some of the earthquake areas still look like. Remember, this happened in 2005. Now, like I said, it was a school morning, a Saturday, and so the schools collapsed. These are the survivors of one of the collapsed schools. There had been 88 female students; these are the 43 survivors. So the Central Asia Institute tried to create shelter and tried to start putting schools back up, and this was a temporary school building that was actually placed on the rubble by the American military. This was flown in by helicopter diverted from combat duty in Afghanistan. This is another piece of recent history that so few Americans know, that the greatest airlift in human history happened in these mountains. The American military diverted helicopters, flew in food, flew in supplies, and kept lots of people alive in the high mountains. And those images were broadcast on television in Pakistan every day, and a funny thing began to happen. People were taking opinion polls at the same time, and people in Pakistan's images of Americans shot straight up through the roof, every time these images of helicopters helping their people were shown. This is almost so simple that it seems silly to say it, but I'm going to say it anyway. If you help people, if you offer them hope, they like you better. So the rest of the village got together, and students came in from surrounding schools.

They held a meeting to discuss how they wanted to rebuild their school with the Central Asia Institute's help. And the youngest students stepped forward, and girls said, "We have a special request. When we rebuild the school, we want to do something special for our classmates. Some of our classmates not only didn't survive the earthquake but their bodies were never claimed." Think about what that means. That probably means their entire families were wiped out by that earthquake. So the girls said, "When we rebuild the school, we want to rebuild it around their graves, so that we can study alongside them."

This is an English class going on next to the graves of unclaimed students of the school. "We want to go and study alongside their graves so that they're never forgotten, they're never lonely." And that's what happened. Now I'm just going to show you two more photos, and then I'd like to leave time to have a conversation if anybody would like to have a conversation. I'd be happy to talk about anything. We can discuss current affairs in Pakistan and Afghanistan. I'd be happy to update you on the status of schools. Anything you would like to talk about. But before we get to that, I'd like to just linger on two more photos. This photo is the most important photo I'm going to show you this evening. This is a photo of a terrorism factory. This is a photo of people who are still homeless from the earthquake of October 2005. These are tents that they once received from the U.N., but the U.N. was gone from this particular area. Foreign aid has dried up, and you know who's come in to take advantage of that? A terrorist organization. This is a kitchen in a place where all of the people in the refugee camp are fed, and this tent is an extremist religious school. I want to be very careful about terminology because one of the things we tend to do is blanket ideas together. Madrasah is not a sinister idea. Madrasah is simply the Arabic word for 'school.' And madrasah means a school with a religious focus, but there is a subset of those madrasahs. The World Bank estimates that about 15 percent of the madrasahs in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border area are extremist madrasahs that teach violent jihad, weapons training, and hatred of the West.

Now, how did these organizations get funded? They get funded when we put gas in our vehicles; the more gas we use, the better the funding is. Our gas dollars go to Saudi Arabia, and they go to Gulf States, and then that money is sent to the untraceable money transfer service, arrives in border areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan, and then billions and billions and billions of our gas dollars arrive to fund these extremist madrasahs. Now, the scope of the problem is really staggering. The World Bank estimates there are about 20,000 of these extremist madrasahs in the region. And so what's going on here? You're looking at the essence of what I talked about when I said Greg Mortensen was fighting the root causes of terrorism, poverty and ignorance. Here's a place with extreme poverty; here's a place without any education, no one else has cared to build a school in this place. So this organization came in to recruit, to take advantage of this poverty and ignorance. If we're going to get serious about the magnitude of the problem that we face, we're going to have to create institutions on the scale of these extremist madrasahs. The Central Asia Institute is a wonderful model to emulate. But 131 schools are not going to tip the balance against 20,000. So it's up to us on a national level through the State Department, through U.S.A. Ideas, it's up to us to twist the arms of our allies to fund organizations that will offer something different, that will offer a balanced education.

So what you're looking at here is what I've come to think of as a harvest of hopelessness, and it's going on all over the world. But is that the end of the story? Is there no way forward? Must we only be pessimistic about that? I don't think so. There's a very simple solution to this. There's a secret weapon that can reverse the course of recent history, and that weapon is this: a strong, educated woman. This is Jihan. Jihan is the very first graduate of the very first Central Asia Institute School in Korphe. She's the granddaughter of Haji Ali, the daughter of the current nurmadhar of Korphe. She's the very first woman in her village to become educated, and Jihan is now moving on and studying medicine and has come down out of the mountains of the Karakoram Himalaya and is in the town of Skardu, a very big city by her standards. Her family has granted her a little stone house, and she's living with chaperons, and she's studying. So I went to meet with Jihan in this little house, and I wanted to ask her what she was planning for her future. We sat down on a carpet, and of course there were the three or 13 cups of tea while we talked. Jihan told me about her life. She said, "You know, when I was a little sort of girl living in Korphe, an important person would come to my village, and I would run and hide. I would think, I'm unclean, I'm unimportant, I'm a girl. But then I got educated, and after I became educated, I felt clear, and I felt clean, and I felt that I could stand in front of anyone, any man, and make my case." And she said, "At first I thought I was going to study to be a nurse, and then I decided I wanted to be a doctor. But now I realize education is like water. It's important for everything in life, and I want more and more and more of it. I'd like to become the kind of woman who can build a hospital and become its chief administrator and look over the health and welfare of all of the people in my place." Then Jihan became frustrated. We were speaking in English, which is her third language, after Balti and Urdu. She was eloquent, and she was doing a terrific job of her explaining herself. But she felt like she wasn't being clear enough. And so she put down her teacup, and she looked out the window of this little stone house, out into the rain where a group of boys were playing soccer and they were kicking a little ball made of torn fabric tied together on a rocky soccer field and kicking it through goals made of stacked stone. While she watched them play, she searched for the word to explain what she hoped to be in life. I saw her eyes when she got it. I saw them light up, and she turned back to me, and she said, "I want to be a, a superlady." I just about spit out what was left of my tea. I said, "Jihan, you're already a superlady. To have done what you've had the courage to do, to be the first girl to be able to go to a school in your village, to listen to the taunts of the boys who said you couldn't do it, to have had the courage to come down out of your village, out of the mountains to Skardu, to this big place, and blaze a path that others are going to follow, you're already a superlady."

So again, if we're going to be serious about the magnitude of the problem that we face, we need to create more Jihans. We need to create any army of Jihans because, I promise you, poorly educated boys who've been recruited based on poverty and desperation and ignorance are no match for well-educated girls like Jihan. Let me just leave you with one little fact to ponder, just one little detail, as we think about how to move forward, as we think about hard power and soft power and military solutions and humanitarian solutions: one smart bomb, one 250 pound smart bombs that you drop from a plane that may or may not hit its target and is gone in an instant, costs about $25,000. One Central Asia Institute school building which will educate children in a non-extremist, balanced fashion over the course of generations, costs about $25,000. So which in the long run do think will not only make us safer but will make the world a better place? Thanks very much for listening.

SPEAKER ARCHIVE

Spring 2014

Fall 2013

Spring 2013

Fall 2012

Spring 2012

Fall 2011

Spring 2011

Fall 2010

Spring 2010

Fall 2009

Spring 2009

Fall 2008

Spring 2008

Fall 2007

Spring 2007

Fall 2006

Spring 2006

Fall 2005

Spring 2005

Fall 2004

Spring 2004

Fall 2003 

Spring 2003

Fall 2002

Spring 2002

Fall 2001

Past Speakers