Education equips people with the ability to make decisions, which leads to hope and empowerment, author and world peace proponent Greg Mortenson said at Samford University Monday, April 11.
“Our challenge is to help every child on this planet go to school,” said Mortenson, author of the 2006 best-selling book Three Cups of Tea and more recently, Stones into Schools: Promoting Peace with Books Not Bombs.
Children who are not in school may harvest crops in Africa, become child soldiers or slaves, or, in Cambodia, get foot fungus from working barefoot in rice paddies. “Slavery is more rampant than ever because of children,” he said. “There is no reason why any child should be a slave or be denied the right to go to school.”
Mortenson has made it his life’s work and mission to raise awareness and money for schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Founder of Central Asia Institute and Pennies for Peace education charity, he has established or supports 171 school in rural and often volatile areas of the two countries. More than 68,000 children, many of them girls, benefit from the opportunities.
His passion began when he attempted to climb Pakistan’s K2, the world’s second highest mountain, in 1993 to honor the memory of his sister. After the climb, he observed children, mostly boys, studying their lessons in the sand, and was asked by a girl to build a school.
“It changed my life forever,” he said of the experience. Fundraising to build schools started slowly, but gained speed when fourth graders at a Wisconsin school where his mother was principal raised more than $60,000. “It wasn’t celebrities or adults, but children raising money,” he said.
His Pennies for Peace program is now in 4,800 schools all over the world. Its curriculum includes lessons on service, history, geography and math, and a component for each child to spend 10 hours with an elder relative or friend.
“A tragedy of American society is that we’ve lost the tradition where we learn from our elders about such things as faith and heritage,” he said. “There is nothing they’ve made it through that we can’t overcome. It is important to make that link.”
A large focus of his work is on educating girls. “If you educate a boy, you educate an individual,” he said. “When you educate a girl, you educate a community.”
In Afghanistan, he said, the National Solidarity Program has made education a top priority for boys and for girls. “They recognize that unless girls are educated, a society will never change,” he said. Educated girls result in reduced infant mortality, a reduced population explosion, and increased literacy. “Women are the propagators of education in any society,” he said, noting that women say their top three desires are for peace, that their children not die, and that their children have an education.
It is important that local people be responsible for and invested in the construction and management of the schools, said Mortenson, who describes his current role as largely that of cheerleader for the projects in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
It is a concept he learned as a child watching his father establish Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Center, a teaching hospital in Tanzania, in 1971. His father’s desire that it be managed by local people was realized 10 years later when all department heads at the center were trained in or were from Tanzania.
“All of us have an innate desire to help people, but we must empower them. There is a difference in helping and empowering,” said Mortenson.
Prior to the lecture, Mortenson visited with students from Tuscaloosa Magnet Middle School and Moody Middle School, who presented him about $400 each for Pennies for Peace.
After shaking hands with each child, he described for them what many of their counterparts in other countries endure to attend school. “Many kids walk three hours to go to school, attend school for four or five hours, and then go back home to work in fields. Yet, those kids are very excited to go to school,” he said.
Mortenson spoke as the inaugural lecturer in the Tom and Marla Corts Distinguished Author Series. The lecture benefitted the teacher education program of Samford’s Orlean Bullard Beeson School of Education and Professional Studies. An appreciative crowd of about 2,100 almost filled Wright Center Concert Hall for the presentation.
Birmingham business leader Bill Ratliff was instrumental in bringing Mortenson to the Samford lecture stage.