Greg Mortenson is an obsessive--of the socially useful kind. He began by being obsessed with mountain climbing and with admiration for his younger sister Christa's bravery and determination in surviving severe epilepsy. When the condition killed her in 1992, Greg decided to memorialize her, and combine two obsessions, by climbing K2 in her honor. On his way to the summit in 1993, he assisted another climber who is in immediate need of medical evacuation, and after that, didn't have sufficient strength to summit the mountain himself. On his return from K2, he got lost, and almost died spending a night without protection on the Baltoro glacier. Lost, confused, and emaciated, he wanders into the tiny village of Korphe, and before he leftes the village, had formed his next obsession, which has lasted him, and the world, until today. His next obsession combined facing insurmountable odds while improving the lives of little girls. Perhaps at first he thought he'd be satisfied with building a school for the children of Korphe, whom he observed doing their sums with little sticks in the dirt of a large field in Korphe, a school building being, at that point for this impoverished village, an impossible dream. Little did the Korpheans realize that the man who promised one of their daughters a school was a magnificent obsessive. It took two years to get the school in Korphe built, because a new bridge was needed to get the building materials into the village. But as of the fall of 2009, there were 130 schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan, including one in a Taliban stronghold, and smaller projects throughout the region in support of teachers, students, or simply potable water in the aftermath of the 2005 earthquake.
CAI can build a school for funds in the neighborhood of $12,000, using local suppliers and local labor. For $50,000 it can build and support the school for five years. It signs an agreement with the local leaders that 33% of students will be girls in the first year of operation, with the percentage to increase in succeeding years. Greg Mortenson, as he personally testifies in both books, learned invaluable lessons about how to do what he wanted to do from local Pakistanis and Afghanis, starting with the illiterate headman of Korphe, Haji Ali. Although known as "Dr. Greg" in large areas of both countries, he has no doctorate. His training is an an emergency nurse, and it has served him well in the isolated, impoverished communities he works in. He does, however, have a positive genius for working with people whose backgrounds are nothing like his. Two fatwahs were issued against him in the early days, and both were overruled by the highest Islamic religious authorities. Unlike more conventional NGO's, CAI doesn't start its efforts close to larger cities where the luxuries of transportation, easy communication, and hot running water are available. Mortenson and his band of Pakistani employees, known to themselves as the Dirty Dozen, go to the ends of the earth and build there. They go beyond the last road sometimes, and over roads that are subject to frequent rock slides (the way you traverse these roads is to carry a case of dynamite with you to clear the road yourselves--waiting for the Pakistani government to fix the road would be way too slow for a Class A obsessive.) CAI goes to the people who would have been the last on the list of people to help, and it starts with them.
So, right now, the U.S. is conducting a military operation in Marjah, Afghanistan. The twelve Afghanis who were accidentally killed in this operation are no longer strangers to me. Because of these two books, I know something about the people of Pakistan and Afghanistan. They're my neighbors. If this country wants to convert the minds and hearts of Afghanis to an anti-Taliban frame of mind, it should have left the army at home and sent in Greg Mortenson. In fact, Mortenson didn't wait until the country ceased being at war. There was a need, Afghanis had gotten in touch with him, and he went anyway. Neither he nor any of his superb staff, notably Sarfraz Khan, his friend and second-in-command, has been killed yet. To all of them, the task of getting kids out of abandoned Soviet latrines (where one school in Afghanistan was being held) and into a building with a teacher, books, paper and pencils, is so much more important than a comfortable life. Or a safe life. Both these books are, besides being exemplary manuals on how to make a huge difference with a little money, also adventure tales of the highest order. This stuff really happened, and is still happening. For further information, go to http://www.ikat.org, the CAI website.