Saturday, September 29, 2007


Mortenson has antidote to ways of war
A phenomenon hit Seattle last week. Everywhere Greg Mortenson went, people lined up to listen to his simple message about how to change the world.
A week ago at Town Hall the lines started two hours before the event. It was the same at Beacon Hill, Green Lake and Bainbridge Island. Every seat filled while more people squeezed into every available space, sitting on the floor or hearing the talk from the hallway. Hundreds of people were turned away.
What is this message that we're so ready to hear? It's the antidote to the ways of war.
Think about the way we fight terrorism. We are at war. We fear what they will do. Fear is the key word.
But there's an alternative. "If you promote peace, that's based on hope," Mortenson said at his Bainbridge talk. "The real enemy is ignorance because it's based on hatred."
Mortenson's book, "Three Cups of Tea," tells the story about how building schools -- mostly girls' schools -- is the surest way to change the world.
He said when he first wrote the book the publishers sent him a mock-up cover with the subtitle: "One Man's Mission to Fight Terrorism and Build Nations...One School at a Time." This wasn't the message he wanted to send. He suggested: "One Man's Mission to Promote Peace ...One School at a Time."
But the publishers were firm. This was a first book -- and the odds against it were great because most nonfiction titles don't make money. So the hard cover came out and it didn't sell well.
So when the paperback was published the peace subtitle surfaced. Something worked because "Three Cups of Tea" has been on The New York Times' bestseller list for 34 weeks. This occurred because book clubs, women's groups, schools and ordinary Americans would read a copy and then buy another for someone else.
I know how this for a fact. I've known Greg for a few years and was on a committee that gave him an award for his work. A few months ago, he sent me a dozen copies of the paperback. I gave them away -- and many of the people I gave copies to, told me they read it, went out and bought more copies to pass along. It was a network of hope.
It's the same with Pennies for Peace. That started with Mortenson's first promise to build a school in a remote Pakistan village. He wrote letters to celebrities -- even getting a check for $100 from Tom Brokaw. But it wasn't enough to do anything. Then he talked to a class. A fourth-grader in Wisconsin suggested a donation from his piggy bank. Six weeks later those school kids had raised 62,342 pennies.
"It wasn't adults. It was children, reaching out to children half-way around the world," he said. "What can a penny buy? You can buy a pencil with a penny. And that gives a child hope. If you have hope, you can do anything." Soon after he raised enough for the first school, some $12,000.
Mortenson's premise starts with an African proverb: "If you educate a boy, you educate an individual, but if you educate a girl, you educate a community."
When a boy goes to school, it's assumed he will leave his village and work. But a girl stays. She grows into a woman, bears healthier children, and encourages them to be educated.
Consider the word "jihad." We know about that word in one context -- a violent quest. But the word has other meanings -- reflecting other pursuits. But before beginning a jihad, you ask permission from your mother, Mortenson said. If she is educated -- she's less likely to give approval for a violent mission.
Those who dismiss education say that many of the 9/11 hijackers were educated -- and that's true, Mortenson said. "But none of their mothers were educated."
There is an urgent need to do more, to build more schools. "There are 145 million children without education -- and the numbers are going up -- because of slavery, gender discrimination, religious intolerance and corrupt governments. It only costs $1 per month, per child to change that, roughly $6 to $8 billion per year.
Last week the Bush administration asked Congress for another $190 billion to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Which plan is more cost effective?
On the other hand, the schooling of Afghanistan is "the most exciting news" you've never read, says Mortenson. When the Taliban was in power, only 800,000 kids were in school. Today more than 5 million children go to school -- and 1.8 million are girls. That's where we should be putting our money.
The people who stood in lines to hear Mortenson already know this. We are a nation with a generous people. We could make this world better by doubling our efforts to build schools. We even know where to find the money: Spend a few billions less on war.
Mark Trahant is editor of the editorial page. E-mail: For more information: