Sunday, October 7, 2007

Mortenson: Regular guy gets big results (10-07-07)

Photo: Deirdre Eitel - Greg Mortenson talks with his friend and supporter Mehdi Ali in the lobby of the Indus Hotel in Skardu, Pakistan, in July. Mortenson has been able to build girls schools in conservative, rural areas of the Pakistan by gaining trust and nurturing relationships with the villagers.

Bozeman Daily Chronicle

Mortenson: Regular guy gets big results

By KARIN RONNOW Chronicle Staff Writer

October 7, 2007, Sunday

Note: This is the last of a five part Sunday weekly feature by Bozeman Chornicle editor Karin Ronnow and photographer Deirdre Eitel who spent several weeks following Greg Mortenson and the work of Central Asia Institute in Pakistan and Afghanistan in the summer of 2007.

All five features are available on subscription to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle or from the office of Central Asia Institute after November 10th, 2007. Permission to reprint or use these articles in amy format or place must be obtained from the Chronicle first.

When Greg Mortenson was 3 months old, his parents packed him up in Minnesota and took him halfway around the world, to the East African country of Tanzania, where they would spend the next 14 years as Lutheran missionaries in the foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro.

“When he was 2 or 3 years old, one day I couldn't find him,” said his mother, Jerene Mortenson. “And I looked outside and there he sat in the pathway with an old beggar and the cookie jar.

“Greg was handing the old beggar cookies and the two of them were having this conversation. He didn't just give him something, they were talking. And that just sums up how Greg has been all his life,” she said.

Now, at 49, Greg Mortenson heads the Bozeman-based Central Asia Institute, a nonprofit organization he founded. Instead of cookies, he's delivering education to children, especially girls, in some of the most isolated villages of northern
Pakistan and Afghanistan.

His success and a bestselling book about his life, “Three Cups of Tea,” has made him a bit of a celebrity - both at home and in the areas where he works - and that takes a toll on him and on his family. But it hasn't changed who he is at heart. He's one of those rare birds, driven by a sincere compassion for disenfranchised people about whom few others know or care.

“Even as a child I was deeply affected and disturbed by seeing really impoverished people starving or dying,” Mortenson said. “If I had extra food, I always wanted to share it. And now it's hard to keep my balance because I see so much poverty and hurting and suffering. It really takes a concerted effort, stamina and sometimes courage to remove yourself a little bit.

“But I always think it's important that you touch and smell and feel poverty, extreme poverty. You have to do that to understand it. You can't do it from a think tank in
Washington, D.C.

And he really means that, said retired Lt. Col. Ilyas Ahmad Mirza of
Pakistan, a longtime friend of Mortenson's.

“He loves those people, he listens to them, he lives with them,” Mirza said. “Their houses are dirty and smelly, but it doesn't matter. Greg goes and stays with them for days. He's a different breed.”


One thing Mortenson is not is vain. He's about as humble as they come. All of the attention he's getting, the success of “Three Cups of Tea,” the speaking engagements, newspaper and magazine articles, TV interviews, are seen by him solely as opportunities to build more schools.

He is not a man on whom the mantel of celebrity and greatness rest weightlessly. Rather, Mortenson is far more at ease with his self perception as "a regular guy."

He comes from truly humble beginnings. His family never had much money. After
Tanzania, he went to high school in Minnesota, then volunteered for the U.S. Army and served as a medic in Germany for two years. “I joined in 1975, after Vietnam, when it was not cool.”

When he got back, he attended
Concordia College in Moorhead, Minn., where he played football on an NAIA II national championship team. He later transferred to the University of South Dakota, and earned degrees in chemistry and nursing.

He was a trauma nurse and a mountain climber before he started the Central Asia Institute. In 1995, he married Tara Bishop, a psychologist, and they now have two children, Amira, 11, and Khyber, 7.

Mortenson has some quirks, just like everyone else. He is constantly running late. He sometimes forgets appointments.

“I'm still not very socially adept at the wining and dining” part of fundraising, he said. “Often I show up late and I don't even have socks on.”

Perhaps it goes back to growing up in
Africa; perhaps it is something more organic, something temperamental. Either way, he's not wired like most Americans.

It is one of his “maddening aspects,” Bishop agreed.

In his own defense, Mortenson said, “To me, the world is an oyster. I am very curious about a lot of things, so I take time to do everything, and now I am perpetually late. I'm just so busy,” he said.

He is that. He is on the road at least six months a year, overseas and crisscrossing the
United States. After his book, "Three Cups of Tea," was published in 2006, life became increasingly hectic. The phone rings off the hook with people wanting him to come and speak. He gets hundreds of e-mails each day. People stop him on the street, in the coffee shop or at the airport.

“Our lives have really changed since the book was published, as far as the level of demand for his time,” Bishop said. “It was already building its own momentum, but until then, if they didn't go to a talk, people didn't know about him. Then all of the sudden it just geometrically took off.”

Mortenson's perpetual lateness is less of an issue overseas.

“In Baltistan, in the language, there is no sense of time,” Mortenson said. “You can say, ‘I go to Korphe,' which could mean you will be there tomorrow, or you were there yesterday, or you were there 10 years ago. Time is irrelevant. They don't have watches over there. I enjoy working like that, things work well and we get things done.”


Nevertheless, when he gets to
Pakistan, he still can't enter a room without great fanfare. A steady stream of people come to see him as soon as he arrives at the Indus Motel in Skardu.

“It's like he's a rock star or something,” Doug Chabot, a mountain climber and friend of Mortenson's from
Bozeman, said of the scene at the Indus. “People will do anything for him. They just love being around him. It's like, ‘I'll just be standing over here in the corner trying to anticipate your needs.' ”

In July, some of the teachers at remote institute schools had traveled long distances to visit Mortenson during his week in Skardu. Although he has staff in country to make decisions and keep the ball rolling, they often defer to him. Besides, Mortenson is the one who people want to see and talk to.

“He has this incredibly busy schedule when he goes over there, because not only is he checking on schools, but he has all these relationships with people,” Chabot said. “He doesn't sleep much when he's over there. When he's in work mode, it's pretty impressive.”


When he isn't working, Mortenson is often hunkered down in his basement office at home. The small space has, over the years, become his sanctuary.

The 8-by-10-foot room is cluttered with photos, satellite phones, old Texas Instrument calculators, camera parts and books, lots of books, on all four walls up to the ceiling. They are organized into sections on terrorism, poverty, nonprofits, fundraising,
Pakistan, Afghanistan and history.

“I don't drink much or smoke,” he said. “The one vice I have is I am a voracious reader and I buy a lot of books.”

Over the years he has developed a nearly encyclopedic knowledge of the history, culture and religion of
Afghanistan and Pakistan. He also has learned the languages spoken in the areas where he works - Balti, Urdu and Farsi.

As a kid, his mom said, “Greg's strongest areas were language, math and science.”

A few minutes later, she went back to that thought. “He does have a particular facility with languages. When he was 8 or 9 years old, we were in
Rome and the maid came into the hotel room and said something. My husband and I couldn't understand her.

“But Greg said, ‘She's asking are we leaving today and should she change the sheets or just make the beds.' It amazed me. That was what she was asking us.”

Mortenson attended an international school his parents started in
Tanzania, and that might have contributed to his ear for language.

But his appetite for knowledge is just a part of who he is.

“We had a set of children's encyclopedias and he started with A and read through the whole set,” Jerene Mortenson said. “We didn't have a television. Greg liked facts. I remember he got a ‘Guinness Book of World Records' that really intrigued him.”

These days, he prefers nonfiction to fiction. And he prefers reading to television, music or even parties.

“He doesn't watch movies,” Bishop said. “He doesn't have a pulse at all on popular media.”

He also doesn't, at this point, have a lot of friends he socializes with at home, Bishop said.

“He doesn't have time for it. His friends are his staff. They get him, his quirkiness,” she said. “He's a little cynical about western, American culture, the power stuff that's such a big part of how we interact here, the teasing, the one-up-manship and the humor around belittling. It baffles him.”


Instead, he focuses on relationships he needs overseas to accomplish his goals of literacy and peace - a lesson he said he learned from his dad, Dempsey.

“My dad worked closely with the Tanzanians, especially his handyman, John Moshe,” Mortenson said. “The expats often scoffed at him, saying he should have the upper hand and be the boss. But he believed everybody was part of the team.”

Mortenson has integrated that philosophy into his own work in
Pakistan and Afghanistan.

“If anything happens to me, everything will be taken care of over there,” he said. “We have amazing staff and we have amazing community support.”

That staff, his central team, is largely a result of serendipity, composed of people that Mortenson tripped over in his work and later hired. But the team is devoted to Mortenson. And the feeling is mutual.

“I consider my staff to be family,” Mortenson said. “They are prepared to give up everything they have to help
CAI. They are all family men who have kids and wives. But they are willing to be gone from their families even more than me, for months at a time.

“They are the ones who go to the village with the hardened mullah, trying to convince them to send girls to school, who really push the envelope in working with different ethnic groups, Sunni and Shia, and different politicians, bringing the hardest opponents together with the proponents and work until they come up with some solution.”

Most of the staff are not highly educated, either, he said, “yet they are willing to work very had to learn difficult skills.”

They have flaws, he said. Sometimes they push too hard when it might be better to give people time.

“I love them dearly as my family, but sometimes I have to remind them that to do business, sometimes it takes" time, he said.


While a lot of the village work might be handled by the in-country staff, the fundraising and public speaking is exclusively Mortenson's job. And it takes a toll.

“The success of all this has forced me to become a much more public person,” he said. “I'm rather shy and reserved by nature, and at first it was really hard on me. But the more I do this, the more comfortable it is. And I really want to do this because I want to promote education and promote peace. But I have to raise money.

“The hard part is that I've been married for 12 years and more than 65 months of that time, I haven't been with my family.”

“It's a tricky thing for Greg,” Bishop said. “I think he would like to do it all. I don't think can't is in his vocabulary. He really is committed to those little kids over there. And he has a huge heart.

“But I miss him, that's the biggest thing. I'd like more time with him. That's the part that makes me sad.”

The other thing Bishop would like her husband to do is take a little better care of himself; he's paying a price for the pace he keeps.

“I get frustrated because his life is so overwhelming,” she said. “I'm happy for his success and what it means for the world and for him. But I wish he could have some more time to catch up with himself, to be able to slow down a little bit and fully think. He's truly an introvert and he's not getting what all introverts need, which is time unplugged."

Karin Ronnow is at

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