Mortenson packs concert hall

Richard Kelly

Greg Mortenson has been all over the United States advocating for his causes. On Thursday he stopped by Washburn to speak to students, faculty and community members at White Concert Hall about his book “Three Cups of Tea” and the story behind it.

For Mortenson, it all began in childhood. He was born in Tanzania, an area stricken by poverty and famine. His father and mother were both involved within their community, his father notably founded the area’s first teaching hospital. Halfway through high school, Mortenson moved to the United States, and that’s when he said he first encountered discrimination.

“When I came to school the first day, I told the kids I was African,” said Mortenson. “I guess they took offense to that, because they beat me up. That was my introduction to people’s judgment based on ethnicity.”

Later on in his life, Mortenson’s younger sister, Christa, became an inspiration for him. She had always wanted to visit Dyersville, Iowa, where “Field of Dreams” was filmed. But on a morning in 1993 when she planned her visit, she suddenly passed away after a long battle with epilepsy. This inspired Mortenson to take a journey to Pakistan to climb one the world’s highest mountains. After almost three months, the journey ended. Although Mortenson had nearly reached the top, he had to turn back because of exhaustion.

“Even though I got so far, I felt as if I let my sister down,” said Mortenson. “But I couldn’t go any farther,” said Mortenson.

He was brought to a small village in Pakistan, where the people helped Mortenson recover from his weakness. In honor of their kindness, Mortenson promised to build a school for their community. Mortenson then helped found the Central Asia Institute, which he said “is for mainly the education of girls of the Pakistan and Afghanistan regions, and is designed to help promote education and literacy.” Mortenson also helped start Pennies for Peace.

Washburn’s iRead program was crucial in getting Mortenson to speak at Washburn. Ann Callies, Educational Opportunities program director, spent much of her time with Mortenson on Thursday, and played a role in getting him to campus.

“The committee I’m on wanted to pick a book that fit well with what Washburn’s mission is,” said Callies. “We narrowed it down to Mr. Mortenson’s novel. We were just lucky enough to get him to come speak.”

The audience at White Concert Hall gave Mortenson a standing ovation as he came onto the stage, and as he left. He addressed questions from the audience and discussed his story and his mission for Pakistan and Afghanistan. Earlier in the day, Mortenson spoke in a class on campus and received a $50,000 check from an advocate of his cause in San Diego to help pay for a new school, he emphasized a few things to both the class and to his audience during his presentation.

“We have to get girls educated,” said Mortenson. “Even if nothing else at all is done in regards to birth control pills, or higher abstinence rates. A higher girls’ education rate will mean less reliance on a male-dominant society, and will also help to control high population increases of recent years.”

Mortenson said he realizes there are still complications in the United States, and something needs to be done there as well, but “even if for every $100, we spend one of them in another country, it’s going to make a difference.”

“Three Cups of Tea,” ultimately a book about his mission to better the society of Afghanistan and Pakistan, has become a commercial success and some members of the Pentagon have even had it become required reading. It was initially released in 2006.

More than 75 schools have been built and almost 30,000 students, including almost 20,000 girls, attended school now, but Mortenson knows his mission doesn’t stop there. His second novel is due out tentatively in October 2009, and he hopes that it will continue to increase understanding of third-world countries, and how a small contribution can make a huge difference.

See our interview with Mortenson here.