I've seen some of my friends reading this book for years. Many of them have highly recommended it to me. Somehow it has escaped my reading list until this month. Michael and Elizabeth gave me a copy for my birthday, and I'm so glad they did. This is one of the best books I've read in a very long time.
The first half of the story is simple. Greg Mortenson was part of a team trying to climb K2 (the world's most dangerous mountain) in Northern Pakistan. Through a series of injuries and mishaps, he became disoriented and separated from his group. After getting lost once and spending a night alone on the ice, he missed a turn and lost his guide again. He wandered into the small mountain village of Korphe, and this forever changed his life.
The people of Korphe, despite their poverty, showed him great hospitality and love as they nursed him back to health. Without a plan, without prior community development experience, without funding, he promised to return to Korphe to build a school for the children who were stuck in a generational cycle of poverty.
The next third of the book is his amazing and frustrating journey to build that first school. Through many ups and downs and confusions about Pakistani mountain culture(s), he persevered. Several key people came to his aid through funding, cultural support, physical protection, and emotional support. After several years of struggle, Mortenson founded the Central Asia Institute and completed a bridge to Korphe and Korphe's first school in its 600 year existence.
After that first school, CAI's activity mushroomed. A retired Swiss-American scientist endowed them with a million dollars, and slowly publicity and funding began to flow in jerks and stops. As of 2009, CAI had built 81 schools in northern Pakistan and Afganistan.
Two parts of this story deserve special mention.
1) One of the beautiful side-effects of Mortenson's mission to build schools is combating terrorism at its roots. Mortenson argues repeatedly and beautifully that the root of terrorism is ignorance not Islam. In fact, Muslims - including the highest leaders of Islam - have been some of Mortenson's biggest supporters. Radical Islamicism, which breeds terrorism, grows through radical madrassas, which are built in the poorest areas of Pakistan and Afganistan - often as the only available option for education. Many join the Taliban forces because these are the only available jobs for low-skilled workers. Furthermore, while the militaries of the West may destroy many terrorists, the collateral damage from our bombs plants the seeds for countless more radical enemies. Building schools (and wells and hospitals) is infinitely more effective than dropping bombs - in terms of building friends and reducing enemies.
2) As Tom Brokaw says on the cover, this book is "thrilling ... proof that one ordinary person, with the right combination of character and determination, really can change the world." I hope that all my friends will read this book and develop a similar passion, audacity, and hope that our little efforts really can be multiplied to cause momentous changes. We have to think big and start small.
I highly recommend this book. The Josh rating: JJJJJ!