LAMB: Greg Mortenson, can you explain how your book, ”Three Cups of Tea,” has been on the ”New York Times” bestseller list for paperbacks for 80 weeks? It’s number one today.
MORTENSON: Well, that’s a little baffling when – the book ”Three Cups of Tea” is about my 15 years’ work in Pakistan and Afghanistan to set up schools. I’m not an author, and I never planned to be a bestseller.
However, since it’s come out, we got very little interest in it originally. But over time, book clubs, women’s groups, Christians, Muslims, Jews – the Pentagon recently bought 5,000 copies for counterintelligence training.
I’ve been invited by General Petraeus to address CENTCOM in September, the Special Forces Command, anti-war activists, veterans – all kinds of people are interested in the message of ”Three Cups of Tea,” which basically means, first cup you’re a stranger, second cup a friend and third cup family.
And what it is, it’s about building relationships. And that’s what I’ve really incorporated into our work in Pakistan and Afghanistan to set up schools over the last 15 years.
But as far as getting to the number one bestseller, I’m not quite sure how that happened.
LAMB: Well, I’ve got the hardback, but the hardback didn’t sell much, did it.
MORTENSON: No, it didn’t, Brian. And the interesting point to that is, the subtitle of the hard cover was ”One Man’s Mission to Fight Terrorism and Build Nations … One School at a Time.”
And although I’m a veteran, I was very opposed to that, because I said I’ve been doing this eight years before 9/11. And I grew up in Africa as parents of educators who set up schools in East Africa.
And I wanted the subtitle to be ”One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace … One School at a Time.”
So, finally, I summoned a Gujjar (ph) tribal council in Manhattan with the publisher. Here’s the CEO and the head of publicity and marketing. And I tried to eloquently state my case.
And they said, ”You know, Greg, you have to understand that only 12 percent of non-fiction books make a profit, and two-thirds of all bestsellers are pre-chosen by the publisher. So, we need you to be fighting terrorism so we can pitch the media, so the book will do well.”
So, finally I conceded. But having worked in Pakistan and Afghanistan for many years, you never settle a deal without driving a hard bargain on the side. So I said, well, if the hardcover doesn’t do well, I’d like the paperback subtitle changed.
So, the hardcover came out. It didn’t do very well over the first year. And in December of 2006, I was in Pakistan in the earthquake area, and I got a call from Paul Slovak, who’s a new editor with Penguin. And he said, we decided to change the subtitle.
And the paperback came out January 30th last year, and it’s been a ”New York Times” bestseller ever since.
And obviously, there’s more to just a subtitle in a book. But I think, as a whole, I think Americans, I find, having been in about 250 cities over the last year-and-a-half, that Americans yearn for peace.
And really, if you fight terrorism, it’s based in fear. But if you promote peace, it’s based in hope.
And I think the real enemy is ignorance. And it’s ignorance that breeds hatred.
And we have – say, about a third of the people who buy the book are probably, say, Republicans, another third are liberal or Democrats and the other third are in the middle. So, and they all are touting the message about really the power of what education can do.
LAMB: We have a lot of territory to cover. But just so the viewers will know, we’re taping this on a Wednesday of the week, it’s shown on a Sunday. When were you last in Afghanistan and Pakistan?
MORTENSON: Well, today’s Wednesday. I came back from – I was in Pakistan three days ago. I was there for about a week. And before that, I was about five weeks in Afghanistan, primarily in very remote areas on the eastern and northern border with Pakistan, which are right now fairly volatile areas. Recently, 11 U.S. soldiers were killed last month in a forward operating base in Kamdesh, in Kunar Province.
And so, we’re setting up schools in those areas. We’ve been working there for several years.
LAMB: Let me go over some of the basics on your life. You live where now?
MORTENSON: I am from Montana. Originally I’m – Norwegian immigrants homesteaded in Montana late 1800s. I grew up in East Africa in Tanzania from 1958 to 1972. My father started the Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Center, and my mother started a couple of schools.
And I came back to the States for high school. I then joined the U.S. Army. I was a – I served in Germany as a medic. Then I went back to college.
And against the backdrop of all this was I’ve always had a love for mountaineering. And in 1992, my sister, Christa, died from severe epilepsy. So, in ’93, I went to climb K2, the world’s second-highest mountain, in Pakistan, to honor my sister Christa’s memory.
And it was in that climb in ’93 of K2 that I didn’t quite make it to the top. I came down the mountain disappointed, and also felt as if I had failed and let my sister down. And I stumbled into a little village called Korphe in northern Pakistan.
And I saw 84 children sitting in the dirt doing their school lessons. And when a young girl named Chocho came up to me and asked for help to build a school, I made a promise that day. And I said, ”I promise to build a school for you.”
And although I’ve seen a lot of poverty in my life, having grown up in Africa, but it was those kids’ determination that really inspired me to help them build a school in Pakistan.
LAMB: When did you – what year did you build your first school?
MORTENSON: So, it took three years to build the first school. I had to come back to the States, raise $12,000. It got built in ’96.
Now, in 2008, we have 78 schools, about 28,000 students. Sixteen thousand are female. And predominantly, we’re focused on girls’ education.
Obviously, it’s important that the boys also receive an education. But I think, ultimately, it’s women who promote the value of education in society. And, you know, we can drop bombs, or hand out condoms, or build roads, or put in electricity. But unless the girls are educated, I really think that society won’t change.
Also, if you read – I’ve studied the Quran extensively. In the Holy Quran, the first word of the revelation to Muhammad the Prophet is the word ”ikra.” And in Arabic, ikra means read. It implores that all people have a quest for knowledge.
Also in the Quran it mentions that when a young – or someone goes on jihad, they have to get permission and blessings from their mother. And if they don’t do that, it’s very shameful or disgraceful.
If a woman has an education, she’s much less likely to condone her son going into violence or into terrorism. And that can be a very strong deterrent.
And besides that, there are many other – what girls’ education does, there’s three things. One, reduce infant mortality. Number two, reduce the population explosion. And number three, improve the basic quality of health and life itself.
And also economically, several economists – Amartya Sen, who is a ’98 Nobel Prize winner, an economist from Harvard, Jeffrey Sachs, many other economists – estimate that about $1 invested in the education of a girl, the return rate on that after about one generation is about $15 to $20. And there’s no single more important investment that you can make in a society that has a comparable return on investment.
LAMB: Go back to your own life for a moment. What year did your father die?
MORTENSON: My father died from cancer in 1981. He was in his late 40s. It was right after we came back to the States from having lived in Africa for 15 years.
LAMB: Is your mom still alive?
MORTENSON: My mom’s still alive. She’s a retired educator, elementary school principal. She’s in her late 70s, and she runs a soda fountain in Lake Lodge, Yellow Stone Park in Wyoming.
LAMB: How long did you know your wife before you married her?
MORTENSON: Six days. I met her on September 13, 1995. I’d better get these dates right, Brian. And six days later we got married. I was 38 at the time. I was a bachelor.
But I met my wife, and now we have two kids. And we’re living happily in Montana, although I’m gone about half the year.
LAMB: And where did you meet her?
MORTENSON: I met her in San Francisco at the Fairmont Hotel. Sir Edmund Hillary, my childhood hero, was speaking, and it was going on quite a bit. It was getting late. I went to the back. There was a beautiful woman in a dress wearing black combat boots. I started talking to her, and six days later we got married.
And my wife, Tara Bishop, is the daughter of the late Barry Bishop, who was a senior editor at National Geographic Society, and she grew up here in Washington, D.C.
LAMB: You have two children.
MORTENSON: Two children. My daughter is almost 12, and my son, Khyber, is eight.
LAMB: And your daughter, Amira, is – she played – we have a little video to show what she looks like and what she sounds like. And what role did she – what is this video, and what role did she have in it?
MORTENSON: When I started fund raising, I needed to raise $12,000 back in ’93. I had no clue what to do. I hand typed 580 letters to celebrities and movie stars. I only got one check back for $100 from Tom Brokaw.
Eventually, it was a bunch of kids in an elementary school in Wisconsin, in River Falls, that raised 62,340 pennies.
So now we’ve had this program called Pennies for Peace for the last about 12 years. And my daughter is a very big advocate of the Pennies for Peace program. And she loves to sing, and so, she’s kind of become a very big advocate for the Pennies for Peace program.
LAMB: One of the things you do in your book is talk about extensively that you wrote 580 letters …
MORTENSON: Hand typed.
LAMB: … hand typed, and one human being responded.
What were the letters for?
MORTENSON: The letters were requests for funds. I needed to raise $12,000. I had no clue about how to fund-raise, so I went to the library and looked up the name of 580 celebrities and sports stars and movie stars. And I was computer illiterate at the time, so I hand-typed these letters over 10 weeks.
And ”Dear Michael Jordan” or ”Dear Sylvester Stallone,” or – I probably won’t mention the other names here.
But it took me 10 weeks. And I only got one check back from Tom Brokaw, the newscaster, for $100. And it happens, because we both have common South Dakota roots.
Then I sold my car. I sold my climbing gear. I sold pretty much everything I owned. And by the springtime, I had only raised about $2,400.
And you have to understand, at the time I was a graduate student. I was struggling. I wasn’t a philanthropist, or really had no clue about how to go about fund raising or setting up a non-profit.
And it was those children at Westside Elementary School, where my mother was the principal – this was in River Falls, Wisconsin. A fourth grader named Jeffrey came up to me in April of ’94. And he kind of looked at me deadpan, and he said, ”I’ve got a piggybank at home, and I’m going to help you raise money to build a school in Pakistan.”
And, of course, I didn’t think much of it, but it was those kids at Westside who raised 62,340 pennies.
And we have a program now called Pennies for Peace that’s in about 1,600 schools. Just in the last year they raised about $650,000. And all the money from that program goes to help support students in rural Pakistan and Afghanistan.
LAMB: The $12,000 that you raised for that first school, what is your last school? What did it cost, the 78th?
MORTENSON: The 78th school cost $34,000. It’s a bigger school. It’s up in Ishkoshem (ph) in Badakhshan Province in northern Afghanistan.
The cost can vary to some degree from $15,000 up to $40,000, depending on size and location. Some schools have eight rooms, some have 30 rooms.
And also, if it’s by a road, the costs go down quite a bit. Some of our schools, it takes two or three days by truck. Then we load the supplies onto a jeep for a day, and then it has to be carried on donkey or horseback or on humans about two or three days to get up to these villages.
LAMB: Your education, Concordia College for a while?
MORTENSON: Concordia College.
LAMB: In Minnesota.
MORTENSON: In Minnesota.
LAMB: Then what?
MORTENSON: The University of South Dakota, Vermillion, South Dakota.
LAMB: You got what kind of a degree?
MORTENSON: I have a degree in chemistry and in nursing. And I also went into grad school. I haven’t gotten an advanced degree yet, but it was in neurophysiology. I was very interested in studying epilepsy. That’s what my sister died from, so I’ve always been interested in epilepsy.
LAMB: I saw one of your tax forms on your Web site, or somewhere. It showed in one of the years – it may have been 2006 or 2007 – that you raised about $3.5 million in one year.
LAMB: And you start out, you tell us you paid yourself something like at one point $28,000. And then your board forced you to pay you more. And now you make $100,000 a year?
MORTENSON: A little bit less, but about – I’m not sure exactly.
LAMB: Can you do all this for that kind of money?
MORTENSON: Yes, we can. And the primary reason is that we – when we start a school – it sometimes takes several years to really initiate a school – but we mandate that the village provides equal sweat equity, free land, free resources, free labor. And so, they match our contribution.
And then, we also leverage that against the local, the government, bigger non-profit organizations. So, we’re able to get an equal amount of sweat equity from the villages.
Right now, to a first grader, it costs about $20 a year to fund a first grader’s education. A fifth grader is about $50 a year. Our teachers are getting paid from $500 to $1,000 per year, depending on experience and their qualifications.
And a new school costs us from, you know, $15,000 to $30,000 or $40,000, as I mentioned, depending on the size and location.
LAMB: Of the $3.5 million that you now raise on a yearly basis, where does that come from?
MORTENSON: We – first of all, we’ve never received any U.S. federal money or federal grants or USAID or anything. Number two, 92, 93 percent of our funds is private funding from private donors. About two or three percent is corporate, and then about five or six percent is from foundations.
And primarily, until last year, we had only received one $100,000 donation. I think last year we got six of them. But primarily, our support is from, say, regular people. It’s $100, $50, $500, or $1,000 checks.
And with the book ”Three Cups of Tea,” has come out, our donation, the people supporting us has gone from about 8,000 now to about 45,000 people.
LAMB: And this book, what role has this book played in your life? And how has it changed your life?
Because again, it’s number one paperback bestseller on the ”New York Times,” and it’s been on that list for 80 weeks. That’s almost two years.
MORTENSON: It’s – well, it’s been a blessing for our organization and for – we’re able – we’ve been able to support thousands of more kids in school, scholarships. But on the other hand, I’m a fairly quiet, reserved kind of person, and it’s been, actually, fairly difficult for me to get out in public and do a lot of speaking and promotion of the book.
But I believe so much in what we’re doing, and also with my wife’s encouragement, I’ve learned that I really think that there needs to be a message about how important education is, and also to see people in Pakistan and Afghanistan as very comparable to us.
They have the same fears. They have the same concerns. They have the same joys in life. And most people are fierce about education for their kids.
When I ask most women in rural Pakistan or Afghanistan, ”What would you like most? I would like to help you, but what do you want?” They’ll pretty much say, ”We want education and we don’t want our children to die. We don’t want our babies to die.” Those are the two things.
Most people that I work with, they’ve never even heard of 9/11. They might know that Karzai or Musharraf, or until recently, is president. They know about President Bush. But they do know that there’s U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
But they’re very – really not very aware of all the political nuances and things that are happening. But they are aware of the fact that there’s no school in their village, that the prices of flour are escalating. They’ve gone up about 20, 30 percent in the last year, that the price of pretty much everything has been – it’s been very difficult for people in rural areas.
LAMB: You told me, just as we sat down, that a couple of days ago you met with former President Musharraf. There’s a picture on the screen right now.
Why did you meet with him? Where did you meet with him? And did you have any idea that he was going to resign?
MORTENSON: I met with him on the 11th of August. He had sent an e-mail. I had been in touch with his son occasionally, and I try really hard – we stay pretty much away from all the politics in Pakistan and Afghanistan. But he sent me an e-mail, and he wanted to – he basically wanted me to sign a copy of his book, ”Three Cups of Tea.”
He had read the book, and he invited me over for brunch. He said it was a family visit. And I was – I made it very clear that this was unofficial, I said a family visit.
My Pakistan visa says family on it. Most people get a business or a general visa. But I have a five-year family visit visa.
And so, I spent three-and-a-half hours with him. We did a lot of reflecting back over his history in Pakistan.
He talked extensively about education. He also mentioned, this is significant, about his road building program. He launched an Eisenhower era road building program in 2000, that has had quite a few positive benefits for Pakistan.
And also, I have quite a bit of respect for President Musharraf, although last year he did do a few things that I disagreed with. But when he first came into power, he sent audit teams out to all of rural Pakistan. These are military audit teams. It was the first time in Pakistan’s history where they’ve looked at animal husbandry, education, health care, roads, electricity.
And also, in 2004, against very – a lot of opposition, he got the supreme court to enact legislation to reform, to mandate curriculum reform for all the madrassas and the schools in Pakistan. And that was very difficult for him to do that. Unfortunately, a lot of that hasn’t been implemented that much, but he did bring about a lot of reform.
And also with the media, Musharraf encouraged a lot more lively media than I had seen under Bhutto or Nawaz Sharif. There was significant criticism of him by both Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif after they had been deposed in the media almost daily. And he, to a large degree, helped that.
Things did start changing in 2004. The U.S. gave $1 billion – I might call it a carrot – but we gave them $1 billion and a write-off on some debt to do two things: send 70,000 troops into the tribal areas, to Waziristan, the Northwest Frontier Province, and also to have elections, to basically have a democratic process.
So, Pakistan did have elections, but the MMA, which is the extremist coalition, mostly people from the frontier province, got about 16 percent of the vote. Five years earlier, they only had two percent of the vote.
And by forcing elections, we pretty much galvanized the extremist coalition to have a quite significant power in Pakistan.
And in Pakistan, the parliament is made up of several parties and coalitions, so you only need 33.4 percent of the vote in order to really secure the parliament, you know, the power there, versus the U.S., I think it’s, what, 51 percent or 67 percent.
And what’s happened now, though, which is really interesting that few people really know about, is that the people in the tribal areas, they’ve really turned against the extremist coalitions, because they haven’t provided over the last four years the basic social sector services – education, health care, roads. And so, there’s a lot of popular, populist – there’s a lot of antagonism towards the coalition extremist parties, because they haven’t delivered the services that they promised.
And so, I actually think this is a very unique time in Pakistan’s history, when there could be a lot of reform. And not that Musharraf has stepped down, hopefully the leaders will go in that direction.
Although I do know, like Zardari, who’s the head of the People’s Party, who is Bhutto’s widower, Benazir Bhutto’s widower, he basically – you know, with all respect, he’s probably one of the biggest crooks in Pakistan.
Bhutto married him in order to finance her election campaign. As soon as Bhutto was elected, he siphoned off about $150 to $200 million off the Pakistan exchequer. That money’s been put in a Swiss banking account, and now he’s in charge of the most popular political party, the People’s Party in Pakistan.
Nawaz Sharif is also significant corruption. And they have these two people now in power in Pakistan. So, I have some trepidation about where the country is headed, although I do think that there is enough popular discontent with the corruption of the past, and also wanting a future of change, that there might be some very positive changes in Pakistan in the next decade.
LAMB: Back to your own life and this book and your organization, the Central Asia Institute, how long has that been an organization?
MORTENSON: Since ’96. I started doing this work in ’93, so about 15 years.
LAMB: Where do you see it in 10 years?
MORTENSON: We’re – well, the goal is, I am going to work myself out of the organization, so that the organization can go on. We’re also putting more and more autonomy and responsibility on local committees. And we eventually will keep our framework small here in the U.S., but really focus on central kind of – a central organization in both Pakistan and Afghanistan.
And we’re about 70 percent of the way there. Here in the States, we’re still working on all the structure and everything. And the book ”Three Cups of Tea,” ends in 2003.
And since then, we’ve done a significant amount of work with our organization. I hired a CPA auditor. We hired an attorney to go through all our bylaws and articles. We’ve done a significant amount of, say, change or improvement to our organization since the end of the book in 2003.
LAMB: Is there a movie out of this?
MORTENSON: Well, Brian, I grew up in Africa. I never watched films. I’ve had – I have to contact my attorney – I think we have 54 requests already from Hollywood. Several are very significant producers.
Right now I’m very concerned that a movie would jeopardize the children in our schools. And also, the notoriety from a film might endanger both myself or our work.
So, right now, I’m very opposed to making a film. And I’ve been turning down all the, let’s say – what do you call them – proposals from Hollywood, much to their dismay.
So, I am working on another book, though. And that’ll be released next fall, in 2009. And rather than the book be about the work I’m doing or we’re doing, it’s more focused on individual stories of women and children. Also, some of the commanders, the militia leaders, many of the local – the stories of the people and what they’ve seen as a result of the last two decades in their society.
LAMB: At the very beginning of this, when you didn’t have any money and people weren’t paying attention to you, you tell some stories about what happened. And I don’t know which one we should start with, but I remember the one where you were, I think in Seattle near an REI store. And I think it’s based there. And you were going to give a talk.
Am I on – have I got the right one?
MORTENSON: Right, right.
LAMB: And you were setting up the chairs yourself. Were you there all by yourself?
MORTENSON: I was there by myself. I think two or three people showed up. And they were making announcements like, there’s this dude climber who is going to give a talk about K2, and he’s got some, you know, great pictures, or something like that.
And I ended up giving a talk. At the end of the talk, what was interesting, I noticed a guy fairly well dressed in the back. He didn’t even come maybe five minutes. And when I went at the end of the talk, he had put an envelope on the chair with a $20,000 check.
And before that, I’d been only getting, at the most, you know, hundreds, several hundred dollar checks, but nothing of that substantial nature. And that was the first time I’d ever gotten a really large contribution.
LAMB: Was it hard, though – I mean, you only had a couple of people there, and you still went ahead with your talk.
MORTENSON: Yes. And I did that, dozens of talks. A lot of them were friends, people from my mom’s church or people from outdoor communities.
But I did a lot of talks where we’d get five to 10 people coming. Now, when I do a talk – and I’ve got about 30 coming up in September – usually between 2,000 to 3,000 people come, and we turn 1,000 or 2,000 away.
And I’m still – I feel like I’m the same guy that was with the old slide projector with duct tape, and I had my spare bulb in my pocket. And I’ve now learned how to use PowerPoint, but it seems – it doesn’t seem that far away when I was trying to – I was talking about the same thing basically, about education and really, the power of what education can do for people and for societies.
LAMB: What was the story about Mary Bono, the congresswoman that you met? And what role did she play in all this?
MORTENSON: Well, I gave a talk in a little town in Montana once, near Big Sky, which is south of Bozeman. Four people showed up. Mary Bono was one of them. She never introduced herself. She had on a baseball cap, and she just looked like a local person.
And when I got done with the talk, she said, ”Have you ever been to Capitol Hill or talked to any of our leaders?”
And I said, ”No, I haven’t.”
And she said, ”Well, you really need to be heard by – your message should be heard by our leaders.”
And she handed me a business card. And she said, ”Next time you’re in D.C., let me know, because I’d like to set you up some talks.”
And she didn’t introduce herself. I stuck it in my pocket. And then when I got home the next day, I looked at it, and it was Mary Bono, Congresswoman Mary Bono.
And ever since then, she’s been a very big support of ours. She’s helped me to meet several of our leaders to talk to them about Pakistan and Afghanistan. And she’s also been a big advocate for us.
Her counterpart, also, Mark Udall, who is a Democrat from Colorado, has also been a big support. And more recently, I’ve been contacted by literally dozens of senators and congressmen. And also, I know Laura Bush has read ”Three Cups of Tea.”
General Petraeus recently read the book, and he sent me an e-mail with eight bullet points of what he had gleaned from the book. And primarily, the most important message was about building relationships with people.
I was at the U.S. Air Force Academy and the U.S. Naval Academy in the last year. And I’ve talked with several U.S. military commanders.
And also, military commanders serving in the field in Afghanistan, I’m in e-mail correspondence with them. And they pretty much without exception reiterate the fact that, without education, nothing really will change in Afghanistan.
And actually, in the last 18 months, the U.S. has deployed several forward operating bases. These are small platoon or company-sized bases in the eastern and southern areas of Afghanistan. They’re more volatile areas.
And many of the military commanders have been in Afghanistan three or four times. And I think they really get it. They really understand that what’s imperative is about building relationships with the people.
And the first thing they do, pretty much, is start to get a map of – well, it’s not a map – but kind of a grid of who’s who in the region and who they need to meet, and who they should have tea with, and who’s enemies with who. And they’re really doing some really great work out there in the field.
And I think that type – unfortunately, I don’t see their – they can’t correspond directly with people, you know, like in Capitol Hill, so their message really isn’t being brought back here enough to the American public, I think.
LAMB: There’s also a story you tell, which, I must say, it was pretty funny when you told it. It’s the woman that called you – was it from Atlanta – that said she was worth – she put six zeroes after what she was worth. Do you remember that one?
LAMB: What year would that have been? And tell us a little bit of that story.
MORTENSON: Well, it was in 2004. And Atlanta – we didn’t use her real name. There’s two things changed in the book, just out of legal concern.
But there was an elderly woman who was kind, we’d say a spinster. She gave her net worth as worth several million dollars. She said she was getting old and she wanted to help us. So she invited me to come to, I’ll say Atlanta for now, and spend three-and-a-half days with her. She set me up with several talks.
It was – she basically – nobody came to these talks. She was a very lonely woman. I think she was also not on speaking terms with her daughter. And so, I spent three-and-a-half days with this woman.
She brought me some dozen red roses I think that she had gotten from the garbage can. And she …
LAMB: You stayed in her house.
MORTENSON: I stayed in her house, and she kept newspapers for the last 40 years. Her sink wasn’t working. We had to wash in her shower, where she had clothes hanging there.
Anyway, it was a fairly interesting experience spending three-and-a-half days with somebody that …
LAMB: Yes, but the story – didn’t she put you – you slept in her bed.
LAMB: She slept on the couch.
LAMB: But one night …
MORTENSON: About two in the morning, she popped the door open, flipped on the light, and she was in a negligee. And she said, ”I’m trying to find my socks.”
And I had to bury myself under the covers.
LAMB: Did she ever give you any money?
MORTENSON: No, we never got any money from her.
LAMB: How do you protect yourself now from spending three days like that and wasting your time?
MORTENSON: Well, we’ve had over 1,200 requests for speaking this year already and, obviously, can only fulfill about 100 of those.
My office – I also rely a lot more on people helping me out to advise us. And we try and really – we have a video that we send out now to people. There’s also the book, ”Three Cups of Tea.” We have a follow-up on that.
And also, I try to divide where I go to geographical diversity, also economic. Also, some are in university institutions. And sometimes I’ve been at, say, law association – what’s it called – the Bar Association of Shreveport, Louisiana, to some anti-war activists in San Francisco, to very liberal and conservative groups, and pretty much just talking about the same message about education.
LAMB: You went to pay homage to Mother Teresa. What year was that?
MORTENSON: It was in 1997. Or was it ’98? Sorry, I get the – it was three days after she passed away. And I was on about a four-month self-tour.
I hadn’t had any training in non-profit work and working in development, so I went to the Institute of Rural Reconstruction, Cavite, the Philippines. I spent a few weeks there with John Rigby, who’s from D.C. He was the director of the IRR.
And then I went to Bangladesh. I studied some of the Grameen models, and also worked – non-profits working in an Islamic country.
LAMB: The Grameen Bank?
MORTENSON: The Grameen Bank. And also, some women’s organizations and educational groups.
And then, flying from Dacca to Kathmandu, where I was going to spend another month in Nepal, I had a layover in Calcutta. And it was two days after Mother Teresa had passed away. And she had lied in state in a church, and they brought her back to the Daughters of Charity, where she was based.
And I got there on a whim. I just told the taxi driver I’d like to pay homage to her. And so, he drove up to her – to the Daughters of Charity. And it was about nine or 10 at night. And I …
LAMB: Now, before you do that, your cab driver first asked you whether you wanted a prostitute, I think, didn’t he?
MORTENSON: Right. He said, ”Do you want whiskey or women, or whatever?”
And I said, ”No.”
He said, ”Anything, no problem.”
And I said, ”No, I’d like to – I would like to just pay respects to Mother Teresa, if that’s possible.”
And he said, ”Well, she already died.”
And I said, ”Well, but can I just even, just, you know, say something to somebody?”
And so, he said, ”No problem.”
And then I asked to get some flowers. So, he took me to this forest and, I think, for 15 or 18 bucks, and I got this huge bunch of flowers. And then we drove for about 40 minutes, and we got to the Daughters of Charity.
And her body had actually just been brought back from the church that evening. And she was to be put in a cement – I don’t know how to say – a cement encasement.
LAMB: Sarcophagus of cement?
MORTENSON: Yes, a cement casket the next morning.
And so, I got the door – and there was hundreds, maybe 1,000 people outside kind of milling about – all local people. And the cab driver went up to the door and knocked on this little window, and a nun came up. And he said, there’s this man from America that wants to see Mother Teresa. And they let me inside.
And then we went inside another door and walked upstairs and found a concrete hallway. And I went into this room with a nun, and Mother Teresa was on a, like a small wooden pallet on the floor, and she was wrapped in this white, like cheese muslin cloth. And I noticed on her feet that it was kind of darkened fingertips of the thousands of people who had touched her feet.
And then the nun left me there. And so, I had this urge to touch her hand, which was wrapped under the cloth.
And when I went up to her hand, I saw her hand was so small. It was underneath the cloth, but I put my hand over her hand. And that moment was – I just felt, how could such a tiny woman be such a – do such great things in this world?
And the nun, a nun came back, and I left. And I’ve never – from that moment, I’ve always felt very humble that I was able to not only be with her, but just to see that such a small, tiny human being could have such – with such great love and compassion, really change the world.
And so, probably the most memorable or poignant experiences of my life to be able to see Mother Teresa.
LAMB: Well, is there a similarity in what you do?
I mean, you come up – you’re, what? How tall are you?
MORTENSON: Well, I’m 6’4”, a college football player.
LAMB: A former Army veteran.
MORTENSON: A medic.
LAMB: And all that. But you’re doing – do you feel that it’s the same kind of work?
MORTENSON: Well, Mother Teresa to me is, since I was a child – she started an orphanage in Dar es Salaam in Tanzania that I visited as a child. Also, my childhood hero was Albert Schweitzer, who was the missionary physician in the Congo.
And I was kind of brought up in that framework, that I looked up to people who had dedicated their lives to serving other people. And my father was probably the best example.
He started the hospital in Tanzania. And when – he spent nine years raising $6 million. The first eight years he raised $1 million. The next year he raised the other $6 million.
And when it came time to open the hospital in 1971, he got up and gave a speech and said, in 10 years, all the department heads of this hospital will be from Tanzania. And the expats really scoffed at him. And afterwards they said, ”How could you dare say such a thing and set these people up for such an unrealistic expectation?”
And we came back to the States and my dad passed away. About 10 years later we got the annual report, and all the department heads were from Tanzania. And I think it’s an important lesson, whether or not it’s from my father or from Haji Ali, who was a village chief in Korphe where I built the first school.
After three years I was busily trying to get the school built. Had my plumb line, receipts and records. And I was, I guess you’d say micromanaging the project. And one day Haji Ali took me by the side and he said, ”Son, if you really want the school to get built, you need to sit down and be quiet and let us do the work.”
And he grabbed my receipts and records and locked them up in his little earthen locker, along with his prayer beads. And he came back, and he said, ”There. Don’t you worry. Everything will be fine.”
And, of course, I was horrified. And 10 years – I mean, 10 weeks later, the school got built.
And the same is in Afghanistan. Today, both McCain and Obama are talking a lot about putting more U.S. troops in Afghanistan to secure the – bring stability. But nobody’s really talking about helping the Afghan army, the Afghan militia, the education department in Afghanistan.
In 2000, there was only 800,000 children going to school in Afghanistan. That’s a UNICEF figure from 2000. Today, there are 6.2 million children going to school in Afghanistan, including two million females.
I’ve been in almost 200 cities since the book has come out, talked to over a quarter million people. And I ask people, ”How many of you are aware of that fact, that the number of kids in school in Afghanistan has gone up seven to eight times in the last eight years?”
And only about 30 hands have come up. And this includes think tanks, universities, you know, all types of groups.
And to me, that’s the most inspiring, incredible news to come out of the country, and nobody in America is aware of it.
On the other hand, against that backdrop is the fact that the Taliban have bombed or destroyed about 480 mostly girls’ schools in the last year-and-a-half in Afghanistan.
And if you really look at it, why do the Taliban, or a group of men want to bomb or destroy girls’ schools and not boys’ schools? It’s because I think their greatest fear is not the bullet, but it’s the pen. Even more than that, they fear that if that girl grows up and she becomes a mother, the value of education will go on in the community.
And unfortunately, like last year, I think our military appropriations, as far as I can find out from the Pentagon, for the war on terror in Afghanistan is about $14.2 billion. We spent $1.1 billion for anti-narcotics opium eradication, and only about $48 million went into education in Afghanistan last year.
The opium production in 2006, we appropriated – this is the U.S. government – $624 million to eradicate opium. And opium production went up 60 percent to 6,800 tons. This year, 8,200 tons of opium were harvested, with a budget of $1.1 billion.
And if you even – I have to deal with some of these shady characters. And they all say, if you really want to stop the opium – well, first, the demand obviously is there. But it’s really about giving us alternative programs, building roads, providing – getting irrigation and other alternative crops in the ground.
And most of the money used from the heroin – it takes 10 parts opium equal one part heroin. Most of the heroin money is used to support the militia or the Taliban.
And I have seen – and I’m not intimately familiar – but I have seen a drop of Saudi, Wahhabi, or Saudi money to the Taliban in Afghanistan, but there has been a huge proliferation of drug money. And there’s a lot of now criminal elements and drug mafia that are linked now with the Taliban.
So, when you hear talk about the Taliban attacking the U.S. or that, it also infers there’s a very strong networking now with the drug mafia, and also many criminal elements in Afghanistan.
LAMB: Any suspicion on the part of either the Pakistanis or the Afghans that you are working for the government, the American government, that you’re part of the CIA? Do you ever get that?
MORTENSON: Some people have asked about that. We’re very clear that we’ve never received any money, U.S. federal money. The Pentagon, and also there’s other U.S. government arms that have tried quite aggressively to give us money to set up schools. But we’re very clear about it.
Obviously, it’d be great to get a few million dollars without having to fund-raise. But I think the concern there is that the people would feel we’re affiliated with the government. And I think the main reason we have such great support right now is that the people realize that there is a difference between U.S. government objectives, and what we’re trying to do is to set up schools.
LAMB: In your book you’ve got photographs and some interesting faces. You mentioned earlier Haji Ali. How long have you known him? And what role has he played in your life?
MORTENSON: Haji Ali was my original mentor. He’s the village chief of Korphe village in Pakistan. He taught me many lessons.
The first was, instead of talking to listen. Number two, about three cups of tea. The first cup you’re a stranger, second cup a friend, and third cup you become family. For our family, we’re prepared to do anything, even die. And the third lesson was to quit micromanaging, to sit down and shut up and let us do the work.
And his lessons may seem very trivial, but you can apply the wisdom of this village chief, who only left his village once in his life to go to Mecca on haji. Otherwise, he was – his whole life was in a valley of about 30 miles.
It’s on a small scale. But I also, if you look on a macro scale, one of my main criticisms or suggestions for U.S. policy with the reconstruction of Afghanistan, is that it’s – right now it’s centralized and deprovincialized.
And if you look back in history at the Marshall Plan after World War II, which I think was a brilliant plan, and the architects, who were from the U.K. and the U.S. who designed it were brilliant. But the main component of the Marshall Plan is that it’s provincialized and decentralized.
So, we’ve flipped that completely around in Afghanistan. And only recently, in the last 18 months, I’ve seen where the U.S., and especially the military, is really starting to change that around and empowering provincial, regional areas, and putting less emphasis on a very strong central type of government.
And if you look at, Brian, like Afghanistan is a multi-ethnic, pluralistic society. They are tribal people. The same in Pakistan. The Durand Line, which the British set up as a boundary between Afghanistan and Pakistan, was set up. And it divided about 25 million Pathan tribal people.
Kashmir is the same way. Lord Mountbatten and the raj, the ground, say, the landowner who helped draw the line between India and Pakistan had no clue about ethnicity or geographical context, and put the line now that has caused so much strife between India and Pakistan and Kashmir.
And so, we’re dealing with very ancient type of problems, but in a modern, nationalistic type of context.
LAMB: This photograph of your wife and your daughter, and with the rifles in hand, how old is that? And why is that in the book?
MORTENSON: That was taken in 1997. It’s a picture of my wife, Tara, me and our six-month-old daughter Amira. We’re holding AK-47 Kalashnikovs in Turkam (ph), which is on the Pakistan-Afghan border.
And we took that picture. It’s a tribal area. And kids, boys in that area, they grow up with a wooden gun put in their bed. I mean, they have guns.
And we took that picture. And for a joke we made a Christmas card that had – it said ”Peace on Earth” on it. And this is – and obviously, this is five years before 9/11. And we got – a lot of people said it made their refrigerator more than any other picture.
However, since the book has come out, we have had some criticism about that photo. But at the time, it was just a very natural thing to do, and the people there – you know, it’s a Kalashnikov culture. And so, the irony is that I have a daughter with me and not a son.
And I was – before that picture was taken, also I had been kidnapped in Waziristan, which is in the tribal areas of Pakistan, for eight days in July of ’96. And it was very frightening. And after three days I started getting really depressed. And I realized I had to befriend my captors. So, the first thing I did was ask them to bring a Quran to me and teach me about Islam.
And then, after six days, I hadn’t gotten very far, so I told them I have a son being born in America. My wife was seven months pregnant, and I want to go back to the States to see the birth of my first-born son, because in their culture, the birth of the first-born son is one of life’s greatest events.
The irony is that I ended up having a daughter. But so, and after my daughter was born, we took her back to that tribal area. And hence, this picture.
And they also fired off a few hundred rounds in tribute to my daughter’s birth, even though they usually would only do it for a son being born.
LAMB: We have some of the video from your DVDs. I guess you provide this to people who are interested in your organization?
MORTENSON: Yes, we have some clips of different …
LAMB: We’re going to run some of that. And just, I want you to, as you watch it, tell us about the people. And I guess most of this is in Pakistan?
MORTENSON: Right. This is in Kande village in Hushe Valley in Pakistan. This is actually – this is in Afghanistan, in Badakhshan. And this one is from Nuristan, which is kind of in a violent (ph) area.
This photo right now is in the Wakhan, and now we’re jumping to Kabul. And now we’re in Hushe village, where, actually, the children here are learning and reading the Quran.
LAMB: Do you speak their language?
MORTENSON: I speak – well, we have seven languages in the main area of work. I can speak four of those languages, but I’m not fluent in all seven languages.
LAMB: Are they all Muslim?
MORTENSON: Yes, they’re all Muslim. Eighty-two percent are about Sunni, and about 17 percent Shia. And then about one percent are Ismaili or the offshoots of Islamic faith.
LAMB: How do you – when you’re over there building your schools, and you’ve built 78 over the last, what, 15 years or so. The Saudis, as you say in your book, fund the madrassas, and they build lots of them.
MORTENSON: Yes. Ahmed Rashid, who is one of the foremost journalists from Pakistan, he estimates that in 1980, there were 800 extremist madrassas in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
And a madrassa is basically a school. But the extremist madrassas, they propagate very violent, extremist type of ideology.
Today, he estimates there’s about 25,000 extremist madrassas with about four million, mostly boys, going to school in the madrassas. And that’s still proliferating. And in these madrassas, they’re taught very violent type of Islam.
I think it’s important to clarify that madrassa in Arabic means school. And there’s a madrassa in every single hamlet and village in the Islamic world. Ninety-nine percent of madrassas are very similar to confirmation or catechism or bar mitzvah …
LAMB: Only boys?
MORTENSON: … and girls, where they learn about the Holy Quran and about Islam.
However, there has been a proliferation of extremist madrassas in the last two decades, primarily since the mujahedeen and the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, and the U.S. started funneling a lot of money through Pakistan into Afghanistan.
And in 1979, when the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan, before that, the U.S. was supplying about $1 billion per year through Pakistan into Afghanistan to support the mujahedeen or the freedom fighters.
That funding dropped to about $140 million in one year. But the Saudi money for extremist, or more extremist madrassas went up to about $1 billion. So, there’s kind of almost a complete overlap of money for, say, alternate type of education.
Most people want secular or formal education. However, if there’s no school there, that’s really the areas where extremist madrassas are targeted, and mostly in impoverished, illiterate society.
Recently, last year in Islamabad, there was – it was called the Red Mosque crisis, or the Lal Masjid crisis. And there was a mosque, a firebrand mosque, near the central capital. It’d be like if there was a firebrand seminary here across from Capitol Hill.
And there was about 2,000 students in the mosque. There was a lockdown and eventually a firefight with the Pakistan military. Most of the students in that mosque – the media reported as al Qaeda had infused it, but it was predominately students who had left Azad Kashmir, the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan, had come to Islamabad, because they didn’t have any food, shelter. And they sought refuge in the mosque. And within a year or two, they had been pretty much indoctrinated into very violent type of Islam.
And that really was the main focal point that started Musharraf’s downfall, was when he brought in the military to rout out the students in the seminary in the Red Mosque.
LAMB: We are about out of time. I want to make sure that I follow up on a question, something you said earlier, that you’re going to work your way out of this organization.
Where are you going to work your out of to?
MORTENSON: Well, I’ll always be an advocate for education. I’m also interested in starting a scholarship program for young men and women all around the world. I think many students who graduate from high school, often they fall through the cracks after that. They want to become doctors or teachers or educators or lawyers, but they don’t have that opportunity.
So, I’d like to set up a global portal that helps with scholarship programs. And, of course, I’ll always be – I don’t plan to go into any other countries. I plan to spend the rest of my life working for the kids in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
LAMB: And this book again is number one on the ”New York Times” bestseller paperback for 80 weeks. And your next book will come out sometime next year, at the end of the year …
MORTENSON: October of 2009.
LAMB: … 2009.
Greg Mortenson, we’re out of time, and I thank you.
MORTENSON: Well, thanks, Brian.