Exhausted by the attempt, which was in memory of his sister who had died in an epileptic fit, Mortenson took a wrong turn on the descent and found himself in a remote Pakistan village.
There, observing a group of school age children writing with sticks in the sand, he promised to build a school.
Seventeen years later, after co-founding the non-profit Central Asia Institute (CAI), Mortenson has helped build 131 schools across the most remote regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Mortenson wrote about his experiences in Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace, One School at a Time which was published in 2006.
In his latest book, “Stones into Schools: Promoting Peace with Books, Not Bombs in Afghanistan and Pakistan” he describes CAI’s aim to educate those usually discouraged from learning where the Koran and tribal law are absolute – girls and young women.
“I have great respect for all faiths but I practice faith through actions not talk,” Mortenson, 52, said by telephone from his Montana residence. “God is on the side of the widows, orphans and 120 million children who can’t go to school.”
BAND OF TRUE BELIEVERS
CAI mandates that each local community donate land and manual labor to building the school. CAI supplies the building materials, teacher training and education supplies. Building materials can be as much US$30,000 a school, with another US$20,000 needed to operate for five years.
CAI’s approach has seen all their schools flourish.
“CAI’s ability to bring communities together to build a more positive future for their children is a key reason why the communities protect the schools,” said Colonel Christopher D. Kolenda, Strategic Advisor to General McChrystal, based at ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) headquarters in Kabul, in an email. “Education is powerful motivation for these communities.”
Though the Taliban would prefer CAI to leave, Mortenson said education will help stabilise society.
“The Taliban are driving a wedge between the elders and the youth,” Mortenson said. “They are destroying society there by taking youth to madrassas,”
The current 131 brick and mortar schools and another 60 administered in refugee camps and other conflict areas cater to 58,000 pupils, 48,000 of whom are female.
Though working alone and independent of almost all large-scale support, Mortenson has a band of true believers.
Shaukat Ali Chaudry, 31, is a teacher with CAI in the Pakistan controlled area of Kashmir. But from 1996 to 2004 he fought with the Taliban going as far afield as Chechnya.
“I am a very religious person but I do not believe religion should be a problem for education,” said Shaukat Ali by telephone from Pakistan. “My friends said I should not leave (the Taliban), but I said my way is different.”
Confronted by people who felt he had betrayed their cause and contravened religious traditions, he asked for proof that men and women are not equal.
“They have no proof,” Shaukat Ali said, adding that he himself is looking for a wife “who is much educated.”
Mortenson’s work is not without risk.
For eight days in 1996 Mortenson was held captive by the Taliban in Pakistan’s northwest frontier. He bonded with his kidnappers by telling them his wife would soon deliver their first-born son. His daughter was born a few months later.
Mortenson, who married his wife six days after they met, has a daughter, 13, and a son, 9. His biggest fears are for his own family after receiving threats from US white supremacists.
Born in Minnesota, he was three months old when he was taken to the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania where his father helped established a hospital. The premise was that local people would take key positions and ultimately head the hospital.
Mortenson utilizes the same thinking to structure CAI, hiring from diverse ethnic groups.
“In many ways, I feel African,” said Mortenson, who was 15 when he returned to the US
He laughs when asked about college funds for his own children stating that he drives a nine-year old Toyota Corolla and lives in a small house.
“Money is not so important,” Mortenson said. “My wife says my epitaph will read, ‘He died a happy man’.”