A visit to Greg Mortenson’s school in Korphe

Published: October 14, 2012
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Mortenson came back after three years and did fulfill his promise. PHOTO: REUTERS/FILE

The allegations of fraud against Greg Mortenson were troubling to thousands of firm supporters of his mission to educate children, especially girls, in the isolated regions of Pakistan.

For those who don’t know who Greg Mortenson is, he is a humanitarian and the author of Three Cups of Tea, a New York Times best-seller. He is also a mountaineer and in 1993, he decided to climb K2. In his journey through northern Pakistan, he ended up in Korphe, a small village. He was in a terrible state and the locals of Korphe took care of him until he recovered. Mortenson, overwhelmed by the hospitality and care of Korphe’s people, promised to build a school there.

When my summer trek to K2 base camp started near the spot where Mortenson’s first school was constructed, I couldn’t resist stopping by the Korphe Central Asia Institute (CAI) to get some first-hand answers.

The first thing our guide pointed on during the short hike from Askole to Korphe was a newly constructed vehicle bridge. Two unfettered concrete supports still stood next to the new structure, marking the spot where Greg was forced to build a footbridge across the Indus to complete the promised school.

After crossing the river between Askole and Korphe, my group and I hiked for half an hour up a steep set of switchbacks to reach town. We could hear children singing before we even spotted the elementary school. When our climb ended, a neat building greeted us with honey-coloured walls and bright red borders; it stood out prominently from the neighbouring mud huts.

There were 80 or so young boys in their blue and white uniforms reciting poetry in unison to their instructors as we entered the Haji Ali Memorial School. We begged them to continue and asked permission to take a few quick photos.

In the girls classroom, timid faces looked up as I entered the room. They had been singing with full force but were too shy to carry on in front of new acquaintances.

Mohammad Hussain, a CAI employed teacher, gave us a tour of the five-room building. Lessons scribbled on the chalkboards varied between English, science and basic arithmetic problems, such as the total cost of groceries given the price of each item.

Hussain later showed us to his desk and called for tea. This gave us a perfect opportunity to get answers to the questions which were gnawing at the back of our minds. Hussain explained that he is now the only teacher at this school who is paid by CAI, but there are four others, out of whom two are funded by NGO’s and two by the the government of Pakistan. All uniforms, books and pencils are provided to the children free of cost by CAI.

Our tea came while Hussain and a couple other residents in the room jokingly reminisced about Mortenson stumbling into the village with torn clothes, hungry and completely exhausted. Only now can they laugh about it since Mortenson was disorientated and lost when he reached Korphe. As described in the book, Three Cups of Tea, the Korphe locals nursed Mortenson back to health and he promised to return and build a school.

Mortenson came back after three years and did fulfill his promise. The school was first built in 1995 but had to be brought down due to its poorly constructed foundation. It was then rebuilt with a stronger foundation and reinforced concrete.

Currently the school has classes from nursery up to the eighth grade. Plans for expansion of the school building are in the works and Mortenson is set to return in October of this year to oversee the addition of grades nine and ten to the programme. Students who excel at this school are awarded full scholarships to attend colleges/universities in the capital, Islamabad. Hussain proudly told us that his own daughter is attending college under the scholarship programme.

In the end, I asked the Korphe locals if they had heard about the allegations against Greg Mortenson. They had, and replied that the lack of media presence in the region has prevented them from telling their side of the story.

The people of Korphe, Askole and other locals that I came across during my trek had nothing but immense appreciation for Greg Mortenson and his work. It is important to understand that the CAI is making efforts to provide education in distant corners of Pakistan where there is little to no presence of public schools.

Throughout my trip in the northern areas of Pakistan, I came across numerous blue CAI boards marking their institutions. I won’t attest to confirming the 250 or so institutions that the Central Asia claims to support, but this one was in fine shape. I know that the kids at this one school now have opportunities that were otherwise beyond their reach before the charity began and the locals backed up every aspect of Three Cups of Tea that I could remember.

PHOTO CREDIT: SCREENSHOT/SABINA KHAN

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Sabina Khan

Sabina Khan

A Master's graduate in Conflict Resolution from the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California. She tweets @ksabina.

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