You’re walking through a destitute hardscrabble village in rural Guatemala. Or it might be a ramshackle shantytown on the outskirts of Nairobi, are a dusty camp for Tibetan refugees near Kathmandu. You are simultaneously struck by the spirit of the people and horrified by the depravation of their lives — the open sewers, the dirty drinking water, the lack of schools are medical care. You want desperately to help, but you despair: How can one person possibly make a difference?
Next time this happens to you, remember the story of my friend Greg Mortenson.
A former intensive care unit nurse at San Francisco General Hospital and UCSF and a top-flight mountaineer, Mortenson had come within a few rope lengths of reaching the summit of Pakistan’s K2, the world’s second-highest mountain, in 1993. Physically emaciated and emotionally drained after 78 days on the mountain, Mortenson was taken by some of his Balti porters back to their village, Korphe, where they nursed him back to health with warm goat’s milk.
One day he asked them to show him their school. Reluctant at first, they eventually led him to an apricot orchard where 80 children squatted in the dirt, practicing their lessons. They had no paper, no pencils — students dipped twigs in the mud and wrote on slate tablets. There was no teacher — they shared a volunteer with another village, and he was gone this day. Older children patiently helped younger children with their school work.
“Their lives had barely changed in 800 years,” Mortenson said. “They spent their winters huddled together in dug-out basements, breathing the fumes from yak-dung fires. There was no electricity, no plumbing or roads, a 3-percent literacy rate and a 35-percent infant mortality rate.”
A few miles away, Pakistan and India were spending $1 million a day fighting one of history’s more ludicrous wars — lobbing artillery shells at each other at nearly 20,000 feet on the Siachen Glacier. Because of the fighting, no international aid groups would enter the region.
Something in the faces of the Balti children reminded Mortenson of his sister Christa, who had died the year before of epilepsy. “Despite the hardships of their lives,” he said, “their spirits soared.”
He promised the children he’d build them a school, without having any idea how to go about it. Back in the United States, he sent out fundraising letters to 580 celebrities and climbers — and received just one check, from newscaster Tom Brokaw.
To raise money, Mortenson sold his car and everything else he owned, cleaned out his savings account and cashed in his University of California retirement plan. He abandoned his plans to climb Everest the following year.
Before he could start construction of his school, Mortenson had to teach himself the Balti language and build a 282-foot suspension bridge over a frothing river. Pakistani intelligence agents and the CIA followed him everywhere. The local Shiite Muslim mullahs threw up obstacles.
At one pint he stumbled into a tribal conflict and spent eight days tied up, staring into the barrel of an AK-47.
Mortenson refused to give up. He engaged in long, passionate debates with the religious scholars until a high-ranking Ayatollah gave his blessing to the project. And then an angel came to his rescue: Dr. Jean Hoerni, a Swiss mountaineer and wealthy Silicon Valley pioneer, heard of Mortenson’s work and donated $1 million to set up a foundation to enable Mortenson to finish the school and build others.
The Korphe school opened in 1996, and since then Mortenson has completed eight other schools, two women’s vocational training centers and six potable water projects. He has started a training program for porters and a comprehensive eye care program and planted 20,000 trees.
It’s something to think about the next time you ask: What difference can one person make?
Copyright (c) 1999 San Fransico Examiner