Interview with Greg Mortenson

Posted by Goodreads on December 1, 2009
Humanitarians such as Greg Mortenson wage wars of ideas. In the best-seller Three Cups of Tea, Mortenson described how he built a school in a remote village in Pakistan. He then founded more than 130 schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan, hoping to supplant extremism with literacy and female equality. In the process, he survived a kidnapping by the Taliban, two fatwas, and 17 years spent traversing some of the world's most isolated territory. Mortenson's latest book, Stones into Schools, describes his recent progress in the Wakhan corridor of Afghanistan and how women are using education to better their communities. Fun fact: He studied more than 600 Goodreads reviews of Three Cups of Tea before he sat down to write Stones Into Schools. Mortenson spoke with Goodreads about working amid the Taliban and the transformative power of education.

Goodreads: You work in areas with very low female literacy rates. What is the "Girl Effect" and why is girls' education so crucial?

Greg Mortenson: Today there are 78 million female children who can't go to school (120 million children in total) because of slavery, poverty, religious extremism, gender discrimination, and human trafficking. When a girl gets an education to at least a fifth-grade level, three important things happen: Infant mortality drops significantly, population explosion is curbed, and the basic quality of health improves dramatically.

From my own perspective, the first thing that happens is that girls teach their mothers how to read and write. Boys tend to just learn for themselves. Girls immediately start teaching their mothers. It spreads like wildfire. When kids come home from the marketplace with vegetables or meat wrapped in newspaper, you'll see the mother very carefully unfold the newspaper and ask her daughter to read the news to her. That's very powerful because a woman can then understand what's going on in the outside world.

When women have an education—this is more political, and I'm specifically talking about Afghanistan and Pakistan—they are much less likely to encourage their sons to participate in violence or terrorism or to join the Taliban. After 9/11, the Taliban had a lot of desertion. Since then they have primarily targeted illiterate and impoverished societies because many educated women refuse to allow their sons to join the Taliban. [A mother's disapproval] is quite a strong deterrent.

There's a huge economic incentive. With female education and literacy, one of the first things that happen is that women start staking their rights for land ownership. They go to the district courts, and they file titles and deeds for land ownership. That's a key process if you want a civil society. That's happening in Afghanistan right now. There are more than a million widows. They know they have the right to own land, but when they're literate and have legal representation, they are much more likely to get involved.

GR: You've been dedicated to girls' education for 17 years—long enough to see a generation graduate. What kind of long-term effects are you seeing in these communities?

GM: When we first set up a school, the girls are very demure. Their heads are down. When we go back to that village a year or two later, all the women are excited, and they know what's going on around the world. We're focused on the very rural areas. We don't focus on the urban areas; our goal is to get schools started where there are no girls in school. The last place first.

Last year a young woman named Fozia Khan became the first woman—out of 4.2 million people—to pass her bar exam in northern Pakistan. She's now in the United States for two years, and she wants to get into land advocacy for women. She's become the role model for tens of thousands of young women. Next spring Shekila Aslam from Baltistan, northeast Pakistan, will become the first female physician out of 1.2 million people. She's planning to go back to her village and work there. We have had four women who have graduated from high school join the police force. One is now a captain. They help with domestic violence and abuse toward women.

GR: The Taliban has shut down only one of your schools, and it reopened under the protection of local guards just two days later. Given how often the Taliban tries to shut down schools, especially girls' schools, why do you think your schools have largely escaped its targeting?

GM: I grew up in Tanzania, Africa, for 14 years. My father started a hospital on the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro. One thing that my father insisted on that I've tried to follow is that he always put local people in charge, not Westerners or foreigners. For long-term sustainability and viability, you have to empower the local people and put them in charge. Sometimes it is frustrating, or it can take longer, but ultimately that's the real way to do it.

We're now able to go into pretty volatile areas, some of the Taliban areas. This year we put the first girls' high schools in four provinces of Afghanistan. There are many Taliban around, but we're able to [build schools] because we have relationships with the local people. They are able to talk to the Taliban, and so the Taliban are reluctant to attack our schools. Since 2007, the Taliban have bombed or destroyed 850 schools in Afghanistan and an additional 600 in Pakistan. We had one school attacked, but only for two days. I think [our schools remain open] because we insist that the community give free land for the school, as well as free wood, free resources, and free or subsidized manual labor—2,000 to 5,000 days of manual labor. We match that with teacher training and support, skilled labor like masons or carpenters, and materials. The community becomes invested.

GR: Three Cups of Tea was a runaway best-seller. Has the success of that book at home impacted your work overseas?

GM: We've had our best year ever, but I keep saying that every year since we started. Since Three Cups of Tea, the relationships that we've been so fastidiously and slowly nurturing are really coming together. Things are getting a lot easier. I call myself more of a cheerleader now.

GR: You have been both a critic of and an unofficial advisor to the U.S. military. How do you feel about the current military strategy on the ground in Pakistan and Afghanistan?

GM: In Three Cups of Tea, although I'm a military veteran, I was a little critical of the military. After 9/11 I went to the Pentagon a couple of times, and I called them all laptop warriors. I can say now that the military has gone through a huge learning curve in the last three to four years—even more than the State Department or our political leaders—and the military really gets it. It's about listening more, building relationships, and empowering the elders. Three Cups of Tea is now mandatory reading for all senior commanders and Special Forces deploying to Afghanistan. I tried to highlight some personal examples of the military's inspiring work in Stones Into Schools.

GR: You've received angry letters from Americans who object to educating Muslims overseas. Others question the right of Westerners to encroach on local cultures in developing countries. What is your response to these kinds of criticism?

GM: Some people say that I'm just trying to push Western ideas and morals and that I have my own agenda. But to be really honest, the reason I do this is because when I ask women in rural Afghanistan and Pakistan, "What do you want?" very consistently women say, "One, we don't want our babies to die. Two, we want security and peace. And, three, we want our children to go to school."

I'm not doing this for my own agenda or trying to pat myself on the back. If I wanted to make money, I definitely wouldn't be running around in this part of the world.

GR: You founded Pennies for Peace, an international service-learning program. A large part of your outreach focuses on educating American students about the lack of educational opportunities in Pakistan and Afghanistan. How are young people getting involved?

I visit about 200 schools a year in the U.S.: elementary schools and universities, private and public schools, urban and rural. I talk to kids and try to inspire them to go out and make a difference. My contention is that we should spend 99 pennies here in the U.S. for our education, and 99 people can work here in the U.S., and one penny or one person can go overseas. Let's keep to that formula, or even less—one out of 500 people.

I think there's been a phenomenon of community service happening around the country in the last 10 or 15 years. I read a U.S. News & World Report study that came out two years ago, which said that in 1970 about one-third of college graduates wanted to go out and make their community or the world a better place (and this was the time of bell-bottom jeans and peace guitars), and by 1990 it dropped to 18 percent (the "me" generation, everybody wanted to go out and make a buck). Today about 45 percent of college graduates really want to go out and do something, whether it's in their community or the international community. It's cool that kids are starting to look upon education as an honorable career.

GR: Can you describe a typical day spent writing?

GM: It takes a lot of organization. The first book I dictated and then wrote with my coauthor, David Oliver Relin. At the time, my wife said if I wrote a book it would be a pamphlet, so they wanted someone to bring it out more. This book was actually much more challenging because I wrote it in first person.

I compiled a list of about 600 of the Three Cups of Tea reviews and comments on Goodreads (criticism, complaints, suggestions, praise, et cetera), printed them out on paper, and went through them carefully. Some of the comments, such as "You didn't share enough about why you do what you do; you didn't talk about your family or your personal feelings; you describe these amazing women and girls, but you didn't talk about how they felt when they first went to school or what it meant to their mothers," were very insightful comments. I've incorporated some of the suggestions and criticism in my new book, Stones into Schools. It was a very helpful process. I really worked hard to bring out the women's personal feelings, and I enjoyed it a lot.

Some authors don't like to read any book reviews. I have a thick skin. I also appreciate even the critical reviews, because you can learn from them. My dad was big advocate of listening not only to the people who praise you but also to your critics.

I also had my wife's book club and a couple of other book clubs go through the manuscript of Stones into Schools. They gave some incredible feedback and really improved the stories quite a bit.

With the first book, I used to get up at 2:30 a.m. and work for five hours. I was under a lot of pressure. I did it because we had so many people interested in what we were doing. With this book, I got up at 4 a.m. and worked for three and a half hours. A lot of perspiration. But I actually enjoyed writing this second book.

GR: Do you have any books or authors who have inspired you?

GM: Nicholas Kristof just wrote Half the Sky. I've been in touch with him for many years. We talk a lot about women's issues. He's very inspiring to me, and it is really exciting to see that finally some of these causes related to women's rights are taking front and center.

I like Rory Stewart. He wrote The Places In Between, a travelogue about walking across Afghanistan. I pretty much only read nonfiction.

GR: What's next for you?

GM: I'm trying to wean myself off this work so that I can become a full-time advocate for girls' education. I've had 87 offers from Hollywood for a movie, but I've turned them all down. I'm very reluctant. I think a movie might jeopardize or put our girls at risk. If I do a movie, it's not going to be about money. I want to make sure the producer has a lot of sensitivity. Angelina Jolie read Three Cups of Tea, and she said she would help find a really good producer. She has a big heart.

I'm interested in starting a global women's scholarship fund. I think a lot of women graduate but then fall through the cracks because they don't have opportunities. They are the first wave of literate girls. I'd like to set up a Web site through which a person can individually sponsor a woman online.

I want to have more time with my family and be home. Some reviewers have said, "Well, you're doing a great thing, but you're a poor husband and bad dad because you got married and have responsibilities, and now you're off traipsing around the world." Obviously, that is the hardest thing for me. I'm gone from my family half the year. But on the other hand, I've met hundreds of people in the military. I think kids make the greatest sacrifice of all. My daughter, who is 13, actually takes great offense. She says, "Daddy, I can't believe they would say that about you." She has a black belt in tae kwon do, and she says, "Come to our doorstep and say he's a bad dad."

We did a young readers' version of Three Cups of Tea, which included writing from my daughter and was more geared toward girls. We're going to do a Stones into Schools version, but a little more geared toward boys, teaching little guys to respect women's issues. My son is eight, and he'll be writing about his experiences. My son and daughter come over [to Pakistan and Afghanistan] every year or every other year. You have to be careful, but it's been really wonderful. We get to spend 24-7 with each other for four to six weeks. Even a lot of American families don't get to do that.

Comments Showing 1-30 of 30 (30 new)

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message 1: by Maggie (new)

Maggie Greg Mortensen has been a great inspiration and I admire him enormously. I insisted that all my sons read Three Cups of Tea and am glad that it is being made compulsory reding in the military. Maybe the Pentagon should get on board as well. What a courageous man Greg is. Very likely one of my sons will be sent to serve in Afghanistan next year and I hope that he will be able to carry with him some of Greg's inspiration with him so he too can make a difference.

message 2: by Jax (new)

Jax Greg,

What an inspirational (and literate!) interview. Thank you for the work you do.


message 3: by Janille (new)

Janille Fabulous call to action. I look forward to seeing the impact this book will have.

message 4: by Juha (new)

Juha Excellent. Your work certainly confirms that development work tends to be most effective when it's done at the local level with local participation and ownership.

With regard to the Pennies for Peace initiative, this of course basically translates to the 1% goal of development assistance. Americans are generous people, but there are terrible misconceptions about the scope of official development assistance. People think that the US is giving huge amounts of official aid when, in fact, the US aid in 2008 was but 0.18% of the gross national income, compared with the OECD average of 0.47%. In this regard, the US lags significantly behind other countries, not only the top ranked Norway (0.88%) but even Canada (0.32%) and the UK (0.43%).

message 5: by Jen (new)

Jen Greg Mortenson is truly one of our best modern humanitarians. After reading the first book, I really asked myself, "What can I do to help?" I think he's onto something with the education angle. If we can educate people in that part of the world--really teach them what groups like the Taliban are all about--we'll have a much better chance at decreasing terrorism.

message 6: by Judy (new)

Judy Colombrito I haven't read the book yet, but even from your interivew, I feel more hope for a brighter tomorrow. I wasn't aware that today 45% of college graduates want to make the world a better place. Thank you caring to make a difference in the world for women and for humanity.
On my way home from work today, I will be stopping at the book store to buy "Three Cups of Tea."

message 7: by Mary Lynn (new)

Mary Lynn I've read Three Cups of Tea, and encouraged many of my customers at the bookstore where I work to read it as well. Many of them have come back to purchase copies for their friends. In the next few days I'm going to be reading Stones into Schools to learn more about Greg and his wonderful work. There is always hope where there are people like Greg Mortenson willing to do so much to help. Thank you, Greg.

message 8: by Marcy (new)

Marcy My friend and I saw Greg Mortenson speak at the National Council of Social Studies in Atlanta, Georgia last month. He never spoke from notes! I have read his book Three Cups of Tea, and fell in love with him from the get go. After I heard him, I knew I was hearing a hero. The NCSS gave him an award, and I agree with another reader, that I am disappointed he did not receive the Nobel Peace Prize. He has certainly earned it!

My elementary school is going to fully take on raising "Pennies for Peace." I am very excited that we will be helping more and more girls receive the education they deserve. I am a global educator, and I finally feel that one small school will be helping globally as well!

Here's to you, Greg Mortenson, for your selflessness, humility, and perseverance. You are my hero!

Marcy Prager

message 9: by Molly (new)

Molly I have been waiting for 60 Minutes to do a profile on Greg - someone ask him if he has been approached or is interested - seems like a wonderful avenue for positive attention to his goals. Terrific interview - I didn't realize he had a new book - sounds like a good read!

message 10: by Melynda (new)

Melynda From Canada...where the message is just as inspiring. Helping people help themselves is the ONLY way to advance, either with education, poverty or peace. Aid is a two edged sword, often lining the pockets of the giver, either business or government with usually short term help to those who need it most. Greg teaches by example, giving people hope, self respect and dignity along with the encouragement to move mountains with minimum if very important financial help. Women are powerful, and with education will
help more than anything to change their world. Thank you, Greg. Melynda.

message 11: by Sheena (new)

Sheena I feel so much responsibility as woman to push for other women's rights, and I usually feel like I fall short of the mark. I am inspired by writers like Nicholas and Sheryl, and am so grateful for the people that do fight the fights that we all wish we were fighting.

message 12: by Joanna (new)

Joanna Somehow I wasn't interested in reading "Three cups of tes", but after reading this intelligent interview, I am putting this on my to-read shelf.

message 13: by Pat (new)

Pat I read "Three cups of tea" and was very impressed and moved by Greg's work. I have loaned out my book, many times and bought more books for other people to read! It is a book everyone should read!

message 14: by Sia (new)

Sia We shouldn't regard these issues as "women's issues" because these issues affect everyone. The more we think of it as everyone's issues the more likely we will be able to eradicate the obstacles that women face throughout the world. Anyways, I'm looking forward to reading the second book. The first book was rather disappointing because it didn't give enough voice to the girls and women. Hopefully the second one will be different.

message 15: by Jessica (new)

Jessica This has been my favorite book yet! It was my call to action. My PLAN sponsorship just came in the mail. I will be connected with my Women to Women International person soon and my monthly sponsorship to CARE is underway. Thank you for inspiring me.

message 16: by Raymond (last edited Dec 10, 2009 10:30PM) (new)

Raymond Chen "Three Cups of Tea" is a great book. It's nice to know another book by Mr. Mortenson is published. I won't miss it.

message 17: by Luanne (new)

Luanne How much more does Greg Mortenson deserve the nobel peace prize than Obama. Don't get me wrong, I am a huge Obama supporter, but when you look at what Mr. Mortenson has done to promote peace and look at the fact that Obama is the leader of a country involved in two wars, seems clear who deserves the prize.

message 18: by Marcy (new)

Marcy I totally agree with you, Luanne! Greg deserved to win from years of dedication and education. Even when Greg is sick, he tours to spread the word.

message 19: by Luanne (new)

Luanne Marcy wrote: "I totally agree with you, Luanne! Greg deserved to win from years of dedication and education. Even when Greg is sick, he tours to spread the word."

Amen! He really deserves much more than the prize, but I am sure that his life is so full of blessings from all the good he does that maybe the Nobel prize would be insignificant.

message 20: by Marcy (new)

Marcy Luanne wrote: "Marcy wrote: "I totally agree with you, Luanne! Greg deserved to win from years of dedication and education. Even when Greg is sick, he tours to spread the word."

Amen! He really deserves much..."

Everyone likes to be acknowledged, even Greg Mortenson! Hopefully he will have another chance.

message 21: by Diana (new)

Diana Got to see Greg Mortenson in person last night. What a privilege! The audience would have been there all night listening to his stories. He seems like a shy person, but once he starts talking about the schools and the girls, he lights up and all shyness is gone.

Does anyone know where to find discussion questions for "Stones into Schools"? We are reading it for our book club and I cannot find anything online. Thanks!

message 22: by Marcy (new)

Marcy I don't know where you can find a discussion about Stones into Schools. I absolutely loved it! Greg does light up when he talks about the schools and the girls, just as he must have lit up when he wrote this book. This book describes much more the "need" he feels for both Pakistan and Afghanistan. To start a discussion, I would read and find the "clues" why he is so driven and feels so "connected" to working under duress, allowing himself to be put in danger in the midst of war and riots...

message 23: by Diana (new)

Diana I am loving the book and yes, it talks about so much more than building schools. Finding the reasons why he is so driven was one of the topics of last evening's interview at the Smithsonian where he received an award from the Creativity Foundation. What in his upbringing or his "genes" gave him his courage and his passion? I will definitely start a discussion there, but I am really looking for questions to lead my group discussion. There are questions all over the place for Three Cups of Tea, but not for Stones into Schools which is really a more complex book than the first.

message 24: by Marcy (new)

Marcy How about: Why does Greg start schools in remote areas?
Why did the riot crowd not destroy the school?
Will girls be allowed to pursue higher education?
How can families be educated to encourage the girls to get a higher education?

message 25: by Diana (new)

Diana Thank you, Marcy!! Lovely!

message 26: by Mahir (new)

Mahir Snnoki Watch Greg Mortenson Three Cups of Tea CBS News' 60 Minutes video

message 27: by Marcy (new)

Marcy This is very disturbing to me. I have been one of Greg's proponents. Greg has done so much good, but the thought that some of his stories are lies and there is not a good enough accounting of his organization flips me out! Why did he not meet with 60 minutes and why did he cancel one of his engagements? Why is he hiding? The author of INto Thin Air is very credible. Very disturbing...

message 28: by Raymond (new)

Raymond Chen Geez, this really hurts. Can't believe it. It was such a beautiful story. And it was a lie.

message 29: by Ed (new)

Ed Smiley I just ran across this interview in an old Goodreads notification.
1. No indication he ever survived a kidnapping by the Taliban.
2. Three Cups of Tea is now mandatory reading for all senior commanders and Special Forces deploying to Afghanistan? I hope that is not true.... ...but maybe that explains something.
3. Mr. Mortensen declares that he has a thick skin, and wants critical reviews as he appreciates all feedback. This does not appear to be the case any more.

message 30: by Ed (new)

Ed Smiley Sweety wrote: "jpg.jpgjpg.jpg

This is a voice from a lonely heart,my name is MIRABEL; a young girl, never married .i pass through your profile today and was move with passion of love.please i will like us to hol..."


I really appreciate the kind offer but, I really think that you and Mr. Mortensen would be happier together. You can post a message for him at

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