No tea for Mortenson...

When I met Greg Mortenson I was inspired. I have been to the schools he has built and seen the good he has done.

Sabina Khan April 23, 2011
I met Greg Mortenson at the Authors Festival in Carmel, California while I was attending grad school in the area. We chatted for half an hour and swapped contact information so we could meet in Pakistan.

While in Pakistan, I rang up his Central Asia Institute (CAI) contact, Suleman, to arrange a meeting but Mortenson’s trip was cancelled because of his heart condition. Nevertheless we kept in touch through emails and Facebook.

I made an effort to see the CAI schools in Skardu while I was visiting those areas during my summer break. After my return to California, a group of class fellows and I met Mortenson at a book signing event for "Stones into Schools" at the Steinbeck Center. Both times Mortenson was easy going and happy even though there was a long line of people waiting for their books to be signed. He was knowledgeable about the areas and people, familiar to me in Pakistan. His book tour did seem to be taking a toll on his heath, since he appeared tired.

I’ve read his books and contributed to CAI so the recent allegations that have surfaced against him are indeed troublesome. After watching the 60 Minutes investigation I was not convinced. So what if he had exaggerated some events in his books? It was all for a good cause. Plus, it is difficult to verify the truth in remote areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The allegations

I read Jon Krakauer’s 75 page report titled “Three cups of deceit”, in which he goes into detail about the exaggerations in “Three cups of tea” and “Stones into Schools”. Krakauer writes about Mortenson giving up on his attempt to climb K2 but fails to mention that this happened after Mortenson and his friend Scott Darsney went to the rescue of the French climber, Etienne Fine, who collapsed during his climb and had to be carried down to a helicopter.

Mortenson’s wandering alone and lost into Korphe is disputed, because Darsney said that they went to Khane not Korphe and this is where Greg Mortenson promised to build his first school. Mortenson even wrote about this in the article published in American Himalayan Foundation newsletter. But, he admitted that events have been compressed in order for better story telling.

The truth behind Mortenson’s kidnapping by the Taliban has also come into question. However, Jon Krakauer’s report reveals that Niamat Gul, one of the supposed protectors, is a petty thief who moves from town to town conning people. He was in prison for kidnapping a girl and managed to escape a couple of years before running into Mortenson.

More publicity than charity?

The most damning revelation was that more than 50 per cent of the CAI funds are used for book promotions and travel expenses even though the CAI does not earn any revenue from book sales. It seems like Mortenson got used to working on a small scale in Pakistan and the CAI grew too big, too fast, to manage. He does not seem to be aware of how a non-profit organisation functions.


There should be more transparency and control over how the funds are used but that will likely come at the sacrifice of time and efficiency. CAI has tried to remain a small organisation in order to avoid layers of bureaucracy. Mortenson operates well in the field but he is in need of better business practices.

Let’s not forget that he did go out on his own in remote areas to build schools for children who were using tents or tree shades as their classrooms. He was awarded the star of Pakistan medal for his services to Pakistan and President Obama donated funds from his Nobel Peace Prize to the CAI. Mortenson has worked with the US military in Afghanistan as well.

Greg Mortenson should work with the CAI to provide more solid figures as to how donations are used and book profits are spent. To date, however, there has been no solid evidence of any wrongdoing to justify the recent attacks. My hope is that Mortenson and the CAI act quickly to answer people’s questions so that can continue to offer educational opportunities to those in desperate need.
Sabina Khan A Master's graduate in Conflict Resolution from the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California. She tweets @ksabina.
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necassarily reflect the views and policies of the Express Tribune.

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