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Doctor Greg

To challenge students to consider how they can effect change in the world and to look at the amount of change one person can achieve.

by James Lamont

Suitable for Whole School (Sec)


To challenge students to consider how they can effect change in the world and to look at the amount of change one person can achieve.

Preparation and materials


  1. The village of Korphe lies in mountainous and isolated Baltistan in Pakistan’s northern regions. Here, government control is limited and poverty is rife. In 1993 a disoriented and filthy outsider stumbled into the village, in a desperate state. This man was Greg Mortenson, better known now in the region as ‘Doctor Greg’ and described as a ‘real-life Indiana Jones’. A former US army medic and mountaineer, since the end of 1993 he has dedicated his life to building schools and aiding the isolated communities of this region.
  2. Nicknamed the ‘Savage Mountain’, K2 has a fearsome reputation among climbers. When we look at its harsh, vertical surfaces, it is not hard to see why. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, it is a favourite among climbers looking for adventure. In September 1993, Mortenson joined an expedition to climb K2. He went as a medic to honour his sister who had died a year before.

    Two of the party reached the summit, but one developed altitude sickness and was forced to stop. As the doctor, Mortenson stayed with him but then he himself began to suffer as a result of spending too long at a high altitude. He became both disoriented and isolated from his team, and this was how he ended up in Korphe.

    The villagers took Mortenson in and looked after him. As he recovered, and regained his ability to walk, he began to notice the deprivation surrounding him. He was shocked to find that the 82 children in the village had no school building. They met for lessons in the open air, even when the weather was bitterly cold.

    Mortenson wanted to do something to repay the villagers for their kindness. When he left, he promised that he would return to build a school for the local children.
  3. Back in the US, however, Mortenson found that people were not interested in his mission. Letters to celebrities earned a grand total of $100. At his lowest ebb, when he had almost given up, he received a surprise donation of 62,345 one-cent coins. These were from a fourth-grade class in Wisconsin. A student there had heard that one cent would buy a pencil for a Pakistani child.

    But the greatest help came from fellow climber and businessman, Dr Jean Hoerni, who sent him a cheque for $12,000 and a note saying, ‘Don’t screw up.’ Together they founded, in 1996, the Central Asian Institute, the CAI.
  4. In 2010 the CAI reported that it had established or significantly supported 171 schools across Pakistan and Afghanistan. Their emphasis is on educating young girls. This idea is based on the African proverb, ‘If you educate a boy, you educate an individual; but if you educate a girl, you educate a community.’

    As well as the community, the world also benefits. For instance, it is no secret that many of the Taliban come from these mountainous regions of north-west Pakistan. In order to undertake a jihad – ‘striving in the way of Allah’, sometimes interpreted as incorporating acts of violent resistance – one must have permission from one’s mother. Many of the mothers of terrorists are illiterate. So, Mortenson argues, a woman who has been taught to read will better understand what her son is getting into and be more likely to refuse permission.
  5. This quest for peace has, however, proved anything but peaceful. In 1996 Mortenson was held hostage for eight days. He has been caught in a fire-fight between rival drug lords. He has received a fatwa – an unofficial death sentence – from hostile local mullahs (teachers of Islamic law). He also gets hate mail from other Americans because he’s helping to educate Muslim children.

    But this opposition is from a minority. In 2006, Mortenson published his story, Three Cups of Tea (the title refers to a Balti proverb stating that after three shared cups of tea one is family with one’s host). Its peaceful message helped to make the book a bestseller.

    Mortenson’s project is ultimately a different way to fight the war on terror – with peace and prosperity as opposed to violence and human rights abuses. The massive number of deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq suggests that the latter strategy could do with a reassessment.

Time for reflection

(Play the introductory music quietly as you read the reflection.)

Think back upon that story: a climber on the other side of the world who nearly died but was rescued by local village people and who then kept his promise to come back and repay them for saving him. Greg has spent his life since then serving the people who saved him, and he has changed very many lives for the better as a result.

What could I do today to make my world a better place?

Who could I help to make their day better?

How can I work to make my world a better place?



Publication date: August 2011   (Vol.13 No.8)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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