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Doctor Greg

To look at the amount of change one person can achieve.

by James Lamont

Suitable for Whole School (Sec)


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 Mortensen, better known now in the region as ‘Doctor Greg’ and described as a ‘real-life Indiana Jones’. A former US army medic and mountaineer, he has spent his life for the past 15 years building schools and aiding these isolated communities.
  2. Nicknamed the ‘Savage Mountain’, K2 has a fearsome reputation among climbers. Looking 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. Mortensen agreed to join an expedition as a medic in 1993 to honour his sister who had died a year before. Two of their party reached the summit, but one developed altitude sickness and was forced to stop. As the doctor, Mortensen stayed with him but then himself was affected by 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.
  3. Taken in by the villagers, Mortensen began to notice the deprivation surrounding him. Regaining his ability to walk, he was struck on exploring the village by the absence of a school. When he left the village he promised that he would return to build a school for the local children.
  4. When he got back to the USA, however, he found that people were uninterested in his mission. Writing letters to celebrities earned a grand total of $100 for his efforts. 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.
  5. 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.

    Today there are 64 CAI schools across Pakistan and Afghanistan, mainly 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.’
  6. As well as the community, the world also benefits. Case in point: it is no secret that many of the Taliban come from these regions. 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, Mortensen argues, a woman who has been taught to read will better understand what her son is getting into and be more likely to refuse.
  7. This quest for peace has, however, proved anything but peaceful. In 1996 Mortensen 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. He also gets hate mail from other Americans because he is helping to educate Muslim children.
  8. But this opposition is from a minority. In 2006 he 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. Mortensen’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 body count 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 who nearly died but was rescued by people on the other side of the world; who then kept his promise to come back and repay them for saving him.

Dr Greg has spent his life since then serving the people who saved him, and he has changed so 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: May 2008   (Vol.10 No.5)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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