In 1986, my ex-wife and I crossed the Khunjerab Pass into northern Pakistan’s Hunza Valley from China. On a recommendation from a traveler, we hired a guide to lead us on a three-day trek to the village of Shimshal. The guide, we soon learned, only seemed to know two words of English: “Problem?” and “no problem.” The first day, we met some men from Shimshal on the trail. Soon, everybody was yelling and gesturing wildly. I asked our guide, “Problem?” He responded with a third word of English: “Big problem.”
The big problem was that our guide hailed from Chapursan, the next valley over, and the Shimshal men insisted we hire a local porter. After some negotiations, they put one of our packs on a teenage boy from Shimshal, and we had a new expedition member.
I dredge this story up in the context of the Mortenson/Krakauer/60 Minutes flap for a few reasons. The most important is to back everybody down from this Red/Blue, black/white version of events: things are not simply “problems,” or “no problems.” Mortenson is neither a saint nor a charlatan; Krakauer is not either a jilted crank or a crusading do-gooder. There are nuances, debatable “facts” and conflicting motivations in almost every situation, messy and at times seemingly irreconcilable. This is no exception.
I appreciate the many comments I’ve received on the last post, and let me take on a few issues that popped up. First, I’m not Mortenson’s friend or apologist. As I made it clear in my post, I met him 14 years ago, thought he was a bit odd and very interesting, and like his idea of building schools for girls in an otherwise forgotten corner of the world. Because of the response to my post, I have spent the last couple days talking with old Himalaya hands, people who know Mortenson, and others work in the development field. I find some of the allegations against him to be deeply troubling, and I already wrote that he’s probably ill-suited to run an organization that’s become as big as the Central Asia Institute (CAI).
But it’s not a simple story, if you ask me. Jon Krakauer has a well-deserved reputation as a dogged reporter, but he, of all people, should know that different people have different versions of the same event. There are some who still bitterly dispute the veracity of his account of events on Everest that he chronicled, first in Outside magazine, and then in Into Thin Air.
The allegations against Mortenson seem to break down into three parts: first is that “Dr. Greg” is a mythomaniac, who has embellished, exaggerated and downright lied in order to promote and enrich himself. The second is that he committed a series of financial improprieties, again with the goal or result of enriching himself. The third is that he ran a shoddy operation that wasn’t very efficient.
It’s been hard for me to find anybody who is deeply troubled about the “compression” of events in Mortenson’s CAI creation myth in Three Cups of Tea. While writing my own memoir, Monkey Dancing, I received this fabulous advice from my editor: “Chronology is not structure.” I don’t want to shock anybody, but most narrative non-fiction wrestles with this conundrum.
That said, put me in the camp of those who want to know more about the Taliban abduction story and other questions that Krakauer raises. But we already know that one character in that kidnapping saga, as Krakauer footnotes in his “Three Cups of Deceit,” has a cousin who seems to be an all-purpose bad guy and who had concocted a scheme to kidnap Mortenson. Then Krakauer tells us the importance of clan in that part of the world. So who’s telling the whole truth? Krakauer quotes another source, Ghulam Parvi (whom I met in 1998), who testifies against Mortenson. Then Krakauer quotes Parvi as admitting “that willingly or unwillingly I have spent the wealth of CAI at my own.” He’s what lawyers – and journalists – might call an “impeachable source.” And, as I learned in my first trip to Hunza 25 years ago with the porter imbroglio — and the State Department and Pentagon are still learning — Pakistan is a complicated place.
As for the financial mismanagement allegations, from the way I read the available information, CAI spent $1.7 million for Mortenson to travel around promoting CAI and his book, and CAI received $20 million in donations. That’s a pretty good return on investment if you ask me. We’ll leave it to the lawyers, accountants and the IRS to figure out how legal that all is.
But the crux of the allegations, as far as I’m concerned, isn’t about whether Mortenson is a terrible accountant: it’s whether he personally ripped off CAI funds to fly on private jets and vacation in Telluride – or worse. If Mortenson’s got a Caymen Islands bank account with millions of CAI contributions in it, he can go to jail. But I’m guessing that Mortenson has not been stealing pennies from schoolchildren to fly around on private jets because he likes the free drinks. Mortenson may have a number of strange and obstinate qualities, but from those who know him, venality doesn’t appear to be one of them. As Krakauer wrote, quoting former CAI board member Jennifer Wilson, sometimes Mortenson couldn’t even be bothered to reel in donations: “I would talk to people who expressed interest in making a sizable contribution,” Wilson said, “but when they tried to contact Greg he wouldn’t get back to them.”
Which leads to the mismanagement question, and the “ghost schools,” and finding ways to evaluate how effective Mortenson’s essential mission has been: to build schools in places where there are none, and especially to promote the education of young girls. My question is, “compared to what?” Madonna’s recent $15 million debacle in Malawi trying to build girls schools there? USAID’s efforts in Afghanistan? Other NGOs operating in Baltistan? I went to southern Sudan last year to document UN humanitarian relief efforts, and can tell you that efficiency is not at the top of the list of the programs’ best qualities. And nobody, not even Krakauer, is suggesting that Mortenson has run a phantom operation: there are many schools that are up, running, and educating kids in villages where he has worked. CAI still owes its donors an accounting of how many are functioning, and how many have failed.
Mortenson, when he recovers from his surgery, has a lot of ‘splaining to do.
But so does Krakauer. “Why?” I’d like him to answer, and “why now?”
The fundamental point I made in my first post remains: educating girls and young women in Central Asia (and elsewhere) is an important and commendable goal – and Mortenson has succeeded in doing just that. As Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn made abundantly clear in their bestseller Half the Sky, girls’ education is a fundamental building block to improve almost every other social indicator, from infant mortality to life expectancy.
Ignoring the importance of what Mortenson has inarguably been doing for the past 18 years – building schools and improving many girls’ lives — would constitute a truly “big problem.”