Reading tea leaves

Like many fans of Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace One School at a Time, I was glued to the TV Sunday night watching the “60 Minutes” broadcast reporting allegations that parts of Mortensen’s original memoir never happened.

Like many fans who have followed Mortenson’s story, I didn’t want to believe it was true. Even though it was CBS doing the reporting. Even though CBS interviewed Jon Krakauer, a renowned author whose own works of nonfiction are meticulously researched, who donated money to Mortenson’s Central Asia Institute and who now believes Mortensen made up some of the most dramatic and emotionally engaging scenes described in his first of two books about his experience building schools in desolate areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

I’ve read The New York Times take on the story, and NPR‘s. I believe these media entities to be reliable vehicles for information that is presented with integrity, caution and care. And still I don’t want to believe it.

Even today, when the news got worse (Mortenson could face $20 million in back taxes), I wanted to believe in Greg Mortenson. I wanted to believe that one human being, armed with little more than single-minded persistence and a healthy sense of obligation to some people who had shown him kindness, could change the world.

The timing of the “60 Minutes” story couldn’t be more profound for me. I am following a story about a growing number of local people who are working to change the world in Ethiopia. This afternoon, probably at just the moment Armen Keteyian of CBS was filing his follow-up story about Mortenson’s tax problems, I was sitting in a darkened auditorium in Arizona State University’s Design North building, listening as Phoenix architect and ASU adjunct professor Jack DeBartolo 3 attempted to persuade sixth-year graduate architecture students why they should to consider putting themselves through a slew of expensive shots, traveling 18 hours to a third-world country and spending 10 days in a rural area with no Starbucks or wi-fi and less-than-five-star accommodations — all so they can work day and night for most of a semester to design a classroom building prototype for the Sheberaber Primary School in a remote village southwest of Addis Ababa.

Jack has already taken one group of 11 graduate students to Ethiopia. The original EthiopiaStudio project resulted in a thoughtfully conceived design for the new Wolaitta Village orphanage in Soddo, Ethiopia. The students’ work ended in December but Jack’s continues, as his firm oversees construction of the site (by email and Skype) as others, including Brian and Keri deGuzman of Paradise Valley, who have adopted four children from Ethiopia, work feverishly to raise the money to build it.

Jack is waiting to find out how many of the 60 students who listened to his 10-minute presentation today will want to join the EthiopiaStudio 2.0 team and begin this second project.

I talked with one of those students before I left. I could see the fire in her eyes. “I want to do something that really makes a difference,” she told me. She was enchanted by the expressed commitment of the villagers to educating girls, many of whom cannot currently attend school because they risk getting attacked and raped while walking long distances to get there.

I visited the Sheberaber Primary School when I traveled with deGuzmans to Ethiopia last summer. The continually unfolding story of their involvement in this country of their children’s birth — and the widening cast of supportive characters — is compelling and inspiring. No embellishment, evasion or exaggeration required.

One of the original classroom buildings at Sheberaber Primary School.

Two of the students who followed our every step around the rural campus.

A crudely drawn anatomy chart hangs on an outside wall of a classroom building.

More members of our entourage.

The newer classroom buildings, while definitely nicer than the original mud-floored school, hold up to 100 students in classrooms designed for 30.

Standing beside a sign that expresses the villages commitment to educating girls. The assembled elders, all men, told us their belief that if you educate a man, you educate a man, and if you educate a woman, you educate a community.

Read the post I wrote after my July 12, 2010 visit to the Sheberaber Primary School.


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