Three Cups of Tea (Greg Mortenson & David Oliver Relin)March 2007 | February >>

One Man's Mission to Promote Peace ... One School at a Time

[Book Cover Page: Three Cups of Tea]

As a military man, I know you can never fight and win against someone who can shoot at you once and then run off and hide while you have to remain eternally on guard. You have to attack the source of your enemy’s strength. In America’s case, that’s not Osama or Saddam or anyone else. The enemy is ignorance. The only way to defeat it is to build relationships with these people, to draw them into the modern world with education and business. Otherwise the fight will go on forever.

- Brigadier General Bashir Baz, of Pakistan, in Three Cups of Tea

Greg Mortenson didn't begin building schools in Central Asia to fight terrorism. He did so to empower a group of people he'd grown to love. Yet much has changed since Mortenson stumbled, disoriented, into the tiny village of Korphe after a failed attempt to summit K2 in Pakistan's Karakoram Range. What began as a determined attempt to repay the kindness of strangers has - with the emergence of the Taliban, Al Qaeda, the events of 9-11, and America's war on terror - evolved into something more. Today, Mortenson's effort to educate the region's most vulnerable people is not only bettering lives; it's combating the root causes of terrorism and promoting international peace.

Three Cups of Tea is an enjoyable account of Mortenson's transformation from wandering, Buick-living, mountain climber-cum-nurse to director of Central Asia Institute, an organization responsible for planting five dozen schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Living in Tanzania with his missionary parents and three sisters, Mortenson developed an ear for language and appreciation of culture at a tender age. As a teen, he moved with his family back to the United States, where he was slow to adapt to a culture he'd never known. After serving in the army and being trained as a nurse in college, he took up climbing. Working an unenviable schedule in a California emergency room to fund his habit, climbing took over his life. He was in the hospital recovering from a nasty fall when he learned of a sister's death. Conquering K2 was to be her tribute.

Had he summitted, Mortenson's subsequent history might be radically different. It was on the way down, while demoralized and lost, that he wandered into Korphe and made a promise to build a school. His initial efforts to fulfill that promise were rife with complications. Money was an issue; still living out of his car back home in the States, Mortenson had none. Of 580 letters he sent seeking financial support, he received exactly one reply. Tom Brokaw sent a check for $100. (I suspect Brokaw has since contributed more substantially to Mortenson's cause.) Once he did obtain financial means, the vast majority from a single donor, Mortenson returned to Pakistan only to encounter additional obstacles. Materials were stolen, attempts made to divert funds to other causes, and - when Korphe was reached - the school-building effort postponed. With no way to traverse the Braldu River, village elders had decided that a bridge was a higher priority. Mortenson could hardly argue; without a bridge, material transport would be nearly impossible.

And so he returned to the United States to raise the $10,000 needed for bridge construction. He nervously approached his primary donor, physicist Jean Horni, who agreed to fund the bridge. Back in Pakistan, the Korphe bridge and school were finally built. In the process, however, Mortenson encountered numerous other villages with similar needs. When Hoerni offered to serve as benefactor establishing Central Asia Institute to address those needs, Mortenson accepted the challenge and launched an official career. From there, activities accelerated. Soon, schools were going up in multiple villages at once. Work training and medical centers were established. Generally based upon little more than demonstrated character and personal interaction, Mortenson hired local Pakistanis to develop a team. With the emergence of the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan and heightened tensions between Pakistan and India, the gravity of Mortenson's efforts greatly increased.

Authored by David Oliver Relin with contributions from Mortenson himself, Three Cups of Tea presents a balanced view of the people and cultures of the region. One moment your eyes well up at the primitive wisdom and simple kindness of Haji Ali, Korphe's village chief and Mortenson's mentor. The next, you're shuddering with disgust at a neighbor pilfering building materials or the unrefined sense of justice that rules the land (what matters being gender, position of status, and proficiency at wielding weapons). The authors acknowledge both positive and negative aspects of Islam as practiced in the region. Two fatwas are issued against Mortenson; both are ultimately revoked by Islamic leaders.

Disorganized, perpetually tardy ("Greg has always operated on African time," explains his mother), and sometimes foolhardy in assessing risk (ask his wife), Mortenson is at first blush an unlikely leader of a successful humanitarian organization. Yet he succeeds because of dogged determination and an unusually wise, culturally sensitive heart. What he lacks in organizational acumen is trumped by strength of spirit and purity of motives. He seeks neither religious nor political conversion. Empowerment and enlightenment via education are his goals. Mortenson's respectful exploration of Islam and rapid acquisition of local languages contribute significantly to his success. Too often, development efforts (government-sponsored or not) fail because of cultural arrogance (conscious or not) demonstrated by those attempting to help. Mortenson avoids this; as a result, he earns the trust and support of the local people.

Often, I have read books about the founders of charitable organizations and left thinking, "Huh, that's nice. Somebody's doing meaningful work out there." But with Three Cups of Tea, my reaction was more profound. For me, it's not so much Mortenson's good work I find inspiring. What's remarkable is his demonstration of an alternative approach to effecting change in the developing world. What's inspiring is his embodiment of a radical approach to fighting terror. It's different from the methods typically conjured and, from my experience, makes perfect sense.

Greg Mortenson understands why radical fundamentalism exists. He sees what many of our decision makers miss: Merely flexing our muscle and demonstrating military might will never win a war on terror. The fight against terror is a conflict of ideas. To win, we must demonstrate - not merely claim or argue - but truly demonstrate that our ideals of religious freedom, gender equality, universal suffrage, etc. are better in practice than their alternatives. To win, we must lead by example, must educate and empower. Only when we have earned the trust of our enemies and helped them break the bonds of ignorance and hopelessness will their transformation into partners and friends be at last complete.

Three Cups of Tea is easily one of the most inspiring books I've read in some time. Greg Mortenson not only educates children in Central Asia; he educates us as well. Fulfilling his mission is as important to western society as it is the people of Central Asia. We have much to learn ourselves, a fact demonstrated by a sign Mortenson spotted near his Montana home between trips abroad: "Kill 'em all. Let Allah sort them out." Until we have eliminated such notions amongst ourselves, our fight against terror will continue.

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