Greg Mortenson & David Oliver Relin, Three Cups of Tea

[April 18, 2011: See below for update.]

The subtitle of Three Cups of Tea is “One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace . . . One School at a Time.” What I found moving and inspiring about this book, however, is that Mortenson’s mission was not to promote peace but to provide education, not to bring an agenda (even one as benign-sounding as peacemaking) to the villages of the Karakoram region but in response to a profound desire he meets there and answers. To put it another way, he does not set out to shape the region to his interests, or American, or ‘Western,’ interests, as the subtitle misleadingly implies, but rather listens to the villagers who become his friends and mentors and then sets out to bring them what they want, for themselves and especially for their children.

During Mortenson’s first stay in the village of Korphe in 1993, after a failed attempt to climb the mountain known as “K2,” Haji Ali, the chief of the village, takes him to see where the children go to study:

He was appalled to see eighty-two children … kneeling on the frosty ground, in the open. Haji Ali, avoiding Mortenson’s eyes, said that the village had no school, and the Pakistani government didn’t provide a teacher. A teacher cost the equivalent of one dollar a day, he explained, which was more than the village could afford. So they shared a teacher with the neighboring village of Munjung, and he taught in Korphe three days a week. The rest of the time the children were left alone to practice the lessons he left behind. . .

After the last note of the [Pakistani] anthem had faded, the chldren sat in a neat circle and began copying their multiplication tables. Most scratched in the dirt with sticks they’d brought for that purpose. The more fortunate . . . had slate boards they wrote on with sticks dipped in a mixture of mud and water. ‘Can you imagine a fourth-grade class in America, alone, without a teacher, sitting there quietly and working on their lessons?’ Mortenson asks. ‘I felt like my heart was being torn out. There was a fierceness in their desire to learn, despite how mightily everything was stacked against them, that reminded me of Christa [his recently deceased sister]. I knew I had to do something.’

Three Cups of Tea is the record of what he did, and his accomplishments are truly astonishing. Working single-mindedly and also, for some time, more or less single-handedly, he raised the money for the Korphe school first and then gradually expanded his efforts (and, even more gradually, his resources) until eventually the Central Asia Institute he created, launched by a $12,000 check from a single generous donor in response to Mortenson’s first fundraising efforts, became a substantial organization that has built, to date, 130 schools. Small amounts of money (by Western standards) were more than matched by the investments of time, labour, and passion made by the local people who worked with Mortenson to realize, not Mortenson’s vision, but their own.

Hushe School Inauguration, Pakistan
Image Courtesy of Central Asia Institute

One of the most memorable scenes comes as the Korphe school is nearing completion. A local strong-man, Haji Mehdi, shows up with his “henchmen,” all carrying clubs, and declares Mortenson an “‘infidel [who] has come to poison Muslim children, boys as well as girls. . . . Allah forbids the education of girls. And I forbid the construction of this school.'” Haji Ali squares off against him and eventually agrees to Haji Mehdi’s terms, which are that he turn over the twelve best rams in the village to save the school. “‘You have to understand,'” Mortenson explains, “‘in these villages, a ram is like a firstborn child, prize cow, and family pet all rolled into one. The most sacred duty of each family’s oldest boy was to care for their rams, and they were devastated.'” But they bring the rams and Haji Ali hands them over to the blackmailer without a word and then “herd[s] his people toward the site of the school.”

‘It was one of the most humbling things I’ve ever seen,’ Mortenson says. ‘Haji Ali had just handed over half the wealth of the village to that crook, but he was smiling like he’d just won a lottery.’

Haji Ali paused before the building everyone in the village had worked so hard to raise. It held its ground firmly before Korphe K2, with snugly built stone walls, plasted and painted yellow, and thick wooden doors to beat back the weather. Never again would Korphe’s children kneel over their lessons on frozen ground. ‘Don’t be sad,’ he told the shattered crowd. ‘Long after all those rams are dead and eaten this school will still stand. Haji Mehdi has food today. Now our children have education forever.’

Later, he shows Mortenson his Koran, which he cannot read, and tells him, “‘This is the greatest sadness in my life. I’ll do anything so the children of my village never have to know this feeling. I’ll pay any price so they have the education they deserve.'”

Mortenson was working on schools and, eventually, other projects in this region long before it became the focus of world, and especially American, attention after September 11, 2001. In fact, he was in Pakistan on 9/11, when he gets the news from his host that “‘A village called New York has been bombed.'” On September 14, he and his colleague George McCown attended an opening ceremony for another school, in Kuardu village, at which Syed Abbas, an important Shia leader in the region, gives the keynote address:

‘Today is a day that you children will remember forever and tell your children and grandchildren. Today, from the darkness of illiteracy, the light of education shines bright.

‘We share in the sorrow as people weep and suffer in America today, as we inaugurate this school. Those who have committed this evil act against the innocent, the women and children, to create thousands of widows and orphans, do not do so in the name of Islam. By the grace of Allah the Almighty, may justice be served upon them. . . .

‘These two Christian men have come halfway around the world to bring our Muslim children the light of education. Why have we not been able to bring education to our children on our own? Fathers and parents, I implore you to dedicate your full effort and commitment to see that all your children are educated. Otherwise, they will merely graze like sheep in the field, at the mercy of nature and the world changing so terrifyingly around us.

Syed Abbas closes with a wish that the people of America would see into the hearts of his people,

‘and see that the great majority of us are not terrorists, but good and simple people. Our land is stricken with poverty because we are without education. But today, another candle of knowledge has been lit. In the name of Allah, may it light our way out of the darkness we find ourselves in.’

A lot changes, for Mortenson’s work and for the regions he works in, after 9/11, and Three Cups of Tea chronicles the increasingly politicized and then militarized context, the danger and suffering caused by the war, and Mortenson’s attempts to explain what he knows (and loves) about the region to everyone he can reach. That education is a vital part of any long term solution, not just to the poverty of the villagers, but to the region’s stability and resistance to extremism is obvious to him and thus becomes a major part of the story he tells and, eventually, almost perversely, Al Qaeda provides Mortenson’s ticket to success. Suddenly, everyone is interested in those mountains between Pakistan and Afghanistan, and Mortenson’s school projects catch the sympathetic imagination of enough of the American public that the CAI really takes off. He stays doggedly independent, though, refusing any government money, for instance, because he knows that such an affiliation would undermine the trust he has built up through nearly a decade of close personal contact.

The larger socio-political argument for Mortenson’s work is compelling, but the heart of his project is really what an opportunity to go to school can mean for a village, or even more, for a particular student: it’s the students scraping out their lessons in the dirt who inspired Mortenson to help them, not some grandiose theory about reconciling East and West. Haji Ali’s granddaughter Jahan is one of those students in Korphe. Later, after becoming “one of the Korphe school’s best students,” she interrupts a meeting Mortenson is having with the village elders to demand he fulfill another of his promises, to help her realize her dream of becoming a doctor. “‘I’m ready to begin my medical training,'” she announces, “‘and I need twenty thousand rupees.'” Journalist Kevin Fedarko was there:

‘It was one of the most incredible things I’ve ever seen in my life,’ Fedarko says. ‘Here comes this teenage girl, in the center of a conservative Islamic village, waltzing into a circle of men, breaking through about sixteen layers of tradition at once. She had graduated from school and was the first educated woman in a valley of three thousand people. She didn’t defer to anyone, sat down right in front of Greg, and handed him the product of the revolutionary skills she’d acquired–a proposal, in English, to better herself, and improve the life of her village.’

With help from the CAI, Jahan pursues the next level of her studies in the nearby city of Skardu. She flourishes, and as her horizons broaden, so too do her ambitions:

‘I don’t want to be just a health worker. I want to be such a woman that I can start a hospital and be an executive, and look over all the health problems of all the women in the Braldu. I want to become a very famous woman of this area. . . . I want to be a . . . “Superlady,”‘ she said, grinning defiantly, daring anyone, any man, to tell her she couldn’t.

It’s impossible not to agree with Mortenson: “Five hundred and eighty letters, twelve rams, and ten years of work was a small price to pay . . . for such a moment.” And yet it seems important not to forget that though Jahan may indeed be breaking traditions, defiantly daring men in particular to stop her, it was those very village elders, and especially her own grandfather, Haji Ali, whose vision and persistence first brought Mortenson to her.

I thought Three Cups of Tea was overwritten: the descriptions are excessive, the prose sometimes heavy-handed and tendentious. I also wonder about the long passages of dialogue, even speeches, that appear to have been remembered with uncanny precision despite the hectic circumstances of the moment and the passage of time. The story itself, however, is intrinsically so interesting, and such a testimony to the ability of a single person to move mountains (a metaphor that, perhaps inevitably, is exploited endlessly because of Mortenson’s climbing background) that it’s a great read nonetheless. I challenge any of you to read it and not end up, as I did, making a donation. Yes, it is a good thing to promote peace. But whatever the other results, it’s an intrinsically good thing for children to have a clean, safe place to learn, and a particularly great thing for girls to have an equal share in this opportunity.

Girls study in outdoor school, Afghan refugee camp, Pakistan
Image courtesy Central Asia Institute

[Update: April 18, 2011: This week the CBS news show 60 Minutes ran a story raising serious questions about the veracity of key details of Mortenson’s story in Three Cups of Tea as well as about Mortenson’s and CAI’s handling of the money they receive as donations. If they are right and their representation of the situation is accurate, this is certainly very disappointing and disillusioning. Mortenson and CAI have both made statements in response that can be seen here. As one of the many thousands who were moved by Mortenson’s story, I feel uneasy at what seems to have been a betrayal of my trust, and concerned that the donation I made may not have served the purpose I intended it for, namely to contribute to the education  of girls who deserve better than they have.]

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