Three Cups of Tea

“Three Cups of Tea.” Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin.Penguin Books, 2006. 331 pages.

Greg Mortenson was just hours away from reaching the summit of K2, the second highest peak in the world, when a fellow climber encountered severe altitude sickness and had to be carried down the mountain. With a long yearning glance backward, Mortenson volunteered to help carry the man to safety, giving up his own dream of mastering the mountain. That’s the kind of man Mortenson is; a nurse by training, he will stop at nothing to help someone in need.

Exhausted after the grueling rescue, Mortenson rested at base camp and then lagged behind his group as they headed down the mountain, ending up lost and disoriented. By luck he stumbled into the small village of Korphe, where he was welcomed, warmed, fed, and befriended. Spending several weeks with the villagers as he recuperated, he came to respect and appreciate his Pakistani hosts. When he saw that their children gathered in circles with sticks to draw multiplication tables in the mud, he vowed to return and build them a school.

Many mountaineers vow to return and “do something” about the poverty in the villages where their sherpas live; to the surprise of the Korpheans, Mortenson actually did. The Korphe villagers told him, “Here we drink three cups of tea to do business; the first you are a stranger, the second you become a friend, and the third, you join our family. And for our family we are prepared to do anything–even die.”

Mortenson has drunk those three cups of tea with the Pakistanis. In the past 15 years he has risked his life to help them build over a hundred schools in remote villages, raising the funds and doing much of the work himself. It is a remarkable achievement.

What makes his school-building campaign even more remarkable is that Mortenson was in Pakistan while al Qaeda terrorists were preparing their attacks on New York and Washington. He describes the disgruntled Islamic fundamentalists who were slipping across the border from Pakistan to training camps in Afghanistan where they formed the Taliban. He was there in September, 2001, when the planes hit the Towers and the Pentagon.

In the days after the attacks, he sat near the journalists holed up in the safety of the Marriott Hotel, far away from the actual conflict, writing their stories based on hearsay and rumors that filtered up from the outlying villages. Meanwhile, he met personally with leaders of the various groups, speaking their language and respecting their culture as he deftly convinced them not to shut down his schools.  He offers a unique, first-hand report of the complex situation.

One of the reasons for Mortenson’s success is that he stays focused on education. Twice he has been the subject of a “fatwa,” condemned by zealous tribal leaders who believe he has an ulterior motive to teach Christianity in his schools.  Each time he has been vindicated by Islamic leaders who recognize his sincerity in simply wanting Pakistani children, both boys and girls, to be educated. “Dr. Greg,” as they call him, has become a quiet hero throughout Pakistan and Afghanistan.

“Three Cups of Tea” is, in the words of Tom Brokaw, “thrilling…proof that one ordinary person, with the right combination of character and determination, really can change the world.” The book details the problems of sending humanitarian aid to developing countries, where graft, corruption, and mafia-like protection rackets prevent the money from arriving at its intended purpose. Mortenson often met teachers in the government schools who had not been paid their meager $40 a month in a year or more. Mortenson would pay them out of his own funds. When village women came to Mortenson asking for vocational training so they could earn a living, Mortenson added technical wings to his primary schools, similar to the micro loans popularized by Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohammed Yunus of the Grameen Bank. He also set up training sessions for the sherpas.

Juxtaposed against the military campaign in Iraq, Greg Mortenson has been making friends and building schools in Pakistan, and now in Afghanistan, during the entire “war on terror.” I think he has found a better way to solve the problem. As one of his contacts, Brigadier General Bashir Baz, told him, “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 fighting will go on forever.”

Building relationships is precisely what Greg Mortenson has been doing for the past 15 years, one village and one school at a time. He has overcome tribal barriers and aggression by appealing to the universal desire of all people: to provide a better life for our children. He is living proof that Muslims and “infidels” can be friends when they work together for a common cause, drinking “three cups of tea” to seal the bond.

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