One man fights almost single-handedly for the children’s right to education in the volatile regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan. His vision to promote change has become a grassroots movement engaging global communities in a joint effort to build schools where both boys and girls can learn equally This story of hope and inspiration is chronicled in the award-winning biographical account, Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace … One School at a Time (Penguin; paperback, $15), co-written by journalist David Oliver Relin and Greg Mortenson, the man and driving force behind this crusade for education.
Greg Mortenson is the cofounder of the Central Asia Institute (www.ikat.org) and Pennies for Peace (www.penniesfor peace.org). He has a remarkable ability to bond with people from extremely different backgrounds and earn their trust. His efforts grew out of the vacuum of a lack of public education in many parts of Pakistan, and he brings a local perspective to the global war on terror. Mortenson has been awarded Pakistan’s Sitara-e-Pakistan (Star of Pakistan) for his courage and humanitarian efforts to promote education and literacy in rural areas over the last 15 years. For more information, visit the official website at www.threecupsoftea.com.
The Formative Years
Growing up in Tanzania as the son of U.S. missionaries, Morteson learned compassion and personal responsibility at an early age. He attended the International School of Moshi-founded by his mother-and grew up seemingly without a concept of racial boundaries. Mortenson learned the importance of loyalty and cooperation from his father, who worked side-by-side with Tanzanians to build the Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Center (KCMC). Mortenson remembers, “The expats wanted him to say, ‘Look what we’ve done for you.’ But he was saying, ‘Look what you’ve done for yourselves and how much more you can do.”‘ Mortenson remembered his father’s words years later when he, too, set out to empower villages through local initiatives, careful not to impose his own ideas on the local population.
Mortenson’s sister, Christa, served as an additional source of inspiration in his life. Suffering from severe epilepsy, Christa struggled courageously to live a normal life. The beginning of Three Cups of Tea introduces Mortenson as a trained nurse and an avid (some would say obsessive) climber, who is trying to cope with Christa’s recent death. Seeking to honor the memory of his sister, he attempts to climb the world’s second tallest peak, K2, located in northern Pakistan, but fails to make it to the top.
Wrecked with exhaustion after his failed climb, Mortenson stumbles to the secluded village of Korphe. The villagers welcome him with overwhelming hospitality. Still delirious, he vows to build a school, hoping to battle poverty in the region through education. Mortenson returns to San Francisco to sell his few belongings and raise money for the Korphe school. He immediately faces his first setback in the ignorance and passivity that he encounters among the wealthy American population. Growing increasingly frustrated, he sits down to write 580 letters to celebrities across the nation, in the hope of receiving the financial support needed to embark on his mission. After much waiting, a sole response from a rich businessman and climber is enough to get Mortenson back on his feet and on a plane to Pakistan. That $12,000 check-along with Mortenson’s rugged determination-is enough to dramatically change Korphe with its first school.
Once back in Korphe, Mortenson faces reality. No longer malnourished or feverish, he sees his utopia with new eyes-barred by corruption, poverty, and tribal warfare. His conviction is further put on trial when he is abducted for eight days by renegades, but his determination to deliver grows stronger with each obstacle he encounters. Unaware of the complexity of his mission, Morteson embarks on a lifelong journey that will bring together two worlds over three cups of tea.
Three Cups of Tea
The book’s title is derived from a custom of the Balti people, who inhabit the villages surrounding K2 and make most of their living off the mountains. A village chief, Haji Ali, taught Morteson, “The first time you share tea with a Balti, you’re a stranger. The second time you’re an honored guest. The third time you share a cup of tea, you become family … You must make time to share three cups of tea.” Under Ali’s guidance, Mortenson learned that building relationships was just as important as building projects.
Relin’s decision to write Three Cups in the third person-with “Mortenson” appearing about once per paragraph disrupts the flow a bit. That being said, Relin does not fail to incite in the reader both an awe for Mortenson’s determination and accomplishment, and a curiosity for the geography and customs of rural Pakistan and Afghanistan. Relin is at his best recounting in great detail the long negotiating sessions and meals that Mortenson shared along the way, and the tremendously difficult journeys he endured just to reach some of the villages in which he worked. It is hard for us to understand the remoteness of the mountains of Pakistan. On Morteson’s climb up K2, for example, it took him 70 days just to get to where he stopped short of the top. Nothing moves quickly, which is a real test for an American accustomed to doing business efficiently. After his first negotiating session, Relin describes the scene:
In the late afternoon of the second full day of haggling, Mortenson, swollen with tea, sloshed toward the Khya-pulled by a small horse that looked even more exhausted than they felt. His shalwar pocket was crammed with receipts for hammers, saws, nails, sheets of corrugated tin roofing, and lumber worthy of supporting schoolchildren. All the materials would be delivered beginning at dawn the next day to the truck they’d hired for the three-day trip up the Kara koram Highway.
Mortenson is a heroic figure, and like most heroes, he goes through times of isolation and sadness. He also attacks a problem with maniacal intensity and an almost complete disregard for personal safety and comfort (and at times hygiene). One friend describes barbecuing on a snowy night when Mortenson was asked to go out and turn the salmon. “I looked out on the patio,” she said, “and saw Greg, standing barefoot in the snow, scooping up the fish with a shovel, and flipping it, like it was the most normal thing in the world … That’s when I realized that he’s just not one of us. He’s his own species.”
With his insight into custom and culture, Mortenson conquers the hearts of both Afghanis and Pakistanis, the respect of both friends and foes. He is welcomed and accepted by tribesmen and government officials, along with imams and even some Taliban members. His selfless dedication to the region allows him to form new bonds of loyalty throughout Pakistan and northern Afghanistan, enabling him to take on new challenges and build more schools.
Mortenson’s ability to convince the people around him on the importance of education-especially for girls-makes him a striking figure in the war against terror. The madrasahs, Muslim schools that are commonly funded and directed by Islamic fundamentalists, are the sole path to education for many young boys and girls. Mortenson seeks to fight terror by providing an alternate future for these children, although the number of madrasahs seems to dwarf the number of schools that he builds.
As of 2008, Mortenson has established more than 78 schools that provide education to over 28,000 children, including 18,000 girls. According to Mortenson, educated women are more likely to re strain their sons from joining the Taliban. Furthermore, educated women are able to provide for their families, which limits Taliban tactics to recruit the vulnerable and the poor. As Nicholas Kristoff points out, “Military force is essential in Afghanistan to combat the Taliban. But over time, in Pakistan and Afghanistan alike, the best tonic against militant fundamentalism will be education and economic opportunity.” (N. Kristoff, The New York Times, “It Takes a School, Not Missiles,” July 13, 2008).
The political history of Pakistan further suggests the need for new strategies to combat extremism. Former President Pervez Musharraf’s seizing of government power in 2001 through a coup d’etat allowed for increased U.S. involvement in Pakistan. Al-Qaeda had begun to spread rapidly throughout the region, and Musharraf became America’s prime ally in the fight against terrorism. However, the alliance failed to prevent the Taliban insurgency from settling in the mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan. New madras ahs were built from generous donations provided by wealthy Al-Qaeda leaders like Osama bin Laden, and public schools were quickly outnumbered in the northern region. The Taliban lured children into the madrasahs with the promise of a better future. Mortenson was almost alone in offering boys and girls an alternative.
Books over Bombs
Mortenson’s credo of education over bombs becomes even more relevant as the political situation in Pakistan unfolds after Musharraf’s resignation in August 2008. The power vacuum following this event allowed for a short period of uncontrolled Taliban activity in Pakistan, and it is yet to be seen how current President Asif Ali Zardari will respond to the Taliban threat.
The need to think outside the box, as Mortenson has done, is highlighted in one of the last pages of Three Cups of Tea. He is flying above the Arabian Sea, and across the aisle is a bearded man in a black turban star ing out the window through a high powered pair of binoculars. When the lights of ships at sea appeared below them, he spoke animatedly to the turbaned man in the seat next to him. And pulling a satellite phone out of the pocket of his shalwar kamiz, this man rushed to the bathroom, presumably to place a call.Down there in the dark was the most technologically sophisticated navy strike force in the world, launching fighters and cruise missiles into Afghanistan. I don’t have much sympathy for the Taliban, and I didn’t have any for Al-Qaeda, but I had to admit that what they were doing was brilliant … with even their primitive radar knocked out, they were … [using] plain old commercial flights to keep track of the Fifth Fleet’s positions. I realized that if we were counting on our military technology to win the war on terror, we had a lot of lessons to learn.