Review of Three Cups of Tea, on one man’s fight to bring education to Pakistan and Afghanistan

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 ( and Pennies for Peace (www.penniesfor 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

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.

Vulnerable Hero

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.

Check out this interesting discussion of Morten­son’s work on the Diane Rehm Show at the National Public Radio station.