Three Cups Of Tea

By Mortenson and Relin [Penquin Books, 2007]
A review by John de Waal


three-cups-of-teaI just finished reading this book and I recommend it. It is the true story of Greg Mortenson, an American mountain climber who, before 9/11 and after an unsuccessful attempt to summit K2 in the Karakoram, Pakistan, lost his way on a glacier on his way down and - barely alive - stumbled into a small isolated and primitive village (Korphe) where he was revived. Besides being overwhelmed by their hospitality, he became aware of the needs of the village for an educational facility for their children. Before he left, he made a solemn promise to his host to come back and build them a school … and he did!

The book describes the difficulties involved in fulfilling his promise: from raising the required funds to the logistics, the extreme weather, and the human challenges like corruption and the laws of the strong in the foothills of the Karakoram, which is still mired in the 13th century: no running water, electricity, modern medicine, books, or anything else that we take for granted. Poverty is the norm, but helping each other, even a perfect stranger, is an of course.

Through an amateurish effort in fund raising and living frugally, Mr. Mortenson did get the money required for the school. Flying back to Pakistan with the cash, using his ability to speak the language and trusting his instincts, he managed to buy the materials needed, but then ran into an unexpected problem that delayed getting the stuff to its final destination by a year. When he finally overcame it, he had to build a bridge over the gorge that separated Korphe from the rest of the world; he found that   1/3rd of his building materials had been pilfered.

Already before completing the school, he was besieged by other communities to build them a school as well and, in order to realize that, he needed much more money. This led to the founding of the Central Asian Institute (CAI) that he ran from his basement in Bozeman, Montana. To date (2007), Mr. Mortenson has completed fifty some schools throughout Pakistan and Afghanistan, as well as water and vocational facilities, all at about a third of the cost of official estimates because of his ability to engage and trust local labor.

His driving force is the belief that a balanced education, particularly for girls, offers a brighter future and gives them a reason to choose life over death. While not the main reason for building the schools, such education will counterbalance the production of terrorists in the “factories of jihad”, the Wahhabi madrassas which are the backbone of the Taliban, that have also been springing up throughout the region with money from Saudi sheikhs (pg. 292).

Reading this book is much more than an adventure story. It provides a real insight into the thoughts and hopes of the people that live in the Afghanistan/Pakistan back country and calls into serious question the wisdom of the approach of the current US administration in conducting and perpetuating their violent “War on Terror” in that region. As Mortensen said in the piece done on his work in Parade Magazine (April, 2004) and again in this book (pg. 301): “This war will ultimately be won with books, not with bombs.”

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