Three Cups of Tea

Book Review 3: Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace … One School at a Time, by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin

I recently finished reading Three Cups of Tea, a book recommended by my sister. I think that she read it in school in one of her peace and conflict studies courses. It is a good read for anyone interested in international development projects and cross-cultural experience. The book shares the memoir of Greg Mortenson who over the last decade has been an advocate of education for children, particularly girls, in the remote regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Greg Mortenson originally came to Pakistan to climb K2, the second highest mountain on earth. He failed to summit after losing energy from carrying out a mission to save the life of a fellow climber. On the way back down the mountain he was very weak and lost the path, accidentally stumbling across a small village called Korphe. It was his experience in this village and the kindness they showed him that changed the direction of his life. While he was there he noticed that the village really needed a school, and before he left the village he promised that he would be back to build them one. One thing I like about this book is that it demonstrates that anything is possible with stubborn endurance. Instead of getting bogged down with the almost impossible task of raising money, he wrote hundreds of letters. He knew that he only needed one person to care and that would be enough.

That person was Jean Hoerni, a fellow climber and one of the founders of the transistor in Silicon Valley. He donated the first 12 000 that was needed to build the first school in Korphe and he would go on to found the Central Asia Institute (CAI), of which he placed Mortenson as director. The book describes how the scope of work grew in response to the overwhelming need for schools, as well as the challenges they met along the way. Lastly I enjoyed the cross-cultural relationships in the story that demonstrate that the same human desires exist across all cultural divides. All in all I found the book inspiring by the way that it encourages people to act and fight for a cause by peaceful and collaborative means.

I was dragged back to reality after reading the book. I was warned that there was a lot of criticism but decided to wait until after I had finished the book to research it. There have been allegations that parts of the memoir are made up and that the CAI’s finances are spotty. The book has also received criticism for being ignorant and having a too simple perspective of life in Pakistan and Afghanistan. It is true that the story is very one-sided (although I suppose that’s generally the case for a memoir) and that Mortenson is tagged as a real hero. I am sure the schools sometimes had a negative impact on some peoples lives; that’s real life. That doesn’t mean that we should stand by and not do anything, but to see and acknowledge the other side is important because nothing is perfect and ideology can be as dangerous as it can be motivating. If he hadn’t painted himself as such a saint, I think that the allegations would have been less stark and therefore wouldn’t have taken hold like they did.

Despite all of that, it was still a worthwhile read. Here are some great quotes:

“Once you educate the boys, they tend to leave the villages and go search for work in the cities, but the girls stay home, become leaders in the community, and pass on what they’ve learned. If you really want to change a culture, to empower women, improve basic hygiene and health care, and fight high rates of infant mortality, the answer is to educate girls.”

“If we try to resolve terrorism with military might and nothing else, then we will be no safer than we were before 9/11. If we truly want a legacy of peace for our children, we need to understand that this is a war that will ultimately be won with books, not with bombs.”

“Haji Ali spoke. ‘If you want to thrive in Baltistan, you must respect our ways. The first time you share tea with a Balti, you are a stranger. The second time you take tea, you are an honored guest. The third time you share a cup of tea, you become family, and for our family, we are prepared to do anything, even die. Doctor Greg, you must take time to share three cups of tea. We may be uneducated but we are not stupid. We have lived and survived here for a long time.’ That day, Haji Ali taught me the most important lesson I’ve ever learned in my life. We Americans think you have to accomplish everything quickly…Haji Ali taught me to share three cups of tea, to slow down and make building relationships as important as building projects. He taught me that I had more to learn from the people I work with than I could ever hope to teach them.”

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