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Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace … One School at a Time by Greg Mortenson & David Oliver Relin
Penguin Books 2007 (2006)
Trade Paperback
331 pages
Non-fiction; Memoir

It’s become a cliché, but true nonetheless, that when faced with something big and scary, something that makes us feel both angry and impotent, we always think and say we are too small in the scheme of things, that we are just one person, we couldn’t do anything to help with those things, and so we never try. We make excuses in order to live with ourselves, because we know X is wrong, we can see the big picture and some of the long-running implications and consequences, we care, we want to scream our frustration at times at the injustice of it and we want to enact change – but we feel helpless to do it. Volunteering with an organisation, donating time or money or what’s needed to a charity – these are things we can do. For some people, it appeases their conscience and they never think of making any changes in their own lives; saying they care and buying the Organics label is enough for them.

But there are people out there who didn’t make those time-worn excuses to themselves, but instead made a promise to themselves and kept it. It sounds cheesy to say “So-and-so made the world a better place for these people”; we also, if we are sensitive to it, become wary and judgemental for fear we white people are being all colonial on the brown people – blundering in, taking over, thinking we know what’s best for them just like we always do, and trying to make them more like us.

So there are two things you should know about Greg Mortenson: he started something that became huge and changed the lives of thousands of children and adults in one of the most remote and poverty-stricken areas in the world, without lots of money or even much help from fellow white people (but plenty from the locals); and he managed to do it without trying to change the people, their traditions and beliefs or their way of life. In fact, he learnt more from them than he ever could have taught them.

K2: the world's second-highest mountain

Truthfully, I was wary too – here we have an American who, after failing to reach the summit of K2 in Pakistan, becomes lost on his way back down and ends up in a small village called Korphe. The villagers take him in without question, help him regain his strength, and he ends up staying and putting into practice all his nurse training – the village is so poor and so isolated the people can die from simple things. He wants to repay them by giving them something they are lacking: when the village headman, Haji Ali, shows him where the children are scratching in the dirt on a windblown ledge under the tutelage of a teacher who hasn’t been paid by the government in a year, and tells Mortenson that it’s the school, Greg knows he has to do something to help.

It’s one thing to promise someone you’ll build a school for them, another entirely to make it happen. Mortenson worked odd shifts at a hospital so he could take off to go mountain-climbing when he wanted to. He didn’t have any money. He didn’t know any rich people. He had not connections. He lived in his old yellow car, on a cheap and nasty diet, renting a typewriter (this is 1993) to write letters to several hundred influential people, like Oprah Winfrey. His mother worked at a primary school and after he came and gave a talk to the children, they saved their pennies and donated them to help build Korphe’s school – over six hundred dollars.

It wasn’t until a rich old man heard of what Greg was trying to do through their mutual mountain climbing friends and donated the money he needed in one fell swoop – twelve thousand dollars – that Mortenson felt like he could actually keep his promise to Haji Ali and Korphe’s children. Yet it was only the first step in what proved to be a very long and complicated road that only his determination and selfless dedication saw him complete. Along the way, every setback you could think and more (including a kidnapping) are thrown Greg’s way, and it’s really due to the kind of person he is that he didn’t give up. A new non-profit organisation, the Central Asia Institute, began and many more schools were built, and continue to be built – and by making it a community endeavour, with the villagers themselves working to build them and Mortenson supplying the funds and helping to organise the project, it became very much a matter of the people helping themselves.

Greg is a big man all over – tall, broad, and with a big heart. So say all the people interviewed by journalist David Oliver Relin, and I believe them. In terms of size, Mortenson is heavy-footed. But in terms of intelligence, sensitivity and determination, he’s a gentle giant (another quote). Terribly shy, he nonetheless becomes fluent in the Balti language (the remote area of Pakistan that he first works in is called Baltistan) and learns both the Shia and the Sunni traditions of prayer, dress etc. He goes to some of the most formidable, frightening places in Pakistan and Afghanistan to see if the people are interested in helping him build a school, and along the way his determination shifts: from caring on a small scale for the people of Korphe and the nearby villages and wanting to help them achieve their dream of an education, to deeply believing that the answer to the problems in the region – including terrorism – is education, especially for girls. And I couldn’t agree more.

Kashmiri refugees in school. Pakistan.

Several times during this book I felt my chin wobble and my eyes ache: I really wanted to cry. If I’d been at home I would have, but it’s never a good idea for a woman to start crying on the subway. It’s not because it’s necessarily a sad or tragic book, and it’s certainly not manipulative – that only makes me pissed off. No, it’s because it makes you feel at once tiny in a big scary world, and like your heart is bigger than your whole body, and it aches. It aches at the enormity of Mortenson’s simple idea; it aches at what people in the world endure through economic policies designed to make rich countries richer; it aches to hear Korphe’s first female graduate share her plans to get a medical degree; it aches for those poor (literally) boys whose only chance at an education in some places is through madrassas where they are taught to fight and kill; it aches at the world, both the goodness in it and the short-sighted, narrow-minded, greedy, corrupting badness.

Porters carry roof beams 18 miles to Korphe School. Pakistan.

Because it was written by a journalist, it’s much more readable than if Mortenson had tried to write it himself. There are still some rough patches, but overall I found it engrossing. I absolutely loved the first half, reading about how it all began. It’s the kind of thing I always want to know, and even though Mortenson has the advantage of being male in a traditional Islamic country which undoubtedly helped, it was actually reassuring to hear that a “regular” person with no capital could make something happen through sweat and determination. It’s inspiring (and it’s sad I don’t say that much).

It does shy away from delving into the political side of things, and even the historical side. There are passing mentions of America’s involvement in helping the Taliban get the Soviets out of Afghanistan, and Mortenson does make an effort to bring the Washington politicians to task about the truth of the war in its early days. But this isn’t a book about that; rather, it can provide detailed and personal insight into the people, culture and problems of the region, humanise it for us, and hopefully do some good that way. It is not a critical examination of the practices of colonialism, either in Pakistan’s history (it was once part of British-India) or in its present, but it shows more than tells or passes judgement. Descriptions of the European, American, Canadian, Australian and Kiwi mountain climbers traipsing through and leaving their shit (literally) all over the place, speaks loud and clear. The world is a fucked-up place, at times, and it’s mostly our fault – we can’t go back and change anything; we can only work with what’s left and stop shitting all over it. In the meantime, books like this will help educate in their own way, even if those to whom the ideas aren’t new, and who realise that it’s deeply complex, might be motivated by it to read more deeply into the issue. It really just whets the appetite.

It’s not without faults, but I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this, it’s one of those bestsellers that as soon as you’ve read it you know exactly why it’s done so well and are happy for it (have you noticed in yourself a slight penchant for resenting bestsellers, like Life of Pi, until you cave and read it and join right in? Yeah I do that). The message that Mortenson is trying to get people to hear is still timely and probably will be for a long time to come, until our governments wise up to the importance of a balanced education in fighting the kind of fear, anger and religious fundamentalism bred by ignorance, instead of bombs and neo-liberal economic policies (if you’re interested in that side of things, I recommend Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine.

Also, the schools are lovely:

Hushe School Inauguration. Pakistan.

(To see the images bigger, go here.)

Other Reviews:

“Three Cups… is in no way a literary masterpiece […] but it blew me away.” Bogormen

Three Cups of Tea is an incredible story of humanity and offers a deeper understanding to the region in conflict now.” The Writerly Pause

If you reviewed this book, leave me a link and I’ll add it 🙂

2 comments to Review: Three Cups of Tea

  • I found an almost brand new hardback copy of this book for only 50p a few weeks ago so I thought it would be rude not to buy it – I am like you, the more people read a book, the more I tend to hang back. I’m pretty sure I would enjoy this book though so maybe I should get to it sooner.

    Great review, Shannon.


    Shannon Reply:

    @The Book Whisperer, Sweet find! 50p would be like, what, $1.50 here? My local library usually just has old copies of Jackie Collins novels on sale 🙁


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