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Tree Cups of Tea

A true tale of building humanitarian ties in Pakistan.

by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin (New York: Penguin Books, 2006. Pp. 338. Photographs.)

Although much has been written about Greg Mortenson and the story of his humanitarian undertaking to build Pakistani schools for girls, Mortenson’s personal account is both invigorating and exhausting. The author-humanitarian recounts his story in detail sharing the behind-the-scenes particulars and rationale in Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to fight Terrorism and Build Nations–One School at a Time by Mortenson and David Oliver Relin. This book is a fascinating chronological study of Mortenson’s transformation from world class mountaineer to peerless and indefatigable humanitarian with entry into places in Pakistan where very few Americans are admitted.

From his modest beginnings, Mortenson tells the story of his pre-humanitarian life. He was an avid, accomplished mountain climber. We’re talking the big mountains of the world not the pesky fourteeners of Colorado. He worked as an emergency room nurse to fund his real passion of climbing the world’s tallest peaks.

In 1993, Mortenson was in Pakistan to climb K-2, 8,611 meters or 28,251 feet. He gets separated from his party on the way back to civilization. Mouzafer Ali, a Balti porter, found Mortenson and led him to safety. One day Mouzafer hikes ahead to set up camp, Mortenson misses a fork in the trail and becomes lost again. He wanders into Korphe, a small mountain village, where he is befriended and given shelter even though these people had never before seen a white man or any foreigner. Without hesitation these small statured people extended hospitality to the 6’4” giant of a man in the form of a cup of butter tea.

“For the first time in many months, Mortenson became aware of his appearance. His hair was long and unkempt. He felt huge, and filthy, ‘By that time it had been more than three months since I’d had a shower,’ he says. He stooped, trying not to tower over the children. But they didn’t seem to find him threatening. Their shalwar kamiz were as stained and torn as his own, and most were barefoot despite the cold.”

Thus begins the close friendship and kinship that continues to this day. In Korphe, Mortenson recuperates his strength for the final hike to civilization and from there home to the States. He also begins a journey into a new calling–building a school for the children who wanted to learn so badly they drew their lessons in the dirt. He had no idea where this one school plan would lead.

Where it has led to date is 63 schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan under the sponsorship of Central Asia Institute (CAI) led by Mortenson. Along the way, Mortenson has had many challenges getting permissions, building supplies, funding and capable personnel. What he has never lacked is boundless courage, enthusiasm, energy and the will to follow through and complete the projects. There have also been a lot of mistakes.

But Mortenson is a man who can adjust, regroup and learn from his experiences, so the projects have continued, nay, they have flourished. He candidly shares his successes and failures in this narrative. He does not gloss over his shortcomings, but lets the reader see him as an authentic person.

Mortenson is not a Hollywood hero though some refer to him as a modern day Indiana Jones. I do not believe he would describe himself that way. Once he was a mountaineer and adventurer, now his adventures pertain to his sole goal of providing legitimate educational opportunities to Pakistani (and now Afghani) children.

“CAI schools would teach the exact same curriculum as any good Pakistani government school. There would be none of the ‘comparative cultures’ classes then so popular in the West, nothing conservative religious leaders could point to as ‘anti-Islamic’ in an effort to shut the schools down. But neither would they let the schools preach the fiery brand of fundamentalist Islam taught in many of the country’s madrassas.”

At a time in Pakistan’s history when many of the rural male children were being recruited for the Taliban backed madrassas, schools which trained the boys and young men in military skills and radicalism, Mortenson pleaded to be allowed to build schools in which girls too were welcome.

“‘I don’t want to teach Pakistan’s children to think like Americans,’ Mortenson says. ‘I just want them to have a balanced, nonextremist education...’”

Three Cups of Tea is also the beautiful story of Mortenson’s burgeoning relationships with various people he meets in his travels. Thanks to Mortenson’s vision, Jahan is the first educated woman from her valley. Like Mortenson, Sir Edmund Hillary is a world class mountain climber. They also share a passion for providing education to the country sides they have each visited. Hillary encourages Mortenson’s vision as does Dr. Jean Hoerni, physicist, philanthropist and climber. And perhaps most importantly, is Haji Ali, the Korphe village chief who warmly welcomed Mortenson into his home and life in 1993. He became close friend and mentor to the soon-to-be humanitarian and educator.

Haji Ali started the ball rolling when he told Mortenson, “Here, we drink three cups of tea to do business; the first you are a stranger, the second you become a friend, and the third, you join our family, and for our family we are prepared to do anything–even die.” Haji Ali and Mortenson became family and together they masterminded an educational revolution that Mortenson still directs.

As this important work continues, Mortenson and the Central Asia Institute will warrant more coverage and commentary. Three Cups of Tea is a good starting place for the reader wanting to understand how one man could do so much good in the international arena. Devour it. Digest it. Savor it. Check out the website Become acquainted with other work the CAI sponsors. Reading Three Cups of Tea is a starting point, but don’t stop there.

J.S. Maverick

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