Three Cups of Tea

‘Three Cups of Tea: one Man’s Mission to Fight Terrorism and build Nations… one school at a Time’
Authors: Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin
Printers:Viking (Penguin Publishing Group), 2006
Hard Cover. 338 Pages
Price: US $ 25.95; Cand $ 36.00
ISBN 0-670-03482-7
Review by Dr. Rizwana Rahim
Chicago, IL

Most international problems are far too complex and intractable to be resolved, much less eradicated, by just one approach and in one clean sweep. There’s just no one way to deal with any such situation, and there’s no guarantee, in any case, of good or quick results no matter how carefully we plan, how flawlessly these plans are executed, or how much resources we dedicate to the effort.
This also applies to terrorism, its causes, its manifestations, its devastating effects, regionally and globally. Quite apart from what the US and other countries are trying to achieve since 9/11, there are many NGO and other efforts busy dealing with particular aspects of this problem. One personal effort is by Greg Mortenson, former nurse and mountaineer, and this has been detailed in ‘Three Cups of Tea’, written with the help of a journalist and co-author, David Oliver Relin. Mortenson believes that the future generations of some poor Muslim countries will be more productive and tolerant through increased literacy and a balanced education, not by teaching and reinforcing just religious fundamentalism that tends to breed isolationism and distrust of everything different. The book is billed as “one man’s mission to fight terrorism and build nations.” Flamboyant as this claim may be considered, the book does describe an inspiring adventure with a deeply humanitarian purpose.
Mortenson came to this view – more particularly, to build schools in remote areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan in the Karakoram -- by a most unlikely and circuitous route, out of some strangely interesting circumstances. One could say he may have had this in his genes: his Minnesota-born parents were Lutheran missionaries and teachers who, while living in Africa with their children, had built schools and hospitals in Tanzania. Besides that, another inspiration for him was the tragic death of his sister, Christa, in her early 20s from meningitis that she had contracted when she was only three. As her big brother (12 years her senior), Mortenson had done a lot to make her disabled sister more and more independent, but after her death he had her amber-bead necklace as his constant companion. Growing up in the foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro, he took to mountaineering with passion (this was to become a crucial part of the story). Back in the States, he was trained as a nurse, served in the US Army, and later led a rather nomadic life in Berkeley, CA and elsewhere.
He first came to Pakistan for a different reason: to climb the
28,267 ft high K2, one of the most challenging climbs, and place his sister’s necklace (wrapped in a Tibetan prayer flag) at its peak. That attempt failed in 1993, rather badly for him. He was lost in the mountains and glaciers, later rescued and brought to Korphe, a Pakistani village of the Balti natives, the last human habitation in the mountains, and a virtual Shangri-la (“Tibet of the Apricots,” named by earlier visitors of the Karakoram). There, under the care and hospitality of Haji Ali, village nurmadhar, and later his mentor, Mortenson recovered.
He learns, among other things, that the nearest doctor was a week’s walk away, one in three Korpe newborns die before their first birthday, and there was just one school, up a steep climb (800 ft above the Bradlu), with 82 children (only four girls), but no regular teacher. A teacher came just three days/week (shared with Munjung, a neighboring village) because his salary (about US$ 1/ day) was beyond the village’s capability and something that the Pakistan government apparently couldn't quite spare, despite its huge resources stationed in the Siachen glacier facing the Indian forces.
Mortenson felt that Korphe’s children were left to struggle for the very basic needs of life, not much different (though worlds apart) from his own disabled sister, Christa. That inspired Mortenson to promise Korphe that he would return and build a school there for balanced education and for those have had been short-changed so far, the girls. He not only did that, despite his many personal difficulties and many mostly unsuccessful attempts to raise funds, but as his efforts gained more recognition, he also turned it into his personal mission. As the Director of Central Asia Institute, funded by the industrialist/philanthropist Jean Hoerni, he and his team (including many regional natives) have so far built over 50 such schools in some of the most deprived and grossly under-served areas in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Whether this would eventually help eradicate terrorism may be too premature to even think or hope, but this is an unquestionably solid record of humanitarian achievement, with a real ‘missionary’ zeal and almost single-handedly. Most other efforts may be focused more on treating the symptoms, not the cause -- or, one of the root-causes !
The task wasn’t easy, by any means: he had death threats and ‘fatwas’ from local mullah, over and above the near-impossible bureaucratic challenges. All this described in detail, sometimes a bit tedious, but with a trained journalistic eye of Relin, the Mortenson collaborator for this book. Relin himself visits the places, interviews people, and adds his own experiences to the account. The book is replete with local flavor – linguistic snatches, customs and profiles, and the native view of the rest of the world, including the rest of their own country, their fears and problems, dreams and aspirations.
The title of the book itself (‘Three cups of Tea’) has an interesting ritualistic context in Balti and other native cultures. Tea is an unhurried ritual --not just for the British, or the Chinese and the Japanese. The book refers to the Balti ritual: A stranger, for the first cup of tea; a friend, for the second; a family member for the third ! This doesn’t occur necessarily at one sitting, but over a period of time. There are other versions of the same theme in different countries. Eddy L. Harris mentions one in his book (Native Stranger: a Black American’s Journey in the Heart of Africa, 1992): in Gambia, it has to do with love of the mother (1st cup), friends (2nd) and the 3rd for the love of your life. Richard Trench describes in “Forbidden Sands: A Search in the Sahara,” 1980) another, with some elaborate rituals, among the Saharan nomadic tribes: three brews, three glasses for each person, huddled around open fire – Why three “Because it has always been so,” was the native answer.
The title reflects how warmly Mortenson feels he has been accepted by the local populations. Mortenson risked his life during the most arduous climb up K2 but couldn’t reach the top or place his sister’s necklace there. Crushed, he wandered alone, hopeless and defenseless in the mountains and glaciers. He was only accidentally discovered, brought into a family of totally different but remarkably hospitable people and nursed back to life. His story is a reminder of how out of defeat, despair and destruction of dreams, the determination survives, and that determination can perform miracles and achieve different unintended goals, and fulfill even a seemingly far-fetched promise (“I’m going to build you a school… I will a school… I promise”), in face of near destitution of the promise-maker. Admirable in all respects !


Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
2004 . All Rights Reserved.