Friday, August 1, 2008

Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortensen and David Oliver Relin

Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace . . . One School at a TimeI just finished reading Three Cups of Tea. I found the book inspiring in part because of the citations I have listed here.

The book describes mountain climber Greg Mortensen's stumble into a small village in Pakistan after failing to summit K2 in the Himalayas to discover there is a great need for schools to educate the children of Pakistan. He says that he finds his passion and inspiration for this work in the eyes of the children who remind him of his own children at home in Bozeman, Montana and the desire to bring less advantaged children more opportunity.

I was reminded early in the book of the work of Paul Farmer, a physician who does humanitarian work in Haiti, among other places. Greg Mortensen is an emergency department nurse who worked shifts and slept in his car early in the story to support his climbing adventures, and later uses his own money to support his work and travel to Pakistan. His primary goal is to develop relationships as an individual human being trying to make life easier and brighter for future generations.

On the three cups of tea from the book's title, his comrade Haji Ali says “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…” “You must make time to share three cups of tea.” As Mortensen says, “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.”

The memoir follows Mortensen's work in Pakistan through 9/11 and the war in Iraq. As he watches CNN news from Baghdad, his friend comments that "The enemy is ignorance. The only way to defeat it is to build relationships with these people, to draw them into the modern world with education and business." By sharing three cups of tea with people in small villages throughout Pakistan and later Afghanistan, Mortensen is able to forge relationships and to break down barriers to build schools to educate the children.

Mortensen, on educating women – “Once you educate the boys, they tend to leave the villages and go search for work in the cities,” Mortensen explains. “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.” One of the first girls educated in the first school Mortensen built in Korphe continued on in her education to study maternal health care.

Mortensen is inspired to do this work not to fight terror, but rather to offer children "a bright enough future that they have a reason to choose life over death." He builds his secular schools where other public options are lacking and the only alternatives are religious schools called madrassas. Kevin Fedarko from Parade Magazine says, "Mortensen's approach hinges on a simple idea: that by building secular schools and helping to promote education--particularly for girls--in the world's most volatile war zone, support for the Taliban and other extremist sects eventually will dry up."

I was thrilled by the descriptions of hiking in the Himalayas as I am an avid armchair mountain climber. Mortensen also takes inspiration from Sir Edmund Hillary and attends a dinner for the American Himalayan foundation at which Sir Hillary spoke (and Mortensen meets his wife Tara). Hillary says, “I have enjoyed great satisfaction from my climb of Everest. But my most worthwhile things have been the building of schools and medical clinics. That has given me more satisfaction than a footprint on a mountain.”


Amanda said...

It seems to be quite prevalent in middle eastern culture in general, the tea thing. I don't know about how true the "3 cups" theory is in the part of the world I visited, but I CAN say that we were CONSTANTLY being plied with tea. I don't like tea, and this made the situation a bit uncomfortable. A couple times I drank it just because it would have been rude not to.

I read a little about this book when you mentioned it the other day in a comment. I read that originally he had a subtitle that was very fear-oriented, something about 'eradicating terrorism one school at a time,' and the book didn't sell well. he begged the publishers to change the subtitle to something like 'promoting peace one school at a time' (forgive my inaccurasies) and then it turned into a best seller. What a fascinating instance of how the public reacts to fear and hope.

Trixie said...

Yes Amanda you are right about the change in subtitles. He mentions that in his acknowledgements. I think it was a huge struggle for him because he was continually insistent that his goal was not to combat terrorism specifically.
I'm not sure about the tea part - I've never travelled to the Middle East and am really unfamiliar with the culture. It was a comment made specifically about the Balti people in that particular area of Pakistan.

Amanda said...

Apparently our library just hosted an event based on this book. I only found the notice today, but on Friday Greg Mortensen came to one of our branches to discuss this book and his community-based education/literary programs. That's too bad I didn't know about it in time, it sounded interesting.

Trixie said...

That's too bad you missed the event. I bet it would have been quite interesting.
There has been a good bit of publicity about the book and Greg Mortenson's continued work in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The book has been chosen by a number of cities as "One Book" to read as a community. His travel schedule can be found here: Looks like he'll be near me for a private event in March 2009.
I found numerous book reviews at the site too.