“Three Cups of Tea” by David Oliver Relin and Greg Mortenson

by Joshua H. Liberatore

In Three Cups of Tea journalist David Oliver Relin and mountaineer-turned-grassroots education activist Greg Mortenson describe the positive change that can come, at impressively low cost, when dedicated and informed leadership tackles a thorny problem with efficiency, persistence, and the courage to work within local conditions and constraints. After an aborted attempt to summit K2 in northwest Pakistan, Mortenson stumbled, almost literally, into another formidable mission, which became his life’s work: to fund and build schools in the tribal villages that for decades have supplied support services and porters to the world’s elite climbing community. Mortenson’s promise began in the early 1990s in Korphe, a tiny Balti village of Shiite Muslims, where he recovered from his failed climbing expedition and whose grinding poverty and lack of opportunity made an indelible impression on him. Having grown up in a missionary family in rural Tanzania, Mortenson had watched his father organize and build a first-rate teaching hospital where there previously had been no medical services and knew that with sensitivity and patience, critical infrastructure could be developed in the world’s most impoverished and isolated corners. From that first project, built on just 12,000 dollars in privately raised donations, Mortenson went on to found the Central Asia Institute, which now boasts a record of over 80 fully functioning schools in the harshest climes of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

    What’s remarkable about the narrative arc of Three Cups of Tea is to recognize that Mortenson was operating in regions now designated as terrorist safe havens before many Americans could confidently locate Pakistan or Afghanistan on a map. Mortenson proved a stubborn and careful student of the region he adopted as his vocation and was not naïve about the immense challenges he faced. His gift for languages and openness to local customs allowed him to integrate with indigenous peoples whom even the national governments in whose territory they reside have written off as intractable tribalists, not worthy of public resources or infrastructure. Mortenson learned that although successful programs had been developed to build schools in Nepal and other Himalayan territories where Buddhists were the beneficiaries, funding village education – for young children but principally girls – in Muslim strongholds brought controversy on both ends of the project cycle, among American audiences where he sought donations and support and among fundamentalist elements in the villages themselves. But Mortenson’s shrewd understanding of local politics and the many important connections he made through years of patient cultivation paid off, and slowly but surely, Mortenson’s organization was delivering basic education to tens of thousands of children in the region’s poorest localities.

    What began as a one-man operation grew into a proper nonprofit with a board and small but loyal donor base, but always remained very lean administratively, relying on local suppliers, labor, and staff as much as possible, with the workaholic and solitary Mortenson providing all of the administrative manpower on the U.S. side. One board member faults Mortenson for keeping too much of the work to himself, maintaining an exhausting schedule in his basement in Bozeman, Montana, with no office or permanent staff, closing deals without accountability or traceable records, and not broadening his reach through delegation. The criticism seems plausible, but misplaced, given that Mortenson started building schools when he was essentially homeless, broke, doing shift work as a nurse in California to raise money for his first project, and continued more or less on that model as the enterprise grew to deliver maximum results at minimum cost. What made his efforts so effective, in fact, was their exemplary cost-efficiency. So many nonprofit organizations working overseas, however well-intentioned their programs, eat up half of their operating budgets in U.S. administrative costs, personnel overhead, and bureaucratic density. Mortenson’s approach comes at a considerable nonmonetary cost though: he lives many months away from his wife and two children, takes incredible risks in very dangerous places, and loses both sleep and general health in the service of his mission.

    Overall, Three Cups of Tea illustrates a humane cause of heroic and noble proportions, but one small incongruity does deserve comment. In a chapter called “Shrouded Figure,” Mortenson describes his deep admiration for the life and work of Mother Teresa and even travels to Calcutta to pay his respects when she dies. Relin takes the trouble to note that Mother Teresa had been roundly criticized for accepting donations from “drug dealers, corporate criminals, and corrupt politicians” and that she believed that such money was “washed clean in the service of God,” but he his silent about Mortenson’s decision to turn down $2.2 million from Donald Rumsfeld’s Department of Defense, which by his own estimate, could have built 100 schools, as functional alternatives to the Saudi-funded Wahhabi madrassas in Pakistan and Afghanistan that have been widely implicated as hotbeds of terrorist recruitment.

    Although Mortenson began his work well before the Taliban and Al Qaida became household words in the United States, his insistence on the primacy of education as the best long-term strategy for mitigating poverty and desperation gained considerably more attention after the attacks of September 11, 2001. Suddenly, Mortenson could add to his argument that proper education was the best bulwark against extremism and fundamentalist violence in the Muslim world. Bin Laden’s networks and local hosts in Central Asia have drawn their strength from exploiting the dire poverty and hopelessness of an ignored population. The relevance of Mortenson’s work is best summarized in the words of Pervez Musharraf’s personal helicopter pilot, on whom Mortenson came to rely for stopovers in remote villages, General Bashir: “Osama, baah! . . . Osama is not a product of Pakistan or Afghanistan. He is a creation of America. Thanks to America, Osama is in every home. As a military man, I know you can never fight and win against someone who can shoot at you once and then run off and hide while you have to remain eternally on guard. You have to attack the source of your enemy’s strength. In America’s case, that’s not Osama or Saddam or anyone else. 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. Otherwise the fight will go on forever” (310). In 2010, almost a decade into the feckless “war on terror,” we are still badly in need of reminding.

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4 Responses to “Three Cups of Tea” by David Oliver Relin and Greg Mortenson

  1. G M Parvi says:

    Well written. For a simple reader, the book is very interesting. But it is unfortunate that most of the beautiful stories in the book [are] false and self-made. Mr. David has proved himself to be the best story teller, while [being] a dishonest story hunter. Look, Korphe school was started by a Japanese lady, Ms. Koyoko Endo, chief of Himalayan Green Club, Japan, assisted by Ghulam Parvi and Muhammad Ali Changezi. Greg came to Korphe two years later. Secondly, it is also false that Haji Mehdi of Askole was against education. Well, Haji got [a] donation for a school from the Dutch (perhaps) climbers, donated free land by himself, constructed [a] two-room school building many years before Greg [came] to Askole. Haji Mehdi again added [a] two-room school through [a donation from [a] Japanese lady. Haji Mehdi was the first person who started education for children in all Braldo Valley. This world over, climbers and trekkers know. Then what [do] you say? So many stories are false, so you can say David and Greg both are dishonest people

  2. Tom says:

    Another problem in the book: it says that while GM was in India in 2000, he happened to be in Calcutta when Mother Teresa died and somehow went to her funeral.

    The problem is that Mother Teresa died in 1997. And based on the chronology of his life, it doesn’t seem like he could have been in India in 1997.

    What’s striking about this glaring error is that it is a totally unnecessary fabrication. No one would have been any less impressed with Greg Mortenson if he hadn’t gone to Mother Teresa’s funeral. If this story is made up, as it seems to be, what else is made up in the book?

  3. G M Parvi says:

    Look, on page 10 of the book, Greg describes: “An hour earlier, or maybe more, he’d heard the bells of an army mule caravan carrying ammunition towards the Siachen Glacier, the twenty-thousand-foot-high battlefield a dozen miles southeast, where the Pakistan military was frozen into its perpetual deadly standoff with the Indian army . . .”

    Note: Greg is lying in [the] Braldo Glacier area nearly dead, and he has heard the bells of the mule caravan carrying ammunition to Siachen Glacier? [The] distance of route to Siachen Glacier and Braldo vallley, if crossed via mountains [is] 13 days’ walk, and if by jeep, 2 days’ drive and 4 days’ walking. Did Greg and David’s souls hear the bells? Such stories are neither fabrication nor story. This is cheating. Greg wants to sensitize the people and show that he is the Hero of the era. The book is full of such false stories.

  4. Ali says:

    I don’t know whether his stories are true or fabricated, but one thing for the sure is fact that Mr. Greg has accomplished several projects regarding education in the area. No matter that he has fully and honestly utilized the funds or not, he was a here, he is a hero, and he will be a hero for people of Northern Pakistan. So people who lost their “Job” should stop criticisms.

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