Three Cups of Tea
Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin is the story of Mortenson, a young mountain climber and hippie who impulsively decided to build a school for the children of a poor mountain village in Pakistan. In the early 1990s, Mortenson, whose younger sister had just died, came down from a failed attempt to climb K2. The climb was supposed to be his memorial to his sister, Christa. He was lucky to have escaped from the climb with his life. His guide had lost him, and the guide had Mortenson’s pack with all his food, drink and survival gear with him.
The people of a mountain village were kind enough to offer him shelter and help him to recuperate. The name of the town was Korphe, and when Greg saw the children of this town on a hillside, trying to practice writing and arithmetic with sticks in the sand, he asked them why they weren’t at school. He learned that they didn’t have a school. Pakistan has government funded education, but this is available in larger towns and cities only. Greg Mortenson was so impressed with the children of Korphe and his experience there that he promised to build them a school.
The process was slow going at first. Mortenson learned that he could build a good, solid school building in Pakistan for only $12,000. Astounding, huh? The only problem was that he didn’t have $12,000, and the $12,000 didn’t include his round trip fare to Pakistan. Mortenson was an emergency room nurse. He lived as frugally as possible in order to save his money. He was essentially homeless. He slept in his bedroll on the floor of a friend’s apartment or in his car. Still, it seemed to take forever to save the money he needed.
Mortenson’s mother was the principal of an elementary school. The students at her school saved pennies in jars. They called the project Pennies for Peace, and when the project was done for the year, they had saved over $600 in pennies. The mountain climbing community embraced Greg’s vision for a school, and they let him give talks at a lot of their seminars.
At one of these seminars Greg was introduced to Jean Hoerni, an eccentric engineer, inventor, and entrepreneur who had a hand in the creation of Teledyne, Union Carbide, and Intel. Hoerni was a very wealthy mountain climber who had been moved by the poverty of the people in the Karakoram Mountains in Pakistan, where Mortenson wanted to build his school. Hoerni gave Greg a check for $12,000.
There were many, many stumbling blocks on the road to that school in Korphe. There was a man Greg trusted with the storage of his building materials only to come back and find that he used or sold a great deal of them. There was graft and religious leaders looking for bribes. There were people from other villages who were intent on diverting Greg from Korphe to build a school in their villages, or to build a school for porters instead. But there were also lots and lots more good people who helped him along the way: trusted advisors, a bodyguard willing to lay down his life for Greg, a religious leader who was willing to put his reputation on the line and to petition the highest Shia authority in Iran to approve of Greg’s schools and the education of Pakistani girls, in particular.
Once the first school was built, Jean Hoerni gave the money to start a non-profit with an endowment of one million dollars. Greg started the Central Asia Institute. The Central Asia Institute now has many, many schools for boys and girls in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. Along the way, Mortenson met his wife and started his family. Both the Central Asia Institute and Pennies for Peace are currently thriving.
And why, might you ask, is this important for you to know about? Well, what Greg is doing is important because education is important, period, and because we should be concerned about those people who are less fortunate than us, whether they live next door or in the tiniest town in Afghanistan. And also: educating boys and girls in Pakistan does more to combat terrorism and the extremists of Islam than bombs and guns ever will. Bombs and guns make terrorists. Those children who are given a well-rounded basic education by Mortenson’s schools are the benefits of knowledge. That knowledge will help them to make better decisions about what to do with their lives and how to view their fellow citizens of the world.
The alternative for many of these children is either no education at all or an education of hatred provided by the Saudi funded madrassas. Wealthy Saudi Arabians fund madrassas in poverty-ridden countries. These madrassas do not provide education to girls, and they often do not provide the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic. There is a lot of range in the quality of madrassas. Instead, what they never fail to teach is the rhetoric of fundamentalist Muslims. They teach the Koran to boys who cannot read it for themselves. Sometimes the teachers can’t, either.
The purpose of these schools is to recruit future soldiers for the Al Quaeda and the Taliban and other such organizations that propagate violence. And, much like in America, the wealthy fund the military while the poor become its foot soldiers. The Saudis don’t send their sons to “war.” Instead, they recruit the young men in Pakistan and Afghanistan who don’t have the opportunities that Saudi oil wealth provides.
Three Cups of Tea is an important book, and anyone seeking to further understand the politics of the Middle East and the people of Islam would be well served in taking the time to read it. There is no religious message in the book. The book is about people and cultures and working to find our commonalities rather than our differences. Mortenson grew up in Africa, the son of Lutheran missionaries, but he himself is not a particularly religious man. He learns to pray like both a Sunni and a Shia Muslim in order to fit in, and he adopts the culture and learns the languages of his second home. When in Rome…
Entry filed under: Books, Children, Faith, Foreign Policy, Politics, Relationships. Tags: Afghanistan, Central Asia Institute, Education, Greg Mortenson, Islam, Jean Hoerni, Middle East, Three Cups of Tea.