Books: ‘Three Cups of Tea’ for Education

Posted on January 10, 2009
Filed Under >Babar Bhatti, Books, Education, People, Society
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Babar Bhatti

I discovered the book Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortensen and David Oliver Relin in my local library. Once I started reading it was hard to put it down.

The book is about a bohemian American mountain climber Greg Mortensen whose life was saved in a remote northern village of Pakistan in the 1990s. To show his gratitude, Greg decided to build a school there. What happens after that is a remarkable story of triumph against what seemed enormous odds at that time.

The name of the book comes from an anecdote where Haji Ali, the elder of village Korphe tells Greg to stop making everyone crazy during the construction of the school. Says Haji Ali, “You must make time to have three cups of tea with us. 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.?

Greg confesses that it was the most important lesson he ever learned: to slow down and build relationships is 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.

I absolutely loved the book. But instead of rambling on with my personal impressions, I’ll share an editorial reviews of the book, posted on, where the book is rated 5 stars based on 76 reviews. A New York Times best-seller, it was also Time Magazine’s Asian Book of The Year for 2006.

Here is what Publishers Weekly has to say:

Some failures lead to phenomenal successes, and this American nurse’s unsuccessful attempt to climb K2, the world’s second tallest mountain, is one of them. Dangerously ill when he finished his climb in 1993, Mortenson was sheltered for seven weeks by the small Pakistani village of Korphe; in return, he promised to build the impoverished town’s first school, a project that grew into the Central Asia Institute, which has since constructed more than 50 schools across rural Pakistan and Afghanistan. Coauthor Relin recounts Mortenson’s efforts in fascinating detail, presenting compelling portraits of the village elders, con artists, philanthropists, mujahideen, Taliban officials, ambitious school girls and upright Muslims Mortenson met along the way. As the book moves into the post-9/11 world, Mortenson and Relin argue that the United States must fight Islamic extremism in the region through collaborative efforts to alleviate poverty and improve access to education, especially for girls.

Here is another review, from The Christian Science Monitor:

Thirteen years ago this month, Greg Mortenson, a towering American with a passion for mountaineering, found himself lost and alone in the glacial expanses of Pakistan’s Karakoram Himalaya. After failing to reach the summit of K2, the world’s second-highest peak, he wandered for weeks, emaciated and exhausted, finally staggering into the impoverished village of Korphe.

Residents had never seen a foreigner, but they took him in, sharing their meager provisions and nurturing him back to health.

As he recuperated, Mr. Mortenson was appalled to find children practicing multiplication tables by scratching numbers on the frosty ground with a stick. They had no paper or pencils, and the village could not afford $1 a day for a teacher.
“I’m going to build you a school,” Mortenson told them. “I promise.”

That rash pledge marks the beginning of an extraordinary transformation from climbing bum to humanitarian, richly recounted in Three Cups of Tea.

Returning to Berkeley, Calif., Mortenson lives in monkish frugality in his burgundy gas-guzzling Buick, nicknamed “La Bamba.”

To raise money, he works as an emergency-room nurse. He also mails 580 letters to politicians and celebrities, appealing for funds. That yields only one reply, a $100 check from Tom Brokaw, with a note wishing him well. Finally a $12,000 check from a wealthy scientist, Dr. Jean Hoerni, gives Mortenson hope to realize his dream.

If raising money is hard, transporting building materials to the remote site brings other challenges. For three days, Mortenson rides atop a rented truck precariously loaded with lumber, hammers, saws, and tin roofing. As the driver snakes along tortuous roads, Mortenson knows that any miscalculation could send the vehicle tumbling over cliffs.

Although Mortenson is a nurse, the Balti villagers in Korphe affectionately call him Dr. Greg. Yet even a beloved humanitarian has flaws. Mortenson’s dogged determination to finish the school before winter hardly suits the gentle rhythms of village life. “These mountains have been here a long time,” one irritated resident tells him. “And so have we. Sit down and shut your mouth. You’re making everyone crazy.”

When the butter-colored school with crimson trim finally takes its place among Korphe’s stone and mud huts, Mortenson refuses to stop there. As the newly appointed executive director of the Central Asia Institute, a foundation Dr. Hoerni established to fund more schools, he moves on to other Pakistani villages.

He places particular emphasis on educating girls. For all students, his neutral curriculum offers an alternative to the teachings prevalent in the breeding grounds of the Taliban.

As coauthor David Oliver Relin explains, “He goes to war with the root causes of terror every time he offers a student a chance to receive a balanced education, rather than attend an extremist madrassa.”

Mortenson’s humanitarian instincts began early. Growing up in the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro as the son of Lutheran missionaries, he watched his father found Tanzania’s first teaching hospital and his mother established an international school.

But even those impressive accomplishments cannot compare with the hardships and danger he encounters in Pakistan. He survives fatwas issued by angry mullahs. He spends eight days in an airless room after being kidnapped by the Taliban. And he receives death threats in the United States after Sept. 11.

Mortenson takes adventure to new levels as well. When a monsoon keeps the school’s concrete foundation from drying, delaying construction, he spends seven days hunting alpine ibex with village men, walking for hours over brittle ice in running shoes lined with hay for warmth.

He derives the book’s title from a Baltistan proverb. “The first time you share tea with a Balti, you are a stranger,” a villager tells him. “The second time, you are an honored guest. The third time you become family.” No wonder Mortenson’s picture appears over hearths and on Jeep dashboards throughout northern Pakistan.

Today, 13 years after Mortenson’s failure as a mountaineer on K2, his success as a humanitarian continues to grow. By the end of the book, he has made 27 trips to Pakistan, commuting halfway around the world with the casual air of a business traveler shuttling between Boston and New York. He has built 55 schools.

Laced with drama, danger, romance, and good deeds, Mortenson’s story serves as a reminder of the power of a good idea and the strength inherent in one person’s passionate determination to persevere against enormous obstacles.

Praising a Pakistani religious leader for his “compassion in action,” Mortenson says, “He believes in rolling up his sleeves and making the world a better place.”

Those words apply equally to the former climber himself, moving mountains, one summit at a time, as he turns stones into schools and gives thousands of children a chance for a better life.

The world needs many more Greg Mortensons.

Note: Greg Mortenson is the founder and director of USA nonprofit Central Asia Institute – which promotes literacy and education, especially for girls, in remote regions of Central Asia. If you buy the book through their site 7 per cent of the sale will go towards their projects.

42 responses to “Books: ‘Three Cups of Tea’ for Education”

  1. Hina says:

    I would love a followup post on Greg’s new book “Stones into Schools: Promoting Peace with Books, Not Bombs, in Afghanistan and Pakistan”
    I have just finished it and am very curious to see fellow members take on it.

  2. Here is my very cautious post on Mortenson.

    Waiting to have a cup of tea with Greg Mortensen

    Approaching Greg Mortenson from a distance you would first encounter a very large circle of glossy advertising material featuring poor but fair-complexioned, photogenic children learning in schools built by the Central Asia Institute (CAI), Mortenson’s non-profit organization; you would then meet a huge readership of ‘Three Cups of Tea’, Mortenson’s bestselling book; and then there would be singers singing the ‘Three Cups of Tea’ song; and then finally you would meet the inner circle of diehard Mortenson fans holding their guru in the highest esteem. Being mesmerized by this setup it is easy to forget an important tenet of journalism i.e., take a fresh, unbiased, independent look at the subject.

    After attending two programs in the San Francisco Bay Area that featured Greg Mortenson, I made a list of things to do, before I would write a newspaper report on Mortenson and his excellent work:
    1. Call the office of Central Asia Institute in Pakistan and ask them a few questions.
    2. Read independent reports in the Pakistani newspapers on Mortenson’s work.
    3. Meet Pakistanis who have visited schools built by Mortenson and have talked to the villagers about the impact the schools are having.

    I must confess to my readers that I failed in all three of the above. My call to the Central Asia Institute about their office telephone numbers in Pakistan is still unanswered (CAI’s web site does not provide that information). The Pakistani English newspaper reports I have read so far all derive information from western sources which in turn rely on information provided in the book ‘Three Cups of Tea’ or obtained from Mortenson’s interviews. Search Google in Urdu for Mortenson and you would find two (2) links on Mortenson

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