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Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace . . . One School at a Time

Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace . . . One School at a Time by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin. Viking, 2006, 352 pp.

As Gen Stanley McChrystal traveled from Kabul, Afghanistan, to Washington, DC, on 23 June 2010, he e-mailed a message to Greg Mortenson: “[I] will move through this and if I’m not involved in the years ahead, will take tremendous comfort in knowing people like you are helping Afghans build a future.” The note arrived in Mortenson’s in box at approximately 0100 Eastern Standard Time. Nine hours later in the Oval Office, President Obama accepted General McChrystal’s resignation. The president had no disagreements with either McChrystal’s policy or his conduct of the war in Afghanistan, declaring that “we are in full agreement about our strategy” (Elisabeth Bumiller, “Unlikely Tutor Giving Military Afghan Advice,” New York Times, 17 July 2010).

McChrystal’s note, a reply to an e-mail of support from Mortenson, reflected a growing bond between the latter and senior military leaders. Increasingly, they had sought his insight into and advice on the tribal cultures of rural, mountainous Pakistan and Afghanistan to help adjust their counterinsurgency theories to the realities on the ground.

In Three Cups of Tea, Mortenson relates the story of his unlikely transformation from mountaineer to cofounder and executive director of the Central Asia Institute (CAI) and adviser to senior military leaders. That transformation began in 1993 after his failed attempt to climb K2—a peak in northeastern Pakistan and, at 28,267 feet, the world’s second highest mountain and the most difficult to climb. During the descent, he became separated from his group, suffered from exposure, and stumbled into the Balti village of Korphe. The family of Haji Ali, the village’s chief elder, nursed him back to health. Appreciating what the villagers had done for him and recognizing the value they placed on education, he promised to build a school for their 84 children.

A man of modest means who supported his mountain climbing habit with his income as an emergency room nurse, Mortenson had to find sponsors who could finance the school in Korphe. He met Jean Hoerni, a Silicon Valley pioneer, who donated the $12,000 Mortenson needed for the project. Construction of the school, which involved working with the village’s elders and using local labor, did so much to create beneficial relationships and develop his reputation that elders in  nearby villages asked Mortenson to help build schools in their communities as well. Despite Mortenson’s desire to help, lack of resources presented a problem. Hoerni, who was dying from leukemia, helped solve it by cofounding the CAI with Mortenson and endowing it with enough money to build additional schools in rural Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Since then, the scale of Mortenson’s and the CAI’s efforts has increased exponentially. In Pakistan and Afghanistan, the institute has funded and organized the building of over 144 schools by local villagers in coordination with their elders. It underwrites those schools and their approximately 1,200 teachers, who have educated more than 64,000 students (including 52,000 girls). Additionally, the CAI has helped with women’s education, public health, and conservation projects. By making a difference in the quality of life in that region, both the institute and Mortenson have earned the respect of the villagers. Consequently, Mortenson and his CAI team were able to set up more than 35 meetings throughout Afghanistan between village elders and General McChrystal and his senior staff.

Three Cups of Tea offers the reader an enjoyable nonfiction adventure story of a respectable hero operating in a culture very different from his own—one located in a beautiful, exciting, and physically challenging part of the world. Mortenson’s story alone, which includes accounts of his dealing with kidnapping, death threats, and fatwas issued by village mullahs, is worth the read. But this book offers so much more—specifically, insight into the culture of the people who inhabit the mountainous areas along the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan. It illuminates their customs, the principles they value and respect, and their visions of a desirable future. The reader is exposed to the lessons that Mortenson learned as he muddled through his first years in the region, driven by a sense of purpose to keep his promise to build a school in Korphe. Indeed, the book’s title derives from one of those lessons: “Haji Ali taught me the most important lesson I’ve learned in my life . . . to share three cups of tea, to slow down and make building relationships as important as building projects” (p. 150). Other lessons included how to dress, wash, worship, eat, and negotiate without being offensive. He learned the importance of and the power associated with the types of people found in most communities—from family members, clerics, and tribal leaders to military commanders and warlords. The larger and more important lessons Mortenson communicates are his thoughts about building relationships and empowering communities, as well as his realization that education and literacy offer the most effective and enduring way for promoting peace and stability—particularly for women.

Three Cups of Tea begins Mortenson’s adventures in Pakistan, and his follow-on book Stones into Schools (Viking, 2009) continues the story as he and Sarfraz Khan (one of his most valued associates) expand their school-building efforts into Afghanistan. Mortenson, the CAI staffs in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and CAI fundraisers in Montana are making a significant difference in the region’s quality of life and its advance toward long-term peace and stability. Recognizing those accomplishments, General McChrystal, NATO’s most senior military commander, took time to write Mortenson an encouraging note on his last day of command. ADM Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, attended the opening of one of Mortenson’s schools in a remote village in Afghanistan’s Hindu Kush mountain system and voiced a similar thought: “What Greg understands better than most—and what he practices more than anyone else I know—is the simple truth that all of us are better off when all of us have the opportunity to learn, especially our children. By helping them learn and grow, he’s shaping the very future of a region and giving hope to an entire generation” (“Stones into Schools,” Central Asia Institute, 2009, http://www.stonesintoschools.com).

Col Larry Carter, USAF, Retired

Air Force Research Institute

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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