Sunday, July 6, 2008

Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortensen and David Oliver Relin

Greg Mortensen's mind was clouded with his failure as he retreated from an unsuccessful attempt to climb K2 in Pakistan in 1993. His spectacular tribute to his sister who had recently passed away had gone uncompleted. It's no surprise then, that he took a wrong turn and ended up in the wrong secluded village. In Korphe, Mortensen found people who were barely ekeing out a living in one of the most secluded of villages in northern Pakistan, yet people who were eager to give him the best of everything they had when he arrived in his weakened state from his failed climb. When he recovered sufficiently, he asked to see the village's school and on finding out that they had no such building, he determined to return home to the U.S., raise the money, and bring them back a school.

Only when he returns to Pakistan and assembles the necessary materials for the Korphe school does he realize the vast need for education across northern Pakistan, and beyond, as several villagers shamelessly attempt to woo him to build his school in their village instead of the one he has already chosen. This sets the ball rolling for the many schools Mortensen eventually builds with the help of funding from Jean Hoerni, a wealthy inventor of technology for silicon chips. Mortensen travels throughout Pakistan bringing education to both boys and girls in the most remote villages where, typically, the best chance of an education would come only in the form of Islamic fundamentalist madrassas which refuse girls and turn out angry young men whose only chance at a good life seems to lie in hate and intolerance.

If you're anything like me, this is a book you will find yourself eager to talk about. Mortensen's (unfortunately) new and unusual approach to building schools and educating the children of Pakistan is a study in how peace can be won among people who could easily and understandably loathe Americans. Rather than forcing a foreign curriculum on students, he determines to cover a well-rounded set of courses in basic education - education for education's sake instead of education with shady alterior motives that many who might be helped have learned to expect in "help" from the United States. Instead of launching himself at a village and dictating how things should be done, he works with villagers and other locals eager to have their children educated, using the village's own labor, including locally hired teachers, and donation of land to give the people pride in their village's school and vested interest in making and keeping it a success.

His obvious love and respect for the people and their beliefs and customs as well as his efforts to build lasting relationships with the people of the villages in which he works make Mortensen an anomaly among American foreign aid workers and perhaps among Americans, in general. His efforts to tread lightly and with a genuine respect for the villagers and their devout belief in the tenets of Islam often saw him coming out above reproach even when money-hungry village mullahs seeking to stop his education of girls or at least earn a hefty bribe level fatwas against him that could easily have ended his work and sent him packing back to America. Mortensen's worthy mission and the way that he pursues it has the power not only to educate but to unite people across religious, cultural, and geographic divides behind one common goal. Now, as he moves his operation into Afghanistan, Greg Mortensen continues to fight the war on terror in perhaps the only way it can truly be won, with respect, understanding, and education.

I could write all day and not give you the essence of this book. The writing has its flaws, it took me awhile to settle in and get sucked into Mortensen's story, but when it happened, I was all in. All I can really say is that if you care about education, if you care about understanding the dynamics of the Middle East, if you care about knowing about non-extremist Islam and the people who practice it, if you care about helping people in less wealthy nations in the best way possible, this is a book that you should not miss.


  1. A great review! This is a book that I always wanted to read!

    Happy Sunday!

  2. I keep eying this book but have yet to get myself a copy. You aren't the first person to comment about the writing despite finding the story a very worthwhile one. I really must add this one to my wish list. Great review!

  3. I've been eyeing this book too. It sounds wonderful.

  4. Thanks for the compliments on the review! I hope each of you will get a chance to read it! =)

  5. I've been wanting to read this one for awhile - it's the September book selection for one of my book clubs, so I'm waiting a bit longer. I've heard nothing but good things about it.

  6. I was in my doctors office, depressed from a new found diagnosis. She reached in her desk and gave me a copy of "Three Cups of Tea" I read it and was much inspired, I would recommend everyone read it

  7. Wonderful review.

    To put things in a nut shell from my point of view, I read this book in Oct 2008. I had recently moved from the UK to Singapore and consequently reading anything I could my hands on being sa fsr away from home. I picked my copy up at Hong Kong airport if I remember correctly.

    This book is so much more than a story, it stays with you.

    I stumbled across this site because I was searching in Google about Greg Mortensen, hoping to find an official web page for him to donate or volunteer. I guess I often think about the great work he has achieved and wonder what I can achieve by helping others if I put my mind to it too!