Three Cups of Tea

In Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace … One School at a Time, Greg Mortenson, and journalist David Oliver Relin, take you on a journey that begins with a climber’s failed attempt to scale Pakistan’s K2 and follows with his repaying a poor Pakistani village that nursed him back to health by building them a school.

Mortenson’s gratitude to one village has since blossomed into promoting peace through education and literacy (especially for girls). At this time, he, with the help of the Central Asia Foundation and Pennies for Peace, has built over 75 schools throughout Pakistan and Afghanistan.

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

by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin

Penguin, 2007,
349 pages, $15.00

Go to your local bookstore or
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Also check out the young adult and children's version of the book.


Q: What inspired you to commit to building a school in Pakistan?

Greg: I had a sister named Christa, who struggled with severe epilepsy from early childhood, but she never once complained and inspired all of us. She had always wanted to go to Dyersville, Iowa, to see the “Field Of Dreams” where the baseball movie was filmed. Her bags were packed and she was ready to go when my mother went down to wake her up on the morning of July 23rd, but she had died in her sleep.

To honor Christa’s memory, I decided to climb Pakistan’s K2, the world’s second highest mountain, and one of the most difficult to climb. After 78 days on the mountain, I did not quite reach the summit, and was exhausted, emaciated, and emotionally spent. On the five day way back to civilization, I stumbled into a local village named Korphe, where the Balti ethnic villagers helped nurse me back to health.

When I went to see the local school, I saw 84 children sitting in the dirt doing their school lessons. Most were writing with sticks in the dirt, and they shared only seven slate boards. Yet, despite abject poverty, I felt their fierce desire to have an education, and saw their spirits soar. At that moment, I realized that I had not come to Pakistan to climb a mountain, but to help the children build a school to honor Christa.

Q: How did the funding for the schools come about?

Greg: It took a tremendous effort. When I returned home after K2 in late 1993, I needed to raise $12,000 to build a school, but had no clue how to do it.

I went to the local library and looked up the names and addresses of hundreds of wealthy people and celebrities. At the time I was computer illiterate, so I first hand-typed 580 letters asking them for help. Only one person, Tom Brokaw, the newscaster, replied with a $100 check. Then I wrote 16 grants, which were all turned down. Finally, I sold everything I owned, including my climbing gear, car, and cashed in my retirement policy. For the first two years, I was essentially homeless and gave up everything I had to get this off the ground.

By spring of 1994, I had only raised about $3,000, and was frustrated. My mother, Jerene, who was the principal at Westside Elementary School in River Falls, Wisconsin, invited me to spend a couple days with the 600 students there. A fourth grader named Jeffrey, and two teachers started a “Pennies for Pakistan” drive after I left, which I did not think much about. Within six weeks, the Westside children had raised 62,340 pennies! Their pennies eventually inspired adults to give, but it was really children who started all this.

Q: Since 9/11, your work has expanded into Afghanistan, how did that come about?

Greg: In 2001, I was in a remote village called Zuudkhan, of Charpusan Valley, in the extreme
north of Pakistan—next to Afghanistan where we were putting in a drinking water system. One day, several fierce looking, armed Kyrgyz (tribal group) horsemen came across an 18,400 difficult mountain pass and into our midst. They said they were looking for me and that their warlord commanders, Abdul Rashid Khan and Sardhar Khan, had sent them to ask me to build schools for them in remote Afghanistan. They then made me pledge I would honor a promise to help them. Two years later, I made it to their villages and in 2004, we completed the first school in the Wakhan corridor of extreme NE Afghanistan, and have nine schools in Afghanistan now.

Q: How many schools have you established in Pakistan and Afghanistan?

Greg: Sixty four schools in total, which have helped over 26,000 children, including 16,000 females. with education. There are fifty-five in Pakistan and eight in Afghanistan. A dozen more are under construction.

We could have many more schools if we worked in urban or easy to access areas, but most of our efforts are focused in remote, rural, difficult to access and under served regions, where children, and especially girls are deprived of education. In some areas, our nonprofit organization, Central Asia Institute, is the only foreign aid group there.

Q: Your mission, to counteract extremism and terrorism by opening schools throughout the breeding ground of the Taliban is awe inspiring. By replacing guns with pencils, rhetoric with reading, you are affecting dramatic change. What would you say are the biggest accomplishments that have resulted from all of this?

Greg: Education saves lives, empowers women and communities, and helps connect often exploited indigenous societies isolated by illiteracy, to the outside world.

For me, when I see the first girl in a village walking into a new school, it resembles when Neil Armstrong first stepped on the moon in 1969, and said “One small step for man, but one giant leap for mankind”.

To me, the first girl going to school is “one small step for that girl, but one giant leap for their community”.

It often takes several years of hard work and perseverance to convince conservative Islamic mullahs to initiate girls literacy and education in their communities.

The biggest accomplishment I see in communities where girls become literate is profound—their hygiene improves dramatically, they tell me they only plan to have 2-3 children vs. their mother having 8-10 children, the infant mortality of children with literate mothers drops as the mothers are eager to seek out health care, and even the “networth” for a dowry for an educated girl in a rural village doubles and triples (example: An illiterate girl is “worth” about 5 goats or $300. An educated girl is “worth” at least $600 - $1000 in bride price).

Q: What can others do to help in this cause?

Greg: Be aware that education is a very effective, utilitarian way to bring profound change and stability in a society, and it only cost about $1 monthly to get a rural child educated in Pakistan or Afghanistan.

In 2000, the United Nations proposed a fifteen year Millennium plan to get all the world’s 115 million (age 5-9) and 45 million (age 10-15) children literate. The external donated cost would only be an estimated $6 to 8 billion annually (in addition to $22 billion given by the countries themselves) for 15 years. Last year, the U.S. spent a total of $94.2 billion in Iraq for the war on terror, which would have almost achieved the entire global literacy compliance in a year!

Q: Why is it so important to educate girls, as well as boys, especially in conservative
Islamic societies?

Greg: Several global studies show that if you educate a girl, it does three important things in society:

  • significantly decrease the population explosion over a generation or two
  • reduce infant mortality dramatically in a decade or two
  • significantly improve the basic quality of health and life itself.

From my own observations, and remembering a childhood proverb from Africa, there is a saying that “if you educate a boy—you educated an individual, because he often leaves the community to find work, and may never return or send back money, but if you educate a girl—you educate a community, because when the girl becomes a mother, she will remain in the community and instill that value in her community.

Also, one consideration, very under-reported in the western media and specifically related to the war on terror, is that in Islam, before a man leaves his home to go on any jihad—he must get permission from his mother. An educated woman will much more be unlikely to support her son in terror activities and deny or delay his departure.

Education in general is a powerful tool to provide alternatives to the illiterate, impoverished areas that are the recruiting grounds for terror. Literate Mullahs control vast swaths of rural, illiterate Pakistan and Afghanistan and their edicts remain supreme. As soon as a society is literate, the Mullah is disempowered and cannot disseminate false information. I often tell people, “The Mullah is not afraid of the bullet, but fears the pen”.

Q: You’ve lived about half of your 50 years overseas, mostly in third world countries; does that alter how you feel as an American?

Greg: We are blessed as Americans in so many ways, and certainly live in the greatest country on earth. But since 9/11, we’ve been building more walls than bridges, and that is very dangerous, as we live in a global community, where our very survival is dependent on cooperation, compassion and to overcome our fears of reaching out to those different than us.

Q: You advocate for peace, and say that the only way to win the war on terror is with books, not bombs, but yet you served in the U.S. Army after High School in 1975. Why?

Greg: I am proud to be a U.S. military veteran, and would not discourage anyone from joining the military. However, the war on terror is ultimately a battle of “hearts and minds,” and will only be won if we provide alternatives to the young children who are indoctrinated into extremist ideology at a young age. Hundreds of our loyal supporters are in the military or U.S. veterans, who send dozens of emails, that mostly reiterate that without education, nothing will change in Afghanistan.

Mahatma Ghandi once said, “you cannot shake hands with a clenched fist.”

Q: Who are two of your heroes (male and female)?

Greg: Mother Theresa—I once was alone with her as she lay in her Daughter’s of Charity room before her en-tombment (in Calcutta). It was a life inspiring moment, as I reached out to touch her frail, tiny hand with my giant hand, and to realize that such a small woman had changed the world with compassion. That moment is forever is imprinted in me. It’ s all in Three Cups of Tea.

Prof. Smartya Sen, from Harvard and Cambridge, 1998 Economics Nobel Prize Winner, who is a leading advocate for girls education, and pioneered a new way to assess poverty indicators, along with the late Pakistani economist Dr. Meboub Haq, who redefined the $1 / day poverty indices. Both say that in order to really change the world, we must educate girls as well as boys.

Q: What exactly does “Three Cups of Tea” mean?

Greg: Although symbolic, to do business in Pakistan or Afghanistan, it takes three cups of tea first. In their culture, the first cup you are a stranger, and by the second tea gathering you become a friend, and with the third cup you become family, and they will protect you with their life and are ready to do business, but the process takes several years. Here, in America we have two minute football drills, thirty minute power lunches, and “shock and awe,” but that does not work in Pakistan or Afghanistan.

Q: What do you hope people gain from reading Three Cups of Tea?

Greg: That ultimately to achieve global peace and defeat terror we must do it with education and books, not edicts and bombs. I also hope it inspires our younger generation to know that anyone can make a difference and be pro-active. Martin Luther said that even if the world would end today, we will should still plant seeds and trees for tomorrow.

Even in America, we have extreme poverty, but I think the greatest poverty we face in our country is a poverty of compassion and that we live more in fear, than in hope. If you fight terrorism, it is based in fear, but if you promote peace, it is based in hope. Ignorance is the real enemy, whether it is in Afghanistan, Africa, or America, and it is ignorance that breeds hatred.

We can overcome that ignorance with compassion, courage and encourage all children (and adults) with to promote peace, and have hope through education.

This is an abridged version of an interview with Greg Mortenson. Read the complete interview. Published by permission from Central Asia Institute. All rights reserved. No part of this interview may be reproduced or reprinted without permission.

Interested? More about the book at :: Central Asia Institute: :: Pennies For Peace:

Photo of Greg Mortenson

snapshot of December 2008 Newsletter

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