Friday, September 21, 2007

‘Three Cups of Tea’ by Greg Mortensen and David Oliver Relin.

Mountaineer, Greg Mortensen, entered a poor, remote Pakistani village in 1993 after a failed attempt to climb K2. In his weakened state he was overwhelmed by the hospitality of the people and as a parting shot he promised to return and build them a school.

Three Cups of Tea is written by David Oliver Relin and it is the account of Mortensen’s work, not only in fulfilling this promise but in growing an organization that is committed to building schools as a way of promoting peace.

By the end of the book many schools have been built but this is not the end of the story. The vision that Mortensen shares with his readers is “that we all will dedicate the next decade to achieve universal literacy and education for all children, especially for girls.” (p333) This is a mammoth task realizing that more than 145 million of the world’s children are deprived of education due to poverty, exploitation, slavery, gender discrimination, religious extremism, and corrupt governments.

Mortensen discovers that building schools among the Pakistani and Afghani people is a higher mountain that he has ever tackled and a project that demands the same courage, teamwork and endurance that are needed in scaling the world's higest mountains. At certain low points Mortensen wants to quit but the book provides the secret as to how Mortensen stayed motivated.

Greg Mortensen is portrayed as having a ‘remarkable lack of ego’ and, as an introvert, he has to push himself to front up to meetings and the media. Author, David Oliver Relin is admiring but he paints a picture of his subject ‘warts and all’. Oliver says that after agreeing to write the book Mortensen handed him a paper with a list of names and contact details of Mortensen’s ‘enemies' with the encouragement to talk to them all. Mortensen is a mountaineer and a nurse but his pathway is steep as he is challenged by lessons in culture, building schools, learning languages, navigating his way through Islamic law, getting kidnapped and dealing with fatwas that are placed upon him because he is providing education for girls.

As Mortensen’s vision becomes a reality and the work of one man grows into a movement, there are areas where he either does not have the gifts to be Director of the Central Asia Institute or he is reluctant to appoint staff and delegate responsibilities to other people. In the process Mortensen does not care adequately for himself or his family, and the people in his organization are often left stranded and longing for better communication from their leader. Three Cups of Tea is therefore a good case study for those involved in commencing and growing a development project. It focuses, through the telling of the story, on issues of contextualization, empowerment, fund raising, the relationship between the visionary and the organization and the challenge of a passionate person seeking to live a balanced life with care for himself, his family and his team.

The book oozes passion for the project and love for the people who are the recipients of the schools. It includes the story of relationships that Mortensen struck up with women and the exciting romance of how he met his wife, Tara.

Mortensen’s immersion in the culture of the people is revealed on every page. He wears a shalwar kamiz and learns words from several of the languages used in this area of Pakistan. The pages of the book exude the smells of yak dung, smoke, butter tea, chewing tobacco and chapattis. He appears to read the culture well and observe the customs but at one point a wise man from Baltistan invites Mortensen to his place for a deep conversation:

“‘Sit down. And shut your mouth,’ Haji Ali said, ‘You’re making everyone crazy…’

“When the porcelain bowls of scalding butter tea steamed in their hands, Haji Ali spoke. ‘If you want to thrive in Baltistan, you must respect our ways,’ Haji Ali said, blowing in his bowl.

‘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, even die,’ he said, laying his hand warmly on Mortensen’s arm. 'Doctor Greg, you must take time to share three cups of tea. We may be uneducated. But we are not stupid. We have lived and survived here for a long time.’

‘That day, Haji Ali taught me the most important lesson I’ve ever learned in my life,’ Mortensen says …. ‘Haji Ali taught me to share three cups of tea, to slow down and make building relationships 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.’” (p150)

This story is inspirational and the book is generally well written. However, it suffers from being too long and in need of editing. Reading the book is like listening to a riveting speaker who goes on too long and doesn’t know when and how to stop.

Three Cups of Tea comes with delightful photos, a helpful index and pointers to where more information can be obtained.

Greg Mortensen and David Oliver Relin, Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace…One School at a Time (New York: Penguin Books, 2006).

This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dh 60.00.

Geoff Pound

Image: Front cover of Three Cups of Tea; Greg Mortensen with Pakistani students.