'THREE CUPS OF TEA' and a Man with a Mission

Alan Shapiro appreciates the book about Greg Mortenson, the man who builds schools and bridges of understanding with people in the mountains of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

A teacup could hold what most of us know about Pakistan. Many may know that Pakistan's neighbor to the west is Afghanistan. We may know that most of Pakistan's people are Muslims. That some live free of government control in tribal areas that harbor Taliban and Al Qaeda forces. That they cross the border for bombings and combat in Afghanistan, then return to safe havens, which American drones have begun striking with missiles. That Pakistan suffers frequent suicide bombings, including one that killed presidential candidate Benazir Bhutto. That some Pakistani madrassas (schools) have two subjects: the Koran and jihad. That Pakistan is one of the most dangerous places in the world and will pose a major challenge to President Obama.

If we know much more, we might make the short list for a position in the State Department. Mortenson knows a lot more, but unless we've read or heard about his book, co-authored with David Relin, we're unlikely to know anything about him.

On September 2, 1993, Mortenson was a member of an expedition climbing K2, "The Savage Peak." K2, at 28,251 feet, is second only to Mt. Everest in height and is one of more than 60 formidable peaks in the Karakoram Range. After he had climbed to within a half mile of the summit, Mortenson lost his way. K2 had disappeared into the mists. With the light failing, he rolled himself up in a blanket and lay down on a slab of rock until dawn.

Late the next morning he heard the bells of a donkey caravan and spotted a man. It was Mouzafer Ali, his porter. He was found.

A week later, on the expedition's difficult descent, Mortenson once again lost his way and Mouzafer Ali. He crossed a "bridge" of yak hairs at 10,000 feet and came upon women kneeling over baskets of apricots who "pulled their shawls over their faces when they saw him and ran to put trees between themselves and the Angrezi, the strange white man." Mortenson's hair was long and tangled, and he hadn't had a shower for three months.

He had arrived at Korphe, a village "perched on a shelf eight hundred feet above the Braldu River. a tightly packed warren of square three-story stone homes." Watching him was an old man, Haji Ali, the chief of Korphe. "As-salaam Alaaikum," the old man said as he led Mortenson to a brook to wash his hands and face. Then he took him into his hut, gave him ibex jerky and a cup of bitter tea, and introduced him to his wife Sakina and extended family. Mouzafer arrived the next morning.

Mortenson felt something special in Haji Ali's welcoming home that led him to remain there to recuperate rather than rooming at a comfortable lodge in a town miles below. He became familiar with the people of Korphe. A trauma nurse by profession, Mortenson now found himself in a village without a doctor or a nurse. He treated wounds with tubes of antibiotic, set broken bones and became known to the people as Dr. Greg.

A visit to Korphe's school with Haji Ali sealed Mortenson's growing love for the people of this village. He "was appalled to see eighty-two children, seventy-eight boys and four girls who had the pluck to join them, kneeling on the frosty ground, in the open." Haji Ali told him they had no school building, and the Pakistani government provided no teacher, for a teacher cost an unaffordable one dollar a day. Korphe shared a teacher with a neighboring village.

Mortenson watched as the children, standing at attention, opened their school day to sing the Pakistani national anthem. Then they sat in a circle copying their multiplication tables, most scratching them in the dirt with sticks. The more affluent among them, like Jahan, a young girl, had slate boards they wrote on with a mixture of mud and water.

Standing next to Haji Ali overlooking the valley, Mortenson said to him, "I'm going to build you a school. I will build you a school. I promise." With these words, he abandoned his trauma nursing career and mountaineering to begin a new life. Local experts told him that to build the school with local materials and local workers he needed the equivalent of $12,000.

Back in Berkeley, California, Mortenson lived in the back seat of an old Buick. He wrote hundreds of letters on a rented typewriter to everyone he knew and celebrities he didn't asking for money for the school. Results were negligible. But a brief item about Mortenson's project in the national newsletter of the American Himalayan Foundation was read by Dr. Jean Hoerni, a climber who was also a scientist in the semiconductor industry - and rich. He gave Mortenson $12,000.

The money was essential, as were Mortenson's time, effort, ingenuity, and single mindedness. Hoerni's contribution paid for flights to and from Pakistan and cement, roof beams and other materials that were haggled over and transported, with great difficulty, to Korphe. Local associates, among them Mouzafer Ali, helped Mortenson deal with con artists, daunting roads, and replacing the yak hair bridge. Mortenson learned the ways of the people, including Islam. And he drove his workers and himself very hard.

But Haji Ali, told him, "If you want to thrive in Baltistan, you must respect our ways. 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. Doctor Greg, you must make 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."

Mortenson: "That day Haji Ali taught me the most important lesson I've ever learned in my life. We Americans think you have to accomplish everything quickly. We're the country of thirty-minute power lunches and two-minute football drills. Our leaders thought their 'shock and awe' campaign could end the war in Iraq before it even started. 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."

It took three years to construct the Korphe school, and it was a formidable task. Nevertheless, Mortenson was determined to build more schools, especially for girls, who very often received no education at all. Mortenson faced new challenges, including being held incommunicado by a Taliban group for a week in Waziristan, struggling to work with mixed groups of Shiites and Sunnis, helping to bring doctors and water to places that didn't have them, and becoming the subject of a fatwa (a religious opinion on Islamic law that, in this case, condemned Mortenson).

The man who was responsible for having the fatwa against Mortenson lifted was a Shia scholar named Syed Abbas Risvi, who had come to respect the former climber: "I looked into his heart and saw him for what he is-an infidel, but a noble man, nonetheless, who dedicates his life to the education of children."

With an endowment from Hoerni, Mortenson developed the Central Asia Institute (CAI) to build more schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan. "CAI schools would teach the exact same curriculum as any good Pakistani government school. There would be none of the 'comparative cultures' classes then so popular in the West, nothing conservative religious leaders could point to as 'anti-Islamic' in an effort to shut the schools down. But neither would they let the schools preach the fiery brand of fundamentalist Islam taught in many of the country's madrassas."

Mortenson said, "I don't want to teach Pakistan's children to think like Americans. I just want them to have a balanced, non-extremist education. That idea is at the very center of what we do."

After 9/11, a Denver Post reporter, Bruce Finley accompanied Mortenson on a trip to Pakistan. They visited the Shamshatoo Refugee Camp where nearly 100 CAI teachers were working under dreadful conditions to teach Afghan children. Mortenson told Finley, "The only way we can defeat terrorism is if people in this country where terrorists exist learn to respect and love Americans, and if we can respect and love these people here. What's between them becoming a productive local citizen or a terrorist? I think the key is education."

Through the help of California Representative Mary Bono, Mortenson spoke before a congressional committee in Washington. A congressman interrupted him in mid-sentence. "Building schools for kids is just fine and dandy. But our primary need as a nation is security. Without security, where does all this matter?"

"I don't do what I'm doing to fight terror," Mortenson answered. "I do it because I care about kids. But working over there, I've learned a few things. I've learned that terror doesn't happen because some group of people somewhere like Pakistan or Afghanistan simply decide to hate us. It happens because children aren't being offered a bright enough future that they have a reason to choose life over death." He went on to speak about Pakistan's miserably funded schools and the Wahhabi madrassas (which teach a very conservative version of Islam) financed by rich Saudis that were spreading across Pakistan.

A few months later he spoke at the Pentagon. Mortenson finished his talk by commenting on the wreckage of a home he'd seen in Kabul where a cruise missile had struck. "I'm no military expert," he said. "And these figures might not be exactly right. But as best as I can tell, we've launched 114 Tomahawk cruise missiles into Afghanistan so far. Now take the cost of one of those missiles tipped with a Raytheon guidance system, which I think is about $840,000. For that much money, you could build dozens of schools that could provide tens of thousands of students with a balanced non-extremist education over the course of a generation. Which do you think will make us more secure?"

His answer is clear enough. Fifteen years after he stumbled upon Korphe to be greeted by Haji Ali, Mortenson is still at work building schools—to date, 55 in Pakistan, 8 in Afghanistan, and more than a dozen others under construction. They serve 26,000 children, 16,000 of them girls.

Finishing Three Cups of Tea , I was reminded of Thomas Merton's "A Letter to a Young Activist. "Do not depend on the hope of results," Merton wrote. "When you are doing the sort of work you have taken on you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the truth of the work itself."

Mortenson concentrates "on the value, the truth of the work itself," but also achieves results. Jahan, the young girl writing on a piece of slate with mud and water the first day Mortenson visited the Korphe school, later completed a maternal health training course. "Courtesy of the CAI... she was in high school, where her studies included English grammar, formal Urdu, Arabic, physics, economics and history." Her goal was to become a doctor, like Dr. Greg.


At www.threecupsoftea.com you can order a copy of Three Cups of Tea, as well as copies of a young adult's and a children's version of it. The site includes reviews, photographs and additional information about Mortenson.

A site designed for school children, www.penniesforpeace.org, offers an opportunity to get your class and/or school involved in Mortenson's work.

Updates on the work of the Central Asia Institute and a site that accepts tax-deductible contributions is at www.ikat.org.

For photographs and biographical information, see www.gregmortenson.com.

This essay was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: lmcclure@morningsidecenter.org