Three Cups of Tea

I happened to listen to an international radio programme that featured Greg Mortenson the other day. He was an American who devoted his life to building schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The interview was short, but I was impressed by his story. As soon as I finished listening to his story, I ordered his book on Amazon.

Three Cups of Tea is a nonfiction book about an American guy named Greg Mortenson and his attempt to build schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The story begins with Greg’s unsuccessful attempt to climb K2 in 1993. After straying from a climbing party at K2, he became exhausted and seriously ill with a cold. He happened to reach a small suburban village called Korphe. He was warmly received (and treated) and he recuperated seven weeks later. He saw village children studying outside in the cold weather, using sticks to scribble words on the ground. There was no school in rural Pakistan in those days. The situation was even worse for girls, as education for girls was prohibited in that area. Mortenson promised to a girl that he would build a school in the village someday.

After he came back to America, he worked as a night-shift nurse in the ER, and started to raise money for the school. He sent 580 letters to celebrities and senators but got no reply. Thanks to his mother’s help in starting a charity program at local primary schools, and a donation from Dr. Hoerni, a prominent physics professor and former climber, he went back to Pakistan the next year.

He faced many problems and obstacles. Local authorities required bribes, and he encountered deception. However, with the villagers’ help, he could build the first school in Korphe at last. The title, “Three Cups of Tea” is derives from the words of Haji Ali, the elder of Korphe, which he said while Mortenson was having difficulty in keeping good relations with the villagers: “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.” This was the most important lesson Mortenson had ever learned in his life. He learned to respect and observe the local customs rather than stick to his own American ways. He could build better relationships with others after following this advice.

Education for children is the most important but also most impossible task for war-torn impoverished areas like Korphe. Education is the only way to get out of poverty. Haji Ali offered a life time’s fortune when the local authority required a bribe from him. Although he was illiterate himself, he understood the importance of education.

His project grew into what is now the Central Asia Institute, which has constructed more than 50 schools, pays salaries to teachers, and raises scholarships for students. Mortenson has said, “Education for girls is especially important because they stay home, become leaders in the community, and pass on what they’ve learned. If you really want to change a culture, the answer is to educate girls.” Education is also important to give a balanced perspective in religious communities where Islamic fundamentalists thrive. Following the U.S. Army’s air-raids, there remain ruins and hatred. Mortenson’s approach to tackle Islamic conflicts by promoting education seems the only way to lift poverty and eventually bring about peace in what is currently the most volatile area in the world.

Now, Jahan, the granddaughter of Haji Ali, and the first educated woman in Korphe has graduated from the school in Korphe and continued her study at a private school in town. She comes back to the village as a health worker and helps the villagers in many ways. She hopes to continue her study to be a doctor in the near future. The seed Mortenson and Haji Ali planted together has born splendid fruit.

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