Monday, December 17, 2007

Review: Three Cups of Tea

One Man's Mission to Promote Peace... One School at a Time by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin. Penguin, 2006. This is a true story. I had the opportunity to hear Greg Mortenson speak recently and he was phenomenal. His story is so inspiring I almost don't know where to begin. He is a mountain climber and in the early nineties he was attempting to climb the Pakistan area Karakorum Mountain's highest peak known as K2. He failed miserably with his team and stumbled down the mountain in desperate condition. He wandered away from his tour guide and ended up lost, alone, hungry and cold on the glacier. He somehow survived the night and continued to flounder down the mountain until he landed in a little village. He was taken in by the kind and generous people there and nursed back to health. He stayed with them for a few weeks and was surprised one day to find a group of children gathered for school in a small group out in the open air. They were writing their lessons in the dirt with no teacher. Their teacher came to visit once a week from a neighboring village. Their parents didn't have the resources to pay a teacher's salary, build them a school or buy supplies. Greg was so moved by their eagerness to learn and their desperate situation he promised to go home and find a way to help them build a school.

He returned to the United States and spent the next couple years struggling to raise funds. He lived out of his car for a while to save money. He worked as an emergency room nurse, the career he was trained for, and saved all his money for the school. He wrote hundreds of letters to well known, influential people hoping for donations. He had managed to raise only a few hundred dollars when a group of school children heard about his mission and decided to collect pennies for him. They raised $600 in pennies. Once word of that got out more money started to come in and eventually the school was built.

From there things continued to grow and expand. In a few years Greg had a non-profit that was building schools all over Pakistan's northeast region. Several years later they expanded into Afghanistan. To date they have built 55 schools in that area. Greg's driving belief that the way to promote peace is through education, especially the education of girls and women, is what fuels his passion and makes his mission so powerful.

I was stunned to hear him speak about his failure and his compassion for the people who saved his life in the midst of their own poverty. Again and again he joked about his own failures and short comings, but continued to push forward to make a difference in other's lives. He is not a superstar with amazing abilities, wealth, and fabulous talents. He is just a man who is determined to make a difference in the world. His humility and passion are a remarkable combination. I can think of no more exciting project to get involved with these days than to work for peace by building schools.

The book Three Cups of Tea was co-written with David Oliver Relin, a journalist that heard Greg's story while reporting on his school building projects. He was so amazed by Greg's work he dedicated two years of his life to collaborating on the book. He says in the introduction:
"Rather than simply reporting on his progress, I want to see Greg Mortenson succeed. I wish him success because he is fighting the war on terror the way I think it should be conducted. Slamming over the so-called Karakorum "Highway" in his old Land Cruiser, taking great personal risks to see the region that gave birth to the Taliban with schools, Mortenson goes to war with the root causes of terror every time he offers a student a chance to receive a balanced education, rather than attend an extremist madrassas."

The book is quick reading. The opening chapters are about mountain climbing, which is a bit confusing to those of us that don't know that sport or the region of the world. Maps are included in the beginning of the book and I found it helpful to look the whole thing up in Online encyclopedias for background. The story tends to jump around a bit and in some sections I was confused about the chronological sequence of events. The clear descriptions of the personalities, the cultural differences and the struggles involved make it exciting reading. The middle section of the book is about Greg's early fund-raising efforts as he works to fulfill his first promise to the village he connected with in Pakistan. It is fascinating to me to see how he flounders and muddles his way through new territory, often uncertain of what to do but determined to learn and make it happen. Once the school starts to get built the story picks up with heartfelt and touching stories of the people he befriends and their lives in Pakistan.

If you have traveled or lived overseas or imagine yourself enjoying this type of adventure this book will be right up your ally. If you are passionate about education, literacy and working for peace this book will inspire and encourage you. If you have a teacher on your gift list get them this book. I am encouraging my son to read it too because it is so inspiring to see how a person's individual defeat and failure can be turned around to change the world through service and commitment to others.You can read a boatload of other book reviews at the web site for Three Cups of Tea.

I am giving donations to the Central Asia Institute to contribute to building more schools in the name of family members as part of their Christmas gifts this year. I encourage you to find a way to support this work as well. Again from the introduction by David Oliver Relin:

"I found in Pakistan, Mortenson's Central Asia Institute does, irrefutably, have the results. In a part of the world where Americans are, at best, misunderstood, and more often feared and loathed, this soft-spoken, six-foot-four former mountaineer from Montana has put together a string of improbable successes. Though he would never say so himself, he has single-handedly changed the lives of tens of thousands of children, and independently won more hearts and minds than all the official American propaganda flooding the region."

If you ever have a chance to hear Greg speak - GO! He signed the front of my copy of the book "Cloudscome - Listen to the wind!" That refers to an anecdote he relates in the book about his good friend Haji Ali, the leader of Korphe, the village where Greg first found friendship and promised to help build a school. They are standing at the grave site of Haji's wife who recently passed away. He puts his arm around Mortenson's shoulder and through his tears Haji Ali says,
"One day soon, you're going to come here looking for me and find me planted in the ground, too." He wrapped the tutor who'd already taught him so much in an embrace and asked for one lesson more.
"What should I do, a long time from now, when that day comes?" he asked.
Haji Ali looked up toward the summit of Korphe K2, weighing his words. "Listen to the wind," he said."

When Haji Ali did indeed die, Mortenson stood at his grave with the headman's son Twaha. He remembers that advice and listens to the wind

"whistling down the Braldu Gorge, carrying rumors of snow and the season's death. But in the breeze whipping across this fragile shelf where humans survived, somehow, in the high Himalaya, he also heard the musical trill of children's voices, at play in the courtyard of Korphe's school. Here was his last lesson, Mortenson realized, stabbing at the hot tears with his fingertips. "Think of them," he thought, "Think always of them."

When we heard him speak we also picked up a magazine put out by the Bozeman Daily Chronicle filled with articles written about the progress made after the book was published. You can read the articles online linked through Mortenson's blog here.


Sara said...

Thanks! I had vaguely heard of this project and book, but you really pulled it all together to provoke my interest. Now, off to look at those web sites and the blog...

Anonymous said...

We read the book this fall and are getting to hear him speak in January. I'm really looking forward to it!

Color Online said...

I'm adding this to our wish list. Thanks for the post.

laurasalas said...

I've never heard of this book. Going to go put it on reserve right now. Thanks!

Sarah Amick said...

Thank you for this post. I will definetly be looking for this book. My mind has been traveling to the word peace a lot this season. I needed to hear that others are contemplating the true meaning of peace. Thank you.

Tricia said...

I saw this a few weeks ago and bought it for a friend for Hanukkah. I now need to go buy myself a copy!