Three Cups of Tea is journalist David Oliver Relin’s account of intrepid philanthropist Greg Mortenson’s work in Northern Pakistan. It is also the first book that Lovely Mum has ever recommended to me. She’s not a big reader despite being an excellent book-chooser so I was interested to find out why she rated this book so highly.
Greg Mortenson first became interested in the isolated region of Baltistan when as a young mountain climber he found himself lost in its freezing, forbidding mountains, having become separated from his climbing party. Exhausted, starving and close to death, he stumbled into the tiny, isolated community of Korphe, where the people welcomed him with open arms, feeding him and offering him shelter, in spite of their desperate poverty. Mortenson was deeply touched by their generosity and was appalled to see the way the government of Pakistan had failed to provide them with anything resembling proper schools.
During his stay in Korphe, Mortenson noticed a devoted group of students receiving instruction out on the mountainside, in the howling wind, without so much as a set of textbooks between them. He told leader of Korphe, Haji Ali, that he would return one day and build them a school. This was the beginning of Mortenson’s quest to provide education for the poor of Pakistan – especially its girls. He built his school in Korphe with donated money totalling $12,000 and, from there, he set about building more.
Having read The Looming Tower a little while before, I was interested to see these two stories intersect. Lawrence Wright discusses at length the role played by Saudi-financed, extremist madrassas (schools) in acts of terrorism and Mortenson pretty much echoes his sentiments. Giving poor people a secular education is his own quiet ‘war on terror’, if you can call it that. (I imagine he would prefer not to call it that.)
His quest is to give young people a voice in which they can speak for themselves and I think his great success has come because he is prepared to do that within the framework of the conservative, Muslim societies where he works. He neither makes a case for democracy nor for Islam – he simply works on the assumption that ignorance and poverty are everyone’s enemies and he suggests that we must fight them at their roots and not by prancing around with guns.
Of course, the way David Oliver Relin talks about Mortenson makes him sound suspiciously like a saint. Here is a man who has dedicated his life to serving the most invisible, destitute members of a culture that is nothing like his own. He seems to have no fear for his personal safety, wandering into dangerous Waziristan and getting himself kidnapped, wading into war-torn Kabul and remaining steadfast in his courage. He is a man whose singular drive and vision have changed the lives of tens of thousands of girls who otherwise may never have had a shot at education. So I found myself wondering: is Greg Mortenson really real? Is Relin simply sensationalising?
By the end of the book, I had concluded that Relin’s Mortenson is real, he is a modern hero and his story is pretty spectacular. He’s not perfect- he is impatient, stubborn and reckless – but these are also the qualities that make him perfect for his vocation. Oh, I admit it! I could never marry a man like Mortenson – the real love of his life is his cause and he seems inept when it comes to everyday life. All the same, I’m fascinated by the woman who did decide to marry him. As is noted in the book, Tara Mortenson’s sacrifice to the altar of education is immense and utterly selfless. More so than Mortenson’s, maybe. After all, he gets the lion’s share of the glory while she simply waits lovingly, with acceptance, raising their children practically single-handedly. I wonder how many other women, despite believing that Mortenson is doing a wonderful thing, would do the same in her shoes. Not many, I think – she’s certainly braver than I am.
Three Cups of Tea is an uplifting book then, full of moments that restore your faith in humanity. It reads like fiction, partly because Relin is an elegant narrator and partly because the story of Mortenson’s work in Pakistan sounds too exciting to be real. Here is a man who really walks the walk – his story is well worth a read.
If you’re interested in Mortenson’s work and want to know how to help, you can visit the Three Cups of Tea website.