Greg Mortenson is a remarkable man. Product of Minnesota parents who were both athletes and then missionaries, he spent much of his childhood in Tanzania. A high-end climber he was on his way back from an unsuccessful attempt at K2, 30 pounds lighter than he had been before the attempt, when, exhausted and lost, he wound up in the remote village of Korphe. Saved from an icy demise, Mortenson recovered. When the locals showed him their village he noticed that the children had no school. They studied in an open area and were visited by a teacher who was shared with another village. Thus was born Mortenson’s life work. He would dedicate himself to bringing schools, and ultimately much more, to remote rural Pakistan and Afghanistan. Three Cups of Tea tells Mortenson’s tale, a sort of coming of age for a philanthropist. But Mortenson was not so much a donator of funds. In fact, he had almost no financial resources of his own. But his single-mindedness led him to find others willing to provide money for this work. Mortenson was the man in the field, making connections with local leaders, negotiating political mazes, buying wood, concrete, nails and seeing that it was all put to the proper uses. His focus became one of trying to see that girls got educated, as they tended to be ignored when education was discussed in this part of the world. He learned that girls tended to provide a more substantial bang-for-the buck in terms of improving life in a place when they were educated than was the case when only boys got to go to school.
Mortenson’s is an uplifting story. He is clearly a card-carrying member of a class of people we might call secular saints. Although his upbringing was religious, he does not push any sort of religion on those he helps and empowers. It is not even clear from this book if he subscribes to any religion in particular.
It does raise a question however. What happens if we run out of Mortensons? Can development of this sort continue or spring into existence at all should Greg Mortenson or others of his sort are not present to make certain that good things happen? Mortenson formed the Central Asia Institute as an agency to help make the work more than his personal mission. Time will tell if it can continue his work when he is no longer available.
Three cups of Tea offers a very detailed look at what it takes to get things done in a part of the world that has received a lot more western ordnance than western development aid. There are complexities to complexities here and there is no substitute for developmental boots on the ground, interacting with local communities if the West ever wants to have any chance of turning potential enemies into potential friends.
No one work can provide a complete picture of any region. Three Cups of Tea is a must-read for anyone interested in developments in Pakistan, Afghanistan and the central and south Asian region. Like a Seurat painting in which the dots combine to make a coherent image, Mortenson has offered another very meaningful dot that can combine with others to offer a rich view of the whole area.