BOOKS | Three Cups of Tea


From the opening pages of this book I knew I would be hooked. The story of Greg Mortenson and his mountain adventures in Pakistan on the K2 Mountain was riveting. What I didn’t know about this man and his mission to bring education to some of the poorest people on earth, who are considered “enemies” of America, was that I would want to shout to everyone that, yes, I believe just what he believes in—it is education that will bring peace, not bombs.

Born in Roseville, Minnesota, Greg moved with his missionary parents to Tanzania when he was a baby. It was there he became acquainted with the mountains and the continent’s highest peak, Mt. Kilimanjaro. One of his sisters was especially close to him. After she contracted meningitis, he devoted his life to her. When she died, he took her favorite amber beads, wrapped them in a Tibetan prayer flag, and decided to honor her memory by climbing the K2 in Pakistan, the summit considered the toughest to reach on earth, to leave them on the top of the 28,000-foot peak. After 78 days of struggle, he got disoriented, lost his way, and almost froze to death. As he drifted in and out of consciousness he made peace with his failure to honor his sister.

Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin. Review republished from WAMM newsletter, March 2008.

Jerene Mortenson, mother of Greg Mortenson, will be at the Mad Hatter salon on April 14, 6:30-8:30 p.m. at the W 7th/Oneida Community Center, 265 Oncida (corner of St Clair and Oneida – Mad Hatter venue changed for this event) She will speak about her son’s book and the possibility of education of children (especially girls) in Afghanistan and Pakistan and not bombs.

It was his body that had failed, not his spirit. But he didn’t die, he set out to save himself and came upon the most spectacular panorama—colossi mountain peaks all around him, naked in their beauty, with the Baltoro river far below. He found the porter who had been his guide. “Cha will give you strength,” said the porter, and prepared paiyu cha, the butter tea that forms the basis of the Balti mountain people’s diet.

When it is dark enough, you can see the stars
—Persian Proverb

Everywhere he went after that he was offered tea. With the first cup, you are a stranger. The second cup means you are an honored guest. The third cup shared means you become family, and for your family one is prepared to do anything, even die. Throughout the book we see evidence of this ritual as the Balti people learn to love Greg, even to the point of risking death.

When his strength returned, he got lost again, ending up in Korphe, a village perched on a hill 800 feet above the Braldu River. It was here he met an old man, Haji Ali, the nurmadhar, or chief, of Korphe. Elders in this village desire that their children be educated and would do anything to bring this about. Greg’s life changed forever as he began to change the lives of tens of thousands of children.

One out of three Korphe children die before their first birthday. Greg saw children, desperate to learn, sitting on the frosty ground with a teacher who comes three days a week. The Pakistan government didn’t provide a teacher: The cost—the equivalent of one dollar a day—was deemed too expensive. It was here that he told Haji Ali that he would build a school. Leaving the mountain he came back to California and worked as an emergency room nurse. He had little money and wanted to start saving what he had for the school. He even lived in his car for a while, beginning his life’s work building schools.

Greg wrote and sent 580 letters to senators and other celebrities, and wrote 16 grant applications. One person sent him $100 and he received 62,345 pennies from his mother, a teacher whose students started a “Pennies for Pakistan” drive. Then, magically, he was told to call a man in Seattle, Dr. Jean Hoerni, a wealthy scientist. Hoerni had also been a climber and had been to the Karakoram, where he had seen the discrepancy between the beauty of the mountains and the brutal lives of the local people. Greg called him and told him his dream. Dr. Hoerni immediately sent him the $12,000 that he had requested. Greg left for Pakistan and began bargaining for supplies, took long and dangerous trips, and drank countless cups of tea.

The situations Greg encountered were almost insurmountable, including bandits and gunfire, precarious travel over makeshift roads, avalanches, and being kidnapped and kept in a cave for eight days. It was hard to get materials to this remote part of the world to build first a bridge and then schools.

With Dr. Hoerni’s help the Central Asia Institute (CAI) was begun through which funds could be donated. Greg served as the director. With the establishment of the CAI Greg was continually flying back and forth between Pakistan and the U.S. In the U.S., he was also trying to educate Americans about the schools. At one fundraiser in Apple Valley, at Mr. Sports, Greg found himself in a room full of 200 empty chairs. Only two people were in the audience. But he gave his talk anyway. As he was cleaning up, he saw one man leave and when he looked on a chair he saw a personal check for $20,000 that the man had left for the CAI.

In 1999, as the India-Pakistan war was being waged. Greg found himself having chai with some mujahadeen. They asked him to come with them to build schools for their children, “even girls.” The intense fighting produced many refugees—families who had walked across the mountains. There was no water, food, or medicine. Greg was able to use his funds to help build medical clinics, drill for water, and rebuild the once beautiful lands destroyed by the war.

At the same time Greg was building schools, madrassa schools were being built with money coming from rich Saudis. These schools were an excuse for education, teaching Islamic theology under the harshest rules. The armed Taliban enforcers from the despised Department of the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice regulated any type of education. These, for the most part, are the students who cheered after hearing of what happened on 9-11. On this very day, another school was opened in the village of Baltistan. The mullah who gave the invocation asked forgiveness from Greg and prayed for Allah’s protection.

We meet, as a result of Greg’s powerful story, the people who were bombed by American military in the war in Afghanistan after 9-11 and we suffer with them. There is the cab driver with no eyelids and a face scorched by a land mine, and his friend, who had been a Taliban fighter only because his vocation as a telecommunications technician ended with the war.

We are also told of the extensive carpet bombing by U.S. Air Force B-52s, contrasted with the beautiful snowcapped mountains and the fields of red and white poppies, and we experience the absolute hate in people’s eyes for Greg as an American. After the Taliban were chased out, children had to endure their schools being bombed and their fellow students and teachers being killed or wounded.

Girls were now forced to study outside with the U.S. Army Cobra Attack Helicopters buzzing low over their makeshift classroom. Over green tea (without sugar, as there was none to be had) one woman teacher, asked if she felt oppressed by having to wear the burkha, replied, smiling: “We women of Afghanistan see the light through education, not through this or that hole in a piece of cloth.”

When Greg arrived back in the U.S. after 9-11, flags were everywhere. “Welcome to the new America,” his wife said. He was now known as a Muslim sympathizer when his efforts building schools were publicized. He received hate mail:

“I hope you soon suffer more excruciating pain than our brave soldiers.”

Greg, with the help of Representative Mary Bono, spoke to Congress about his work. She also made arrangements for him to meet with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, but at the meeting there was no tea offered, not even water. He stood the whole time and the only thing he remembered was the polished black shoes, the pin-striped suit, and the smell of cologne. This is how war is fought by the “deciders” in Washington.

A touching moment in the book came when a young girl, accustomed as a female to being in the background, broke through layers of Islamic tradition and approached Greg at a jirga in Korphe and blurted out that he had once promised her that her dream to be a doctor would happen, and now, with the war on, she wondered when that would be. She didn’t defer to anyone. She knew she had to finish her education. Greg knew then that the schools had been successful.

A commandhan named Kahn in Northern Afghanistan, pointing at the harsh stony hills around them, told Greg: “We must make all these sacrifices worthwhile. We must turn these stones into schools.”

The “other” mountain Greg chose to climb, building schools for impoverished children, especially girls, became his life’s work, all because of a pledge he had once made to honor his sister.

“If we try to resolve terrorism with military might alone,” says Greg, “then we will be no safer than we were before 9-11. If we truly want a legacy of peace for our children, we need to understand that this is a war that will ultimately be won with books, not bombs.” Paraphrasing Mother Teresa’s words, he adds: “What we are trying to do may be just a drop in the ocean, but the ocean would be less because of that missing drop.”

Introducing Greg to an audience, the author Jon Krakauer says: “If it were possible to clone 50 more Gregs, there is no doubt in my mind Islamic terrorism would quickly become a thing of the past. Alas, there is only one of him.” My dream is that there be 500 more Gregs.


Patty Guerrero has been a WAMM member since the early 80s, raised six children, and worked as teacher and in the St. Paul Public Library system for 22 years. She unabashedly thinks education is the most important way to solve poverty and wars around the world, and would like nothing better than for a foundation to fund travel abroad for low-income high school students.

© 2008 Women Against Military Madness. All rights reserved.