Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace...One School at a Time, by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin (Penguin Books, New York, 2007)
Greg Mortenson, the son of missionary parents, had a happy childhood in Africa, but his return to the United States as a teenager was rough, and it took him a long time to find his way. As he tells it, it took a dramatic failure to lead him to his calling—but I disagree that someone has failed who has not succeeded in climbing the infamous K2 because he expended too much time and energy rescuing a climber in distress. Whatever you call it, from that point in 1993 on, Mortenson's energies would be spent on a different form of rescue: building schools and promoting education, especially for girls, in the remote, impoverished villages of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Mortenson was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009; even President Obama's most enthusiastic supporters cannot read Three Cups of Tea without entertaining a doubt or two as to the wisdom of the Nobel Committee's final choice. (The Nobel Committee overlooked Gandhi, too, so their peculiar judgement is not without precedent.)
The book is not especially well-written; I can't help thinking that David Oliver Relin's English teachers laid a little too much emphasis on metaphors and descriptive adjectives. But the story is far too compelling to allow any sins of style to distract for long.
Mortenson's fumbling, single-handed efforts became the Central Asia Institute, which struggled slowly and painfully, through war, natural disaster, political disaster, war, kidnappings, death threats, war, treacherous terrain, treacherous criminals, and war to bring quality, secular education—and incidentally bridges, water works, hope, and a reason to love, not hate, Americans—to the desperately needy tribes of Northern Pakistan, and later Afghanistan. It is a four-star (highest) rated charity, according to Charity Navigator, although its recent explosive growth (thanks in good measure, no doubt, to this book) may strain it a bit for a while. But the groundwork appears as solid as the love and respect Mortenson has earned, from once-timid village girls, fearsome warlords, and the highest political, military, and religious authorities.
I am not a pacifist. I reluctantly acknowledge that military intervention is sometimes necessary. But I can't help thinking that if our government bothered to understand and appreciate other cultures and peoples the way Greg Mortenson has, we wouldn't keep getting ourselves interminably entangled in unwinnable wars. They're listening to him now, so perhaps there is hope for a turnaround.
Mortenson has a new book: Stones into Schools: Promoting Peace with Books, Not Bombs, in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Stay tuned: there are only 14 people ahead of me on the library's waiting list.Those in the Pittsburgh and Philadelphia areas might note that Mortenson will be speaking at public events in both places this April.