I had the pleasure of hearing Greg Mortenson, the author of the number one bestseller Three Cups of Tea, speak last night. He’s currently on a book tour promoting and signing his newest book, Stones Into Schools: Promoting Peace with Books, Not Bombs, in Afghanistan and Pakistan which came out two weeks ago. He’s also giving away copies of the book, but I’ll get to that in a minute.
I just got my copy of his new book yesterday afternoon, so I haven’t read it yet. I did, however, read Three Cups of Tea a couple years ago and was awed by both Mortenson’s story and by the wisdom of what he’s doing in Afghanistan and Pakistan. If you’re not familiar with Mortenson, you might want to check out a short profile ABC News did on him back in March 2009 when he was selected as their Person of the Week.
In a nutshell, after a failed attempt to climb K-2 in 1993, Mortenson found himself being nursed back to health by the residents of Korphe, a poor mountain village in remote northeastern Pakistan. During the weeks he spent recovering, Mortenson established a rapport with his hosts and was introduced to their custom of serving tea to guests. Specifically, if they serve you one cup of tea, you are considered a guest. If you are offered a second cup of tea, you are considered a friend. By the third cup, you are family. Three Cups of Tea focuses on the importance of establishing the kind of relationship with the people of that region in which you are offered the third cup of tea.
For Mortenson, his third-cup-of-tea relationships were crucial to his quest to fulfill a promise–a promise he made to the villagers before he left–to build a school for their children. As a new member of the village family, Mortenson was saddened to discover that even though the children of Korphe were anxious to learn and their parents were anxious for them to be educated, the village had no school and only a part-time teacher. Classes were conducted in the open air. Assignments were completed in the dirt with sticks. Moreover, Mortenson learned, the arrangement was typical in rural Pakistan.
After he got back to the States, Mortsenson spent three back-breaking, spirit-crushing years raising the funds for the school. He was met by obstacles and his own inexperience at every turn, but he never gave up. Finally, in 1996, he was able to return to Korphe and build the school. What he learned from the experience fills the pages of Three Cups of Tea and created the foundation of the Central Asia Institute (CAI), a nonprofit group he formed in 1996.
The CAI has since built 78 schools in the remote regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan, schools that educate more than 33,000 students and make a real difference in the lives of the of the children and the adults in those villages. The success stories of the students fuel Mortenson’s passion. He is convinced that building relationships and providing education is the best way to purge the ignorance that fuels radical thought and behavior. He is especially keen to educate girls since, he says, some studies have shown that educating girls “to at least the fifth grade level does three important things: one, it reduces infant mortality; number two, reduces population explosion; and number three it improves the quality of health and life itself.” And in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where so many young men are trained to be terrorists, he says, educating girls is important because “In the holy Koran when a young man goes on a jihad he first has to get permission and blessing from his mother. If a woman has an education she is much less likely to condone her son to get into violence or to terrorism.”
Mortenson’s efforts are getting a lot of attention, including from the U.S. military. In a recent interview with goodreads.com, Mortenson explains:
In Three Cups of Tea, although I’m a military veteran, I was a little critical of the military. After 9/11 I went to the Pentagon a couple of times, and I called them all laptop warriors. I can say now that the military has gone through a huge learning curve in the last three to four years—even more than the State Department or our political leaders—and the military really gets it. [They understand that being successful in Afghanistan and Pakistan is] about listening more, building relationships, and empowering the elders. Three Cups of Tea is now mandatory reading for all senior commanders and Special Forces deploying to Afghanistan. I tried to highlight some personal examples of the military’s inspiring work in Stones Into Schools.
So now, Mortenson is back out on the bookstore circuit, tirelessly educating the rest of us about what he believes to be the best resolution to the mess we find ourselves in, a resolution that potentially resolves the problem once and for all. I’m in no position to judge one way or the other, but what he’s saying makes a great deal of sense.
In any case, Mortenson is thoughtful, inspiring and gracious. During the book signing portion of the evening, he not only took the time to shake hands and speak to each of the hundreds of us waiting our turn. He also randomly gave out free signed copies of Stones Into Schools, asking that those who accepted the book donate it to a school or library. I’ve gone to more book signings than I can count, and I’ve never been given a free book for any reason. I’ll be heading to the library tomorrow.