THREE CUPS OF TEA – SWEETENED BY A HUNDRED SCHOOLS
Book tells of one man’s mission to establish schools in a war zone
Call me a cynic but I am always deeply suspicious when it is claimed that governments businesses or individuals are really transforming peoples’ lives for the better, however noble their intentions.
Too much hyperbole and spin breeds cynicism in all of us, I suspect. But just occasionally something crops up that is self-evidently both transformative and uplifting to the human spirit.
In 1993 Greg Mortenson a climber was the exhausted survivor of a failed American attempt to ascend K2. He wandered lost (having been separated inexplicably from his Balti guide and porter) through Pakistan’s Karakoram Himalaya .He was nursed back to health by the people of an impoverished Pakistani mountain village. Mortenson promised to return one day and build them a school. This grew into a one-man mission to counteract extremism by building schools, especially for girls, in the extremists back door. Climbers had come and gone promising locals all sorts of support but Mortensen was different. He meant it.
True, Mortenson was somewhat disorganised and a trifle naive to begin with, he was an infidel among devout Muslims, after all, but he survived kidnapping, repeated death threats, vital supplies going missing and wrenching separations from his wife and children. But he quickly learnt to actually listen to local people and to hear what they were saying to him, developing essential relationships with local fixers to get things done, and to overcome obstacles both logistical and cultural. His ultimate success speaks for itself.
At the last count, his Central Asia Institute had built 151 schools serving 58,000 pupils (55 in Taliban territory). His book, co-written with award winning journalist David Oliver Relin, Three Cups of Tea is a best seller in the States. One review says that it is ‘at once an unforgettable adventure and the inspiring true story of how one man really is changing the world—one school at a time.’ Most local religious leaders have supported Mortensens efforts , although one Imam issued a fatwa against him.
A sequel to Three Cups of Tea, titled ‘Stones Into Schools: Promoting Peace With Books, Not Bombs, In Afghanistan and Pakistan’ was released on December 1, 2009. It follows the progress of Mortenson’s seventeen year effort to promote female literacy and education, with an emphasis on the expansion of his efforts into Afghanistan, and his expressed admiration to help the U.S. military to promote peace and build relationships with the Afghan shura (leaders). Improving female education has a significant knock on effect on economic social and health indicators. The American military we are told has been eagerly reading “Three Cups of Tea” but may not yet have absorbed the central lesson: building schools is a better bet for peace and winning hearts and minds than blowing up Afghan civilians (what is it that attracts drones to wedding parties?). Real education can actually transform a nation. One reason, maybe, why Bangladesh is calmer than Pakistan, and Oman is less threatening than Yemen.
Mortenson lamented to a New York Times columnist that for the cost of just 246 soldiers posted for one year, America could pay for a higher education plan for all Afghanistan. That would help build an Afghan economy, civil society and future — all for one-quarter of 1 percent of US military spending in Afghanistan this year. Although one couldn’t describe Relin as an outstanding writer, the story almost speaks for itself and is illuminating for anyone involved in education in seemingly hostile environments. Mortensen has claimed that none of his schools has been destroyed by the Taliban. Let us hope that the recent devastating floods in Pakistan have not done the Taliban’s dirty work for them.