Three Cups of Tea

My sister-in-law gave me Three Cups of Tea for Christmas 2007. I was a snob about it: it looked so Oprah, so popular, that I was skeptical. But also curious. I finally read it. It is amazing that Greg Mortenson could manage, with a ghost-writer, to take such a gripping, thrilling story and write such a clunky book. It took me a very long time to get past the clumsy prose. I would read a page and come across an inadvertent pun, an odd Germanic neologism, a word that might be an adverb or a verb, rendering the sentence needlessly ambiguous and confusing.

And then, Mortenson is such a Western type. He reminds me of guys I used to date—or try to date—out in Seattle. Living in his car, dating a doctor, he grows angry at her desire for a meal. He is saving his pennies to build a school in Pakistan! She should be happy with ramen! Believe me, I’ve been there. I once made ramen and a tuna sandwich for a boyfriend who grew enraged that I had cooked two nights worth of food in one.

But I remembered that Nicholas Kristof (who shares the Western boy ethos but remains a hero) had written a glowing account of Mortenson’s work, founding schools in remote Pakistan and Afghanistan, focusing on girls education. I know, too, I need to know more about Pakistan and that when faced with a more serious article, I tend to skip or skim.

There is quite a bit of The Man Who Would Be King to this tale. There are definitely moments, especially early on, when Mortenson’s story made me uneasy. The son of missionaries (as I am the great-granddaughter of missionaries, so I cast no stones, only recognize the dangers of that drive to set off to elsewhere in the hopes of changing it), Mortenson failed to reach the summit of K2, got lost and disoriented, and, after a long recovery, promised his host village that he’d return to build them a school.

When a fellow American arrives at the construction site and Greg asks him to march around like a “Big Man,” I grew really worried. The account of his detention in Waziristan, too, reads like a scene from any recent Muslim-baiting Hollywood film. (This will be a film, mark my words.)

But there is a lot more here. The prose improves as the story chugs along and the adventures make the lousy prose less obtrusive in later chapters. (Still, if you read it, I counsel you to read fast and for the plot! It could have been so much better.)

Mortenson seems to have learned genuine lessons about cooperation and humility. So, although his charity now trades on his story as the cowboy who singlehandedly built over 60 schools (a major, major achievement, there is no doubt), what I love about the book is the way that he has the village elders cut the ribbon at a school’s inauguration.

I am most moved, however, by how this man grew to recognize the power of educating women. When he sets off to build that first school, the town surprises—and frustrates—him by asking for a bridge first. But that bridge suddenly permits women to walk home to their mothers every Friday. In a remote, craggy region where marriage often means saying goodbye forever, this is a huge gift to a community: young wives remain connected and, through this connection, are happier people. When he returns, years later, a young girl marches into a council of elders and demands tuition for a certificate program in maternal health. Now. Mortenson first puts her off, but then suddenly sees that she represents all he has been working for: a young woman, leapfrogging over centuries of patriarchy, to stand up for herself and the women of her village, proud, confident, and utterly unafraid of men. It is hard not to see the goodness—the greatness of this.

Education matters and it matters most among those who have so little access to it.

If, as Kristof argues, as Mortenson shows, we cared more about education and less about bombs, we might just remake the world. For all the posturing and purple prose, I came away impressed by the book.

If personality-driven charities make you more allergic, Kristof also recommends this one, Developments in Literacy, run by Pakistani-Americans. It’s all about the kids.