This is my One Book One Community review of “Three Cups of Tea,” as published Feb. 13, 2010, in The Review.
“I’ve learned that terror doesn’t happen because some group of people somewhere like Pakistan or Afghanistan simply decide to hate us,” says Greg Mortenson. “It happens because children aren’t being offered a bright enough future that they have a reason to choose life over death.”
Mortenson has spent most of his adult life giving kids better reasons through the Central Asia Institute (CAI), an organization he co-founded to build schools in places that many Americans only hear of when a roadside bomb explodes or a military operation is staged there.
“Three Cups of Tea,” this year’s One Book One Community selection by Mortenson and David Oliver Relin, chronicles Mortenson’s success in bringing education to some of the world’s most impoverished people only after it recounts his biggest failure: An abortive attempt to scale K2, the world’s second highest mountain. Eventually, he finds himself in Korphe, an impoverished Pakistani village that nonetheless offers the climber a place to rest and recover. He is so touched by the inhabitants’ kindness that he promises to build them a school.
Back in America, Mortenson sets out with a rented typewriter to compose 500 letters to people of influence, explaining his intent to build “a five-room school to educate 100 students up to the fifth grade” that he feels confident he can erect for $12,000. Hours later, he has completed six letters, a rate of return for his time that doesn’t improve greatly until a Pakistani copy shop owner educates Mortenson in computer use.
What follows is a testament to Mortenson’s determination in the face of obstacles that would have deterred a lesser person. With the help of a wealthy benefactor, the semiconductor-mogul Jean Hoerni, Mortenson soon has his money, only to face a twisting maze of corrupt local politics, crumbling or nonexistent infrastructures (before Korphe can benefit from a school, it needs a bridge so students can reach the building), and personal obligations at home.
Mortenson eventually erects a building in Korphe, but his story doesn’t end there. As of last year, the CAI has established 130 schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan, to educate, by its own accounting, some 51,000 students, largely through Mortenson’s working with local tribal leaders and Islamic clerics.
The CAI’s commitment to educating girls is supported by research from The Nike Foundation, which created the Girl Effect initiative (reachable through the CAI Web site at www.ikat.org). The Girl Effect states that in developing countries, young women can benefit greatly from additional education — one extra year of primary school boosts their future earning power 10 to 20 percent, while an extra year of secondary (high) school boosts their future wages by 15 to 25 percent. Women will reinvest 90 percent of income in their families, compared to only 30 to 40 percent for men.
What is especially admirable about Mortenson’s story is how he put his own life on hold, leaving the comfortable income of a nurse behind to instead sleep on roofs and in the backs of cars; to be kidnapped by hostile factions; to face the prejudices of a small but vocal minority of Muslims who do not believe that women should be educated; to return to post-9/11 Pakistan to continue his work when doing so placed him in mortal danger.
While most people are content to bemoan the world’s problems and believe they can do nothing to change them, Mortenson rolls up his sleeves, sacrifices time and effort, and proves that one person can effect change.
“The only way we can defeat terrorism is if people in this country where terrorists exist learn to respect and love Americans, and if we can respect and love these people here. What’s the difference between them becoming a productive local citizen or a terrorist? I think the key is education.”
One student at a time, one school at a time, Mortenson is unlocking that reality.