Book Review: Three Cups of Tea

I finished the book Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace One School at a Time by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin in two late nights reading. This story about how a failed mountain climb in 1993 turned into a lifetime of school building is as gripping as any novel I've read. It weaves a personal narrative with a story of how grassroots development can improve lives in what we consider impossible places while warding off extremism.

The title Three Cups of Tea refers to a lesson that was taught to former mountaineer and current school builder Greg Mortenson that advised him to be sensitive to the local culture:

When the porcelain bowls of scalding butter tea steamed in their hands, Haji Ali spoke, "If you want to thrive in Baltistan, you must respect our ways," Haji Ali said, blowing on his bowl. "The first time you share tea with a Balti, you are a stranger. The second time you take tea, you are an honored guest. The third time you share a cup of tea, you become family, and for our family, we are prepared to do anything, even die," he said, laying his hand on Mortenson's own. "Dr. Greg, you must make time to share three cups of tea. We may be uneducated. But we are not stupid. We have lived and survived here for a long time."

"Here" is Northern/Northwest Pakistan, now likely home to Osama bin Laden. It in this environment that Mortenson's Central Asia Institute has built dozens of secular schools on a shoestring, usually about $12,000 per school. Villages have to agree to contribute labor and sometimes local materials to the school. They also agree to pay a teacher. According to the book and the Central Asia Institute ( web site, so far it is working well.

Another reason the program works well is that Greg Mortenson took other lessons to heart besides the "Three Cups of Tea." The book relates that he:

  • Learned as much of the local languages as he could, learning Urdu and teaching himself basic Pashto when he started building schools in Afghanistan after the Taliban was driven out by US backed forces.
  • Learned to consult with villages about their needs before bringing them stuff. He learned this the hard way by bringing supplies to build a school to the village he had promised to bring a school after they had nursed him back to health after a climbing accident. The villagers were grateful, but pointed out they needed a bridge first. They had a chasm to cross on a single rope and that wouldn't handle the stones needed for the school.
  • Learned that he couldn't rely on letter writing alone to raise funds. The book tells the story of how he wrote 580 letters to celebrities and others about the plight of the Pakistani school children he hoped to help. He got one $100 donation -- from Tom Brokaw.

Although David Relin, the cowriter of this book confesses up front that he is a complete Greg Mortenson fan, the book doesn't hid Mortenson's flaws. Greg Mortonson was late to nearly any appoint he made. He angered a serious girlfriend by his insistance on living in his car to help fund his first school. He sometimes let his zeal to capture donations for his Institute push him into bad decisions leading him to get burned by potential donors at times. But what comes through is a man who cares deeply about his family and for the people he came to love.

One important service this book provides and why I hope you'll read it is that it humanizes Muslims. Doesn't make them perfect. Doesn't suggest they're all peaceable like Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan. But it shows them as real people committed to their families, villages, faith and the value of a basic education and literacy. It shows the people of this particular region definitely interested in educating their young girls, as you'll read about in the stories of Jahan, Tahira and others.

This book carries a decent index and has an action guide in the back if you want to help promote the work of Greg Mortenson and his Central Asia Institute. According to Charity Navigator, the institute carries a somewhat low rating for efficiency, but still seems effective to me:

Founded in 1996, Central Asia Institute (CAI) promotes and provides community-based education and literacy programs, especially for girls, in remote mountain villages of northern Pakistan, Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan and the steppes of Mongolia. Each project is locally initiated and involves community participation. A committee of elders guides each selected project and the community matches project funds with equal amounts of local resources and labor. CAI fully or partially supports 58 schools and over 520 teachers, 14 women's vocational centers, and over 24 potable water projects among other projects in the areas of education, women's education and public health and conservation.

The one flaw in this book as someone moved to learn and do more about this area in the world is the lack either of a bibliography for further reading or for sourcing of material not directly related to Mortenson's schoolbuilding work. But please don't let this stop you from reading this genuine compassion adventure story!

Taxonomy upgrade extras: 


This blog can also be reached at

Nifty new feature. Thanks Blake!
"No doubt another may also think for me; but it is not therefore desirable that he should do so.." - Thoreau