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When Your Heart Speaks, Take Good Notes
May 1, 2010

Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace...One School at a Time
By Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin
2006, Penguin Books

“The first time you share tea with a Balti, you are a stranger, the second time you are an honored guest. The third time you become family, and for our families we are prepared to do anything, even die.”

This astonishing book is a nonfiction tale of those three cups of tea Greg Mortenson had with the people of Korphe, a remote village in Northern Pakistan. Co-written by acclaimed journalist David Oliver Relin, the 368 page long book met with enthusiastic acclaim, and since its publication in 2006 has sold more than 2.5 million copies in 29 languages. Moreover, in an official ceremony in March 23, 2009, Mortenson received Pakistan’s highest civilian award, the Sitara-i-Pakistan (The Star of Pakistan) for his courage and humanitarian effort to promote education for the last fifteen years.

Mortenson’s story begins in 1993, after a failed attempt to climb the world’s second highest peak, K2, to honor the memory of his younger sister Christa, who died from a massive seizure after a lifelong struggle with epilepsy. Alone, exhausted and emaciated, Mortenson wandered into the impoverished village of Korphe, where the villagers took him in and nursed him back to health. “They had very little but they gave me everything they had, and I was very touched by their hospitality” said Mortenson in an interview to CBS News .

While he was recuperating in Haji Ali’s – the chief of the village – home, he learned more and more about how people lived in this part of the world; that the nearest doctor lived a week’s walk away, most of the children suffered from malnutrition and one out of three children died before their first birthday. Mortenson felt he owed the people of the village, who had already begun to call him “Dr. Greg,” although he was a nurse. He thought at least he could get some supplies for Korphe’s school. Yet, taking him to an open land, Haji Ali explained that they didn’t have a school, and a teacher cost one dollar a day, which was more than the villagers could afford. Mortenson watched boys and girls kneeling on the frosty ground to write out their multiplication tables by scratching in the dirt with sticks. “I felt like my heart was being torn out. Can you imagine a fourth- grade class in America, alone, without a teacher, sitting there quietly and working on their lessons? I knew I had to do something,” Mortenson recounts in the book (p. 32). At that very moment, notes from Mortenson’s heart translated into a commitment. He put his hands on Haji Ali’s shoulder and said, “I will build a school here, I promise.”

Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace... One School at a Time traces Greg Mortenson’s efforts to fulfill this promise. Along the way, he encountered enormous obstacles. Upon his return to California, he sent 580 letters to celebrities asking for funds for the school, which yielded only one reply, a $100 check; he sold everything he owned, lived in a car to reduce his expenses and accepted donation in pennies from schoolchildren.
In spite of the challenges of raising funds, separation from his wife and newly born daughter, and an eight day kidnapping by the Taliban, Mortenson eventually succeeded in building the school. From his earnest promise grew Central Asia Institute, which built more than fifty schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan. “I see education least invested in, that can bring the most change” says Mortenson. In this respect, he is convinced that extremism and terror must be fought with books, not with bombs. He places particular emphasis on educating girls; their education, he believes, can affect the whole community. He gives the example of Jahan, the first educated woman in Skardu, who, after completing her studies in healthcare, could help reduce the mortality rate of women during pregnancy from about twenty a year to zero.

Along with recounting Greg Mortenson’s personal determination to build the school, the book also makes frequent mention of the villagers’ passion for education and their many sacrifices. In one instance, Haji Ali hands over twelve rams – half the wealth of the village – to Haji Mehdi, a mafia boss who ran the economy of the region and didn’t want the school built. “Don’t be sad,” Haji Ali told the shattered villagers. “Long after all those rams are dead and eaten this school will still stand. Haji Mehdi has food today, now, our children have education forever” (p. 153).

In another instance, he shows the Koran to Mortenson, and asks: “Do you see how beautiful this Koran is?”

“Yes” replies Mortenson.

“I can’t read it. This is the greatest sadness in my life. I will do anything so the children of my village never have to know this feeling. I will pay any price so they have the education they deserve.”

Mortenson’s story is uplifting in many ways. It is a story about “compassion in action, not talk” as Mortenson puts it. It is about taking notes when our hearts begin to speak and leaving our comfort zones to achieve what we deem right and necessary. In Brokaw’s words, his story is proof that “one ordinary person, with the right combination of character and determination, really can change the world.”

There are other stories of anonymous heroes all around world, who pack up their lives into a suitcase and move to remote places to turn stones into schools. Their stories are yet to be told.


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  5. Three cups of tea One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace… One School at a time, Greg Mortenson and david Oliver relin, 2006, Penguin Books, review of tom Brokaw.