Three Cups of Tea

September 16, 2007

book.jpg I have just finished reading Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Fight Terrorism and Build Nations. . . One School at a Time by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin. I’ve been thinking for a while that I should post some book reviews here and this seemed a good place to start.

Three Cups of Tea is about Greg Mortenson and his mission to build schools for girls in Pakistan and Afganistan. After a failed attempt to climb K2, the second highest peak in the world, Mortenson recuperated in a mountain villiage. It was there he became aware of the lack of schools in the region and made a promise to come back to that villiage to build a school. That promise was eventually met, and Morenton is now the director of the Central Asia Institute, building schools in Pakistan and Afganistan.

I approached the book with some reservation. If nothing else several years of study in Development Studies has made me very wary of “do-gooders”. As others have noted, there is a strong element of imperialism in the idea of of an American’s mission to “fight terrorism and build nations” and I was quite ready to be critical about it. However I am happy to admit I really enjoyed and was inspired by the book. As Relin writes- “Supposedly objective reporters are at risk of being drawn into his orbit… The more time I spent watching Mortenson work, the more convinced I became that I was in the presence of something extraordinary.” Mortenson appears to have a genuine humanitarian motivation and a deep affection for the people he works with.

I was surprised as I read the book to note that many of the paper lessons I learned about “doing development” were the lessons Mortenson learned through his work and his mistakes. “Participation” is one of the biggest buzzwords in development today and this is what Mortenson learned, and one hopes, how CAI continues to practise. This is what the three cups of tea is all about. Of particular note was Mortenson’s agreement to build a bridge first, rather than a school, as this was what the community felt was needed. Then, following the completion of the first school Mortenson took an ill advised side trip into an area where he had no contacts. The lesson learned- to never go anywhere alone, and to allow the local people to guide decisions about where to go next, is immensely important.

I was also surprised how much I learned from the book about Pakistan and Afganistan, and about the “war on terror”. This is the result of Mortenson’s unique perspective as a trusted American in that region, with close relationships with local leaders and communities. The background and behind-the-scenes information, and the easy to follow explanations of complicated religious and political problems is worth the read of itself.

I do however a have a few niggles with the book. While acknowledging it was never written as a academic text I found the overwhelming positivity somewhat unrealistic. Whereever “outsiders” come in to do development or aid work, there are both positive and negative consequences, one just hopes the positive outweigh the negative. I believe in this case it certanly does, but a more rounded discussion of the work would have been good.

And there is, possibly unavoidably, a touch of imperialism. Mortenson is American. He started out as a penniless individual who wanted to help but he now leads a growing organisation with a significant budget. I hope he continues to maintain the relationships that take this organisation above being just another development project.

Overall, I highly recommend this book, taken with just the tinest little grain of salt to aid digestion.

3 Responses to “Three Cups of Tea”

  1. I saw your post on THREE CUPS OF TEA and decided to write to tell you about a book that Doubleday is publishing MAKE THE IMPOSSIBLE POSSIBLE by Bill Strickland

    Last November I flew to Pittsburgh to meet Bill Strickland. All I knew was that he had built a center in the middle of the ghetto, six blocks from where he grew up, and “was saving the lives of troubled youths and disadvantaged adults through arts and education.” Exactly what that meant didn’t hit home for me until I stepped foot inside his building and met the man himself.

    Bill started off his center, The Manchester Craftsman’s Guild in a row-house that was donated by the local church. His method for getting kids out of trouble and off the street was simple: physically take them and show them how to work with clay. As word traveled from person to person and school to school, he no longer had to go seeking them; they came to him and his little center grew to become a world-class facility.

    Designed by one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s students, the center is bathed in sunlight despite the cold and snowy November day, fresh flowers are everywhere, and a buzz of activity from both students and adults is in the air. The flowers are not just any flowers, but prize-winning orchids grown in their state-of-the-art greenhouse just next door. Some might ask what a poverty program needs a greenhouse for and to that Bill would be the first to say that it is NOT a poverty program. It is a training program for poor people and why shouldn’t poor people be given a sanctuary from the streets where they see no light ahead of them? By teaching them horticulture, along with culinary, computer, mathematics, chemistry, ceramics, photography, and much more, Bill is helping to change the conversation and help them see that they have a future outside of what they know. In building this world-class facility, he is helping to create world-class citizens.

    Over the years I have worked with many different authors, all with their own unique backgrounds. Bill is the first author whose story has brought tears to my eyes, has received a standing ovation at every speech I have seen him give, and has even tempted me to leave my job so that I might follow in his footsteps. Luckily for me, Bill’s message also shows us that we don’t need to do anything that drastic. There is always something we can do right in our own backyard that will make a difference in people’s lives. It is my hope that in writing this letter and offering you a complimentary copy of MAKE THE IMPOSSIBLE POSSIBLE, you too will be inspired by his remarkable life and share it with your blog readers.

    I look forward to hearing from you and getting your mailing address to send you a free copy of this amazing new book.

    To find out more about Bill, the book and view a video of him please visit

    To see more about the center in Pittsburgh watch:

    Meredith McGinnis
    Associate Director of Marketing
    Doubleday 1745 Broadway New York, NY 10019
    Tel: 212-782-8967

  2. melissa. Says:

    We loved this book. My husband loved the strong yet humble approach Greg took to help these people.

    I was blown away by Greg’s organization and how they don’t sponser “school building mission trips”. I love it. Talk about building community – instead of importing it.

    Thanks for doing the review.

  3. Marianne Says:

    Great review! We share some similar reservations and revelations it seems.

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