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Non Fiction

Three Cups of Tea

What works in the regions of Islamist Fundamentalism stronghold where the CIA had failed?

The Solution: CAI – The Central Asian Institute

In 1993, after a disastrous attempt to climb K2, a mountaineer called Greg Mortenson, drifted, cold and dehydrated, into the an impoverished Pakistan village called Korphe in the Karakoram Mountains. Moved by the inhabitants’ kindness, he promised to return and build a school. Three Cups of tea is the story of one man humanitarian mission to build schools for girls in this invincible mountain range to promote peace and to discourage the stronghold of fundamentalism teachings.

Over the next decade Mortenson built not just one but 55 schools in remote villages across forbidding and breathtaking landscape of Pakistan and Afghanistan, just at the same time Taliban rose to power.

Community school in Hushe

The book took over the saying of the local tribe:

“Here we drink three cups of tea to do business: the first you are a stranger, the second you become a friend, and the third you join our family, and for our family we are prepared to do anything – even die.”

Much have been said about the good work Mortenson had done in his calling to provide education to children who have no access to it. He had to overcome many challenges,  many that seem insurmountable to the rational mind:

  1. Raise money to help build the first school. Got USD12,000 from Jean Hoerni but was told by the locals he need more money to build a bridge to carry the building materials over the other side of the river.
  2. Kidnapped by Mullahs. Negotiating his ways through dangerous mountainous terrain and land infested with Taliban, dacoits and bandits.
  3. Tribe leaders asking for bribes to obtain permission to build schools.
  4. The Fundamentalist declared fatwa twice for his life. Second one issued by a man named Agha Mubarak.
  5. The same Mubarak guy destroyed his school to rubbles in Skardu. There are many attempts to burn down or knock down the school by fundamentalists who believe his schools are imparting Western teachings.
  6. Tiptoeing between warlords territories, winning over tribes Balti, Braldu, Khirghiz etc.
  7. Faced with imminent need for clean water and medical care, rather than education, led to the need to dig fresh wells and build health dispensary; and Women vocational centre.
  8. War broke out in the Kashmiri region. Mortenson helped out in the refugee camps.
  9. Fierce competition from Wahabi madrassa (reputed to be breeding ground for religious extremist) religious schools mushrooming next to his school, who are backed by deeper pockets Middle Eastern.
  10. War broke out in Afghan, post 9-11.
  11. Interrogated by the CIA. Mortenson was interrogated if he knows where Osama is hiding?
  12. Received hate mails and death threats from fellow countrymen, Americans, who mistook his support for the Central Asians as an unpatriotic and traitorous act against his own country, thus putting his own family at risk of being attacked by lunatics.
  13. Endless talk and fund raising campaign in America. Not all of them successful.

His tribulations and obstacles are so huge that you wonder how one man (with the help of the local people too) can overcome all these obstacles to keep building schools for the children in the high mountains?

The book is also a good case study for “How to improve management skills” as Mortenson’s naivety and blatant poor planning wasted a lot of time and did not get the project right the first time:

  • He didn’t compare market price when sourcing for building materials. He bought the materials from the lowland and spent incredible efforts and manpower to bring them up the mountains when he could get it from the nearest town, Skardu in the mountains.
  • He is always late.
  • He wouldn’t delegate or employ a qualified person in America to raise funds more efficiently, citing salary expenses as expensive in American dollar. He frustrates his sponsors.
  • Disorganised and poor planning. He came to Korphe wanting to build a school, instead a pre-requisite to a school, the need for a bridge is more urgent. When asked, he doesn’t really know how many schools he had built, because some are extension built on an existing schools, some are teaching facilities in the refugee camps etc. Well, keep count of the different types!
  • Initial projects are executed haphazardly. Some sort of weighting or risk assessment would have been done first so that he can build schools in communities with the most urgent needs, instead of listening to whoever who shout the loudest.

korphe bridge

Well, these are just some of the things that annoyed me about Mortenson, but really I am willing to overlook all those flaws because he is really a great guy who had achieved such a humongous feat.

  • He has one of the highest integrity of character. He wouldn’t fund his schools from military fund of USA, fearing objections and retaliation from the locals.
  • He is absolutely honourable and noble. His parents are missionaries in Tanzania. He just had his mind in helping the people in Korphe to build schools, spent years sleeping in his car, in a sleeping bag in order to save up enough money to build schools for the children. I have never seen such a selfless person in my life.
  • He is very humble. Living like the locals and understanding their cultures.
  • As the director of CAI he received a salary of only $23k per annum. He refused to accept pay rise for a decade since the start of CAI. Upon persuasion he accepted a pay rise a decade later, and he also immediately doubled the salary of the CAI Board members and his management team in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
  • He built 50+ schools at the point when the book is published.

Ratings: 5/5

Anyone who read this will be inspired by the selfless ambition, the tenacity and perseverance, the humanitarian spirit (long list of great attributes, can’t help it, I’m so in awe of this man) of this man… If I start thinking of my petty qualms and life challenges that almost stop me from achieving great things, I will look upon Mortenson’s awe inspiring life story and it will spur me on.

Read it and donate to his cause. He is awesome. Lets not forget his wife, Tara Bishop and his children, Amira and Khyber, too who put up with his absence when he is out doing his humanitarian mission.

Paperback. Publisher: Penguin [2007]; Length: 338; Setting: Present day Pakistan and Aghanistan. Finished reading at: 1 Jan 2010

Greg Mortenson (born December 27, 1957) is a humanitarian, international peace-maker, and former mountaineer from Bozeman, Montana. From 1958-1973, Mortenson grew up on the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro in northern Tanzania. His father, Irvin “Dempsey” Mortenson, was the missionary and founder/development director of the Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Center, Tanzania’s first teaching hospital. His mother, Dr. Jerene Mortenson, founded the International School Moshi.

Mortenson served in the U.S. Army in Germany from 1975 to 1977 as a medic, and received the Commendation Medal. He attended Concordia College, Moorhead, from 1977 to 1979, and later graduated from the University of South Dakota at Vermillion, South Dakota, in 1983 with an Associate Degree in Nursing and a Bachelor’s Degree in Chemistry.

Mortenson is the co-founder (with Dr. Jean Hoerni) and director of the non-profit Central Asia Institute, and founder of the educational charity Pennies For Peace. He is the protagonist and co-author of the #1 New York Times bestseller Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission To Promote Peace… One School At A Time (Penguin 2007). The sequel, Stones Into Schools: Promoting Peace with Books, Not Bombs, in Afghanistan and Pakistan was released on Dec 1, 2009 (Viking 2009).


About JoV

A bookaholic that went out of control.... I eat, sleep and breathe books. Well, lately I do other stuff.


3 thoughts on “Three Cups of Tea

  1. It’s just an amazing story. I am probably the only one left in the world now who has not read this, but I feel like I got a great summary from your review. It’s sort of reassuring to find out he made a lot of mistakes – because trying to make a difference is pretty darn intimidating! Nice review, thanks!

    Posted by rhapsodyinbooks | January 7, 2010, 12:31 am
    • Hey thanks! He is just a normal guy with a big heart, he is so humble you wouldn’t believe it.
      I think when your intentions are good and if you are determined, the universe and life just smoothen the path for you to fulfil that noble mission.

      I can’t find a better way than bullet points to summarise the books without sounding like a broken record praising Mortenson all the way… I’m glad you liked it.

      Posted by JoV | January 7, 2010, 12:27 pm


  1. Pingback: It’s a Wrap! August 2011 « Bibliojunkie - September 2, 2011

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Ratings Defined

0 = Abandon the book after first chapter

1 = Waste of paper, we will see what the environmentalist say about this!

2 = Skip it, read the book if you have got nothing better to do

2.5 = An average book, easily forgettable.

3 = A good read.

3.5 = A good entertaining read, a page-turner

4 = So glad that I read the book, a book with substance and invaluable for future reference

4.5 = So glad that I read the book, would pester everyone to read it, invaluable, I would want to own it and wouldn't mind a second read (something that I seldom do)

5 = The book is so good that I feel like I am on scale 4 and 4.5, and more, it blew me away and lingers on my head for weeks!

Books Read

JoV's bookshelf: read
Hold Tight
The Fault in Our Stars
The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon
The Thief
Catching Fire
A Tale for the Time Being
Into the Darkest Corner
The Liars' Gospel
Goat Mountain
Strange Weather In Tokyo
Strange Shores
And the Mountains Echoed
Ten White Geese
One Step Too Far
The Innocents
The General: The ordinary man who became one of the bravest prisoners in Guantanamo
White Dog Fell from the Sky
A Virtual Love
The Fall of the Stone City

JoV's favorite books »
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Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking. - Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955)

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