The essence of Three Cups of Tea

What is the importance of the material in Three Cups of Tea for our class?  How can the rest of the world — other social entrepreneurs, elected officials, leaders of NGOs and transnational organizations — learn from Mortenson’s experience in Pakistan?  Please use the comments section to offer your ideas: I will make sure that we integrate them into Tuesday’s discussion.

10 Responses to “The essence of Three Cups of Tea”

  1. I’ll kick this off, I suppose.

    So far, I’ve taken away two main points that pertain to our class:

    1) You have to have a passion for the work you are doing or else it really is pointless. You need an experience that compels you to act. Mortenson’s experience was trying get down K2 and landing in the caring arms of the people of Korphe. I don’t necessarily think everyone needs that type of near-death experience, but something needs to compel you to action. I am a huge advocate of getting as many Americans to go abroad as possible for this very reason. Seeing new things and experiencing different cultures gives you very compelling reasons to act. In terms of larger organizations, an individual has to be so passionate and driven that they can convince others to follow. It really does start from a single person.

    2) “…Korphe was far from the prelapsarian paradise of Western fantasy” (30). So often, I get this idea in my mind that a small village in remote parts of the world really do produce happy people and that these villages shouldn’t be touched (instead left for national geographic specials or soemthing). And that may be the case in some places, but the reality is often that simplicity of life doesn’t always translate to quality of life. I like the nuanced discussion in Mortenson’s head about what a bridge will bring to the village. Is it good or bad? Who decides what a village needs? What happens when a government of an entire country needs to decide what thousands of villages need? I like how Mortenson sees a specific need, in a very specific place, and addresses that need.

  2. Important Themes and Ideas from Three Cups of Tea

    Western Ideals: Relin describes Westerners idealizing certain parts of the world that are in poverty. Some Westerners believe that a simple life is better, however “simple” in many places translates into lack of access to medicine, education, etc. P. 30

    Interests: how can one person make people across the world become interested in a problem that doesn’t directly affect their lives? P. 46

    Globalization and Migration: Irony when the Pakistani, Kishwar Syed, owner of the Lazer Image center in California, teaches Mortenson to use a computer. Globalizations effects are seen when person from Pakistan comes to the U.S. and learns computing skills (and ironically ends up teaching an American who wants to build a school to teach children to read and write back in Pakistan). P. 50

    Culture differences: There are some culture differences that Mortenson tries to grasp, however when it becomes really apparent to him that there are many disparities is when he is trying to negotiate on the price of cement. Corruption starts to become more apparent to Mortenson and also ways to negotiate vary from place to place. P. 61

    Belief in Hope/ Wanting to understand the people/ Wanting to fit in: When Mortenson begins to pray to Allah. P. 62

    Disbelief by the Pakistanis that an American would come and help: People often asked him where he is from, Mortenson would reply America and people would not believe him. P. 78

    Mortenson’s ideals and lack of planning: Mortenson takes on most of the project of building the school without really asking for advice or for people to come along with him.

  3. So after writing about two paragraphs and having the blog delete all of it for no reason, I am starting again.

    One very important lesson in Three Cups of Tea is how a relatively small vision of building one school can lead to a much larger vision: that of the CAI. The CAI’s mission as stated on their website is, “to promote and support community-based education, especially for girls, in remote regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan” ( Although we have not read much about the CAI through chapter 12, by visiting their website it is easy to see that Mortenson’s original goal of one school in Korphe has expanded into something much larger. The funding and the desire to give aid is out there, but it takes someone with the extreme dedication that kept Mortenson going back to Korphe year after year until the school was completed to get that aid to the places that most need it. I think it was Mortenson’s passion and his willingness to put everything he had into building the Korphe school that attracted the aid of such people as Hoerni and McCown.

    Also important in Mortenson’s success through chapter 12 was that there was very little room for corruption to spoil his vision. Along the same line, so few people were involved that most of the money and resources for the school went directly to Korphe. Perhaps then this is the ideal way to give aid, eliminating as many middle-men as possible, but then it would be virtually impossible to provide aid on a large scale. Hopefully as the book progresses and assumedly more people become involved as the CAI develops we will gain insight into how they limit the possibility for corruption and maximize the amount of aid going directly to the village schools.

    One last thought although not directly related to the question. I really like how Mortenson incorporates his own learning experiences into the book. The times when Haji Ali takes Mortenson aside and offers advice are essential to the book because it shows how Mortenson is not just “educating” “uneducated” people but rather is helping them and learning from them in return. His ability to be humbled by the people of Korphe is, I think, a big reason why he was so successful in helping them.

  4. Mortenson’s inhospitable situation after a failed K2 attempt leads to a life long passion, and I think Ryan was spot on bringing up this need for passion, while also noting that such a story tale experience is not always neccesary. To be honest, Mortenson’s attempt on K2 brings him to Korphe, but this experience is out of tune with the rest of the book. The rigorous climb is transitory. It is a rush to the summit, running against the cold, the lack of oxygen, the terrain, etc. in hopes to make it to the top for short lived victory. It reels him into his cause, but it is not until the pace slows down and we see the bond he forms with this society that we can really appreciate what is going on. Initially Mortenson embodies our neuroticism, frantic with wasted time, deadlines, and task setting, but Haji Ali reminds him that building the school should not be conducted like a race. To know the place and its people becomes paramount.

    This transitions to Ryan’s next point, concerning sometimes blind interpretations of other societies. Too often, orders from afar are deciding factors, pushing modern methods and solutions for ancient cultures. This is fragile territory. I like that Ryan brings up the bridge because it really serves as the perfect symbol for this tension. Mortenson’s thoughtful approach is refreshing. He reminds us that learning and knowing these people inevitably leads to loving them, and his cause is rooted in bettering their lives. And while that is the intention with most efforts to enrich other societies, it is too easy for an “improvement” to disrupt a way of life.

    I like that Haji Ali points out that their building process is slow only because they replaced lazy visiting workers for hardworking villagers. Therefore the school is not some startling, foreign institute. It marks a change in their society, but it is a welcome change by their own hands. Mortenson gives them a chance to construct their own future. His approach alleviates the tension of past and progress. It all goes back to Haji Ali’s introduction, “Doctor Greg, you must make time to share three cups of tea. We have lived and survived here for a long time.”

  5. Taking off from Ryan’s second point, it is so true that assumptions are made all the time about more primitive societies. Norberg-Hodge was quoted (112) as opposing the common perception that development is always beneficial and the one-way path towards progress. At least, “blind” modernisation must be checked, because it could turn out to be the imposing of foreign cultures potentially harmful to the society. Interestingly, development and “undevelopment” seems to operate in a cycle. Nowadays, re-establishing the “ancient connection” (136) between man and earth is the ‘hippie’ thing to do, as I observed on a recent trip to Costa Rica. Self-sustaining rainforest lodges in small villages (think home-grown food, composting toilets and yoga) are attracting more alternative tourists, and even altering the nature of ecotourism. While people try to return to being “one with the earth”, that was in fact all they knew at the very beginning.

    Another point that stood out to me was the need to truly understand the culture of a place and to be willing to be part of it in order to be effective. Mortenson found himself in several awkward/offensive situations, but for most part he assimilated smoothly into the culture. When ignorant, he asked and learnt, often from a Balti eager to teach an angrezi.
    The term “culture” that we throw around conveniently should be given more thought too. The culture of a place could be a subjective perception, for instance from a local or tourist point of view. If change is to begin with locally based solutions, culture is a concept that has to be clearly defined and understood.

  6. First of all, I’d like to agree with Ryan’s line of questioning about who should be responsible for deciding the nature and scale of projects in villages like Korphe. In this case, the villagers made it clear that they would like a connection to the outside world – it wasn’t Mortenson making an outsider’s decision to build a bridge.

    The building of the bridge also brings up a lesson in approaching potential projects: when social entrepreneurs, NGOs, governments, or other actors approach a project, they should make sure to consult thoroughly with the people they’re supposedly helping, so that they don’t end up wasting the labor or resources dedicated to the project (examples of this abound).

    Finally, I’d like to bring up Mortenson’s many sacrifices for his cause. It seems that with many people, even those with a passion for doing something good in the world, personal financial security still comes before charging ahead with a potential failure of a project. Mortenson’s disregard for personal effects and financial security, though not taken well by his then-girlfriend, made it possible for him to leave America behind and to concentrate fully on the completion of the project. Furthermore, his undeniably honorable character seems to have a lot to do with his ultimate success, as he attracted donors like Hoeni, who placed their faith in both his clear passion for the project and his integrity.

  7. Many people have already mentioned in their responses the importance of being passionate about your work in order to yield results. Passion goes hand-in-hand with perseverance, and Mortenson’s story highlights the necessity for both qualities. The climber Lou Reichardt reminded Mortenson, “Pull yourself together, Greg. Of course you’ve hit a few speed bumps” (106). Mortenson initially wrote 580 letters with hardly any response, which must have been a disheartening experience, yet he never gave up. Being tenacious and even a little bullheaded are important qualities, as there are bound to be rough patches when undertaking a project like this.

    Another lesson that everyone can learn from, whether we are working individually or in conjunction with a NGO or in a government office, is that we need to be careful with the promises we make. As we saw in Ch.8, when when Changazi and Akhmalu told Mortenson that he had promised them schools in their own villages, making hasty promises can risk not only offending the other party but also inhibiting the progress of your original project. Do not promise anything that you cannot be certain that you can fulfill, which is a lesson that I think is appropriate in all walks of life, not just in tackling global challenges.

    Finally, Kate touched upon something else I think is really important: the necessity for infrastructure when tackling these projects. Although a foreigner initiated building these schools in rural Pakistan, the village is involved in the every step of the process and are the ones who ultimately guarantee the schools’ success. This philosophy relates to the proverb, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” Anyone providing any sort of outside aid needs to consider if the local people will be able to sustain the project if/when the foreign aid is forced to withdrawal.

  8. I think the discussion over the importance for passion and infrastructure is right on and really gets at the lessons at the core of the book. Along those lines, another key point I would like to mention is that Dr. Greg learned the hard way that in these types of project you can’t put the carriage in front of the horse; for him, that meant you can’t build a school without the bridge over the river first. For others, that means that you can’t build a school with high speed internet access for a village in africa that the children spend 6 hours a day transporting clean water to and from, and have no time for schoool.

    And also, I would like to reiterate the importance of local knowledge; in Vermont, that term applies to fishing holes, golf courses, and ski mountains, but in the world of development it can mean the difference between buying cement that will stand up to a himalayan winter or having floor boards children will not fall through. No matter how much forethought is put into a project, sometimes these things are necessary. There is only so much one can do from in front of a spreadsheet continents away.

  9. Reading through the rest of the responses I noticed that a lot of us are thinking about the passion that Mortenson felt for the village of Korphe and how to inspire this passion in other people. As Ryan put it, it does start with one person, but it’s also important to pinpoint the best ways to get others to feel just as invested in a project like Mortenson’s.

    I’ve been think about something that Robyn (I think) mentioned in class today about the fact that a place like Korphe would feel foreign to most outside people. I think that this concept of what is foreign is a key part of getting people involved and passionate about embarking on humanitarian aid; if you can persuade someone of the similarities between his own culture and one halfway across the world, then perhaps he can imagine himself in that situation and be inspired to act. Maybe it’s a question of feeling empathy rather than just sympathy that would inspire more people to make sacrifices as Mortenson did. I don’t know anyone who thinks that humanitarian aid is a bad thing, and many people donate money to combat poverty and starvation, but I think a lot of us think on too general of a scale and this makes our aid less efficient. Perhaps if each of us were more focused on a particular community the aid and development assistance would be more reliable and longer lasting.

    Mortenson could have easily chosen another location to build his first school—he just happened to wander into this one. But what is significant is his decision to stick to the specific promise he made to Korphe instead of being persuaded to build a school for the people of Aksore. In other words, focus and commitment not only aid the project at hand but inspire passion in the project as well which can only make things better.

  10. Claire’s discussion of how foreign a community such as Korphe must feel for humanitarian aid givers also raises the idea of how isolated the village is. I found it very interesting that one of the few times Mortenson questions his entire project is in regards to the isolation of the Korphe. Relin writes, “Mortenson fretted about the effect his bridge would have on the isolated village. ‘The people of Korphe had a hard life, but they also lived with a rare kind of purity,’ Mortenson says. ‘I knew the bridge would help them get to a hospital in hours instead of days, and would make it easier to sell their crops. But I couldn’t help worrying about what the outside world, coming in over the bridge, would do to Korphe.’” Here Mortenson raises his concern over maintaining a balance between preserving a people’s way of life and cultural purity versus delivering a modernity that will undoubtedly improve the quality of life for this people. It is Mortenson’s personal intimacy with and attachment to Korphe that drives him to protect this place from the cultural development, transformation, and even corruption that can could arrive from the outside world. At the same time, such an outlook can be viewed as unjust. Clearly the people of Korphe deserve the opportunity to access quality medical care, education, and other resources. Ultimately, it is the people’s decision to choose whether or not they want unconstrained access to the outside world. Although it is unfortunate that some cultural purity may be lost in the process, perhaps this is as an inevitable part of the globalization of today’s world.

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