Monday, August 8, 2011

Book Review: Three Cups of Tea

I decided to join my office book club and this month's pick was Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace... One School at a Time by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin. The book is only about 350 pages, but it still took me almost a month to get through. I finally finished it this past weekend.

The title comes from a Balti proverb: "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."

I was struck by this quote and looked forward to reading the book. It describes Mortenson's transition from a registered nurse and mountain climber to a humanitarian committed to reducing poverty and promoting education for girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan. After beginning his efforts, Mortenson became co-founder of the Central Asia Institute, a non-profit group that oversees the building and operation of schools for children in remote areas where few education opportunities exist.

This past spring, right as we assigned Three Cups of Tea as our book for July, allegations began to surface that a number of claims in Mortenson's book are false, and that he has been mismanaging the Central Asia Institute's funds. Oh no... this felt like a James Frey situation all over again. Still, it made me even more interested in hearing the story, so I decided to read the book for myself and do some research before drawing any conclusions.

The book begins by describing Mortenson's failed attempt to climb K2 in 1993, which subsequently led him to stumble upon a tiny village called Korphe. The community helped nurse him back to health, and to repay them for their hospitality, Mortenson promised to build the village's children a school. Back in America, he struggled to raise money but eventually met a wealthy donor who gave him the money for the Korphe school and also helped him co-found the Central Asia Institute. The rest of the book documents Mortenson's struggles to build more than 55 schools in Taliban territory.

I really appreciated the main messages in Mortenson's novel: extremism in this part of the world can be deterred through efforts to alleviate poverty and improve access to school for children, and that educating girls has a lasting benefit on a community. However, I did not enjoy the book as much as I had hoped. It did not hold my interest and I found the names of people and places hard to keep track of. Also, as the story went on I felt that it was increasingly filled with political propaganda which I do not care for.

That being said, I was definitely inspired by what Mortenson was able to accomplish. I did some research into the allegations against him and the Central Asia Institute, and it seems to remain unclear whether the claims of money mismanagement are founded or not. But the book did show that one ordinary person really can make a difference in the world with a little bit of character and determination.

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