Three Cups of Tea: One man’s mission to promote peace … one school at a time
Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin
On a hot day, a book about the icy Himalayas is perfect. Mortenson starts out lost on K2, about to freeze to death, when he is rescued by Mouzafer Ali, his porter, who had searched for him for days. Mouzafer led Mortenson to Korphe, where the village head man, Haji Ali, made room for him in his own home. Haji Ali and his wife nursed him back to health, which took quite some time. Korphe is in Baltistan, in Northern Pakistan, almost impossible to reach and almost completely neglected by the government.
The experience was humbling, and the immersion in village life affected him deeply. Most of all, he allowed himself to learn from Haji Ali how to be a leader, how to earn trust.
In gratitude, when he was ready to leave, Mortenson asked Haji Ali what his greatest wish for his village was. He said he wished for a school, so the children could learn—even the girls. Mortenson made a promise to build one.
The book goes on to describe how Mortenson worked to raise the money needed, how difficult it was to change from being a mountaineer and ER nurse to a professional fundraiser. Eventually he succeeds in raising the $12,000 he needs to build the school, and returns to Pakistan.
Mortenson describes the revelation that made him understand trust. Haji Ali told him:
“If you want to thrive in Baltistan, you must respect our ways. The first time you share tea with a Balti, you are a stranger. The second time you take tea, you are an honored guest. The third time you share a cup of tea, you become family, and for our family, we are prepared to do anything, even die…. You must make time to share three cups of tea. We may be uneducated. But we are not stupid. We have lived and survived here for a long time.”
Mortenson reflected upon Haji Ali’s words:
“We Americans think you have to accomplish everything quickly… Haji Ali taught me to share three cups of tea, to slow down and make building relationships as important as building projects. He taught me that I had more to learn from the people I work with than I could ever hope to teach them.”
You can read “Three Cups of Tea” as an adventure story. It moves quickly and is vividly descriptive. Mortenson moves back and forth from California and Utah to Baltistan and other remote places, building schools—55 of them between 1993 and 2003, not as a great benefactor, but as a part of a community dedicated to providing education for their children. Because Mortenson respected the villagers he helped, worked alongside them in constructing the schools, always gained the permission and support of village elders before starting a project, the schools were theirs, for all their children.
You can also read “Three Cups of Tea” as a lesson in trust. Going into any organization to make change, no matter how beneficial, only works if people make it theirs. A leader can learn what the equivalent of three cups of tea is in the formal and informal organization of the place he or she hopes to change.