[Note: this blog post was written in 2008 and there have been recent allegations on "60 Minutes" of significant factual inaccuracies in TCoT and "Stones Into Schools" and mismanagement in Mortenson's Central Asia Institute. For more on that, see this post. Mortenson refused to talk to 60 Minutes but his answers to three of their questions are here. In addition, Jon Krakauer has a new online book criticizing Mortenson's facts called "Three Cups of Deceit." Nick Kristof, a friend of Mortenson, gives him the benefit of the doubt in this NYT Op-Ed " 'Three Cups of Tea', Spilled".]
What follows is my original post:
I’ve been thoroughly enjoying the interesting Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin.
The book is nominally about a former Himalayan mountain climber (Mortenson) who narrowly escapes with his life and decides to dedicate his life to bringing schools to the poor communities surrounding the Himalayas. It has flavors of Mountains Beyond Mountains or Steve Reifenberg’s Santiago’s Children (excerpt here). It’s a tale of a first world do-gooder learning from the wisdom in the developing world.
But at a deeper level it’s all about the importance of social connections and social capital. Indeed the title refers to social capital. One of Mortenson’s mentors in Himalayan life (Haji Ali) tells him:
“If you want to thrive in Baltistan you must respect our ways.” he says locking up Mortenson’s account book, his level and his plumb line since Mortenson’s relentless pacing and efficiency and whip-cracking is driving the natives crazy. “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….Doctor Greg, 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.”
From Three Cups of Tea‘s descriptions of Mortenson’s harrowing experiences in Waziristan, to the reader’s increased understanding of how hard it is for Mortenson to thread the alliances of tribes, determine whom can be trusted, and actively build ties, this book has lots to say about the global importance of social capital in the task of improving the lot of these Baltis or social development more generally.