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Three Cups of Tea

Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace… One School at a Time by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin

When it is dark enough, you can see the stars. —Persian proverb

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He was appalled to see eighty-two children, seventy-eight boys, and the four girls who had the pluck to join them, kneeling on the frosty ground, in the open. Haji Ali, avoiding Mortenson’s eyes, said that the village had no school, and the Pakistani government didn’t provide a teacher. A teacher cost the equivalent of one dollar a day, he explained, which was more than the village could afford. So they shared a teacher with the neighboring village of Munjung, and he taught in Korphe three days a week. The rest of the time the children were left alone to practice the lessons he left behind.

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After the last note of the anthem had faded, the children sat in a neat circle and began copying their multiplication tables. Most scratched in the dirt with sticks they’d brought for that purpose. The more fortunate, like Jahan, had slate boards they wrote on with sticks dipped in a mixture of mud and water. “Can you imagine a fourth-grade class in America, alone, without a teacher, sitting there quietly and working on their lessons?” Mortenson asks. “I felt like my heart was being torn out. There was a fierceness in their desire to learn, despite how mightily everything was stacked against them, that reminded me of Christa. I knew I had to do something.”

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Mortenson was amazed by the computer’s cut and paste and copy functions. He realized he could have produced the three hundred letters it had taken him months to type in one day. In a single caffeine-fueled weekend session under Syed’s tutelage, he cut and pasted his appeal for funds feverishly until he reached his goal of five hundred letters. Then he blazed on, as he and Syed brainstormed a list of dozens more celebrities, until Mortenson had 580 appeals in the mail. “It was pretty interesting,” Mortenson says. “Someone from Pakistan helping me become computer literate so I could help Pakistani kids get literate.”

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A month after returning to Berkeley, Mortenson got a letter from his mother. She explained that her students had spontaneously launched a “Pennies for Pakistan” drive. Filling two forty-gallon trash cans, they collected 62,345 pennies. When he deposited the check his mother sent along for $623.45 Mortenson felt like his luck was finally changing. “Children had taken the first step toward building the school,” Mortenson says. “And they did it with something that’s basically worthless in our society—pennies. But overseas, pennies can move mountains.”

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After almost two decades studying Ladakhi culture, Norberg-Hodge had come to believe that preserving a traditional way of life in Ladakh—extended families living in harmony with the land—would bring about more happiness than “improving” Ladakhis’ standard of living with unchecked development. “I used to assume that the direction of ‘progress’ was somehow inevitable, not to be questioned,” she writes. “I passively accepted a new road through the middle of the park, a steel-and-glass bank where a 200-year-old church had stood…and the fact that life seemed to get harder and faster with each day. I do not anymore. In Ladakh I have learned that there is more than one path into the future and I have had the privilege to witness another, saner, way of life—a pattern of existence based on the coevolution between human beings and the earth.”

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“I have seen,” she writes, “that community and a close relationship with the land can enrich human life beyond all comparison with material wealth or technological sophistication. I have learned that another way is possible.”

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Norberg-Hodge admiringly quotes the king of another Himalayan country, Bhutan, who says the true measure of a nation’s success is not gross national product, but “gross national happiness.” On their warm, dry roofs, among the fruits of their successful harvest, eating, smoking, and gossiping with the same sense of leisure as Parisians on the terrace of a sidewalk café, Mortenson felt sure that, despite all that they lacked, the Balti still held the key to a kind of uncomplicated happiness that was disappearing in the developing world as fast as old-growth forests.

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There is a candle in your heart, ready to be kindled. There is a void in your soul, ready to be filled. You feel it, don’t you? —Rumi

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It may seem absurd to believe that a “primitive” culture in the Himalaya has anything to teach our industrialized society. But our search for a future that works keeps spiraling back to an ancient connection between ourselves and the earth, an interconnectedness that ancient cultures have never abandoned. —Helena Norberg-Hodge

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“If you want to thrive in Baltistan, you must respect our ways,” Haji Ali said, blowing on his bowl. “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,” he said, laying his hand warmly on Mortenson’s own. “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.”

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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.”

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“Why don’t you leave it to us? I’ll call a meeting of all the elders of the Braldu and see what village is ready to donate free land and labor for a school. That way you don’t have to flap all over Baltistan like a crow again, eating here and there,” Haji Ali said, laughing.

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Mouzafer and the Korphe men were Shiite Muslims, along with Skardu residents Ghulam Parvi, and Makhmal the mason. Apo Razak, a refugee from Indian-occupied Kashmir, was a Sunni, as was Suleman. And the fiercely dignified bodyguard Faisal Baig belonged to the Ismaeli sect. “We all sat there laughing and sipping tea peacefully,” Mortenson says. “An infidel and representatives from three warring sects of Islam. And I thought if we can get along this well, we can accomplish anything. The British policy was ‘divide and conquer.’ But I say ‘unite and conquer.’”

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After attending a conference of development experts in Bangladesh, Mortenson decided CAI schools should educate students only up through the fifth grade and focus on increasing the enrollment of girls. “Once you educate the boys, they tend to leave the villages and go search for work in the cities,” Mortenson explains. “But the girls stay home, become leaders in the community, and pass on what they’ve learned. If you really want to change a culture, to empower women, improve basic hygiene and health care, and fight high rates of infant mortality, the answer is to educate girls.”

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Faisal Baig needed no more information. With his AK-47 in one hand and the other balled into a fist by his side, he stared at the first blood-hued light brushing the tips of Afghanistan’s peaks. For years he’d seen it coming, the storm building. It would take months and millions of dollars poured into the flailing serpentine arms of the U.S. Intelligence apparatus to untangle for certain what this illiterate man who lived in the last village at the end of a dirt road, without an Internet connection or even a phone, knew instinctively. “Your problem in New York village comes from there,” he said, snarling at the border. “From this Al Qaeda shetan,” he said, spitting toward Afghanistan, “Osama.”

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Kim Trudell, from Marblehead, Massachusetts, had lost her husband, Frederick Rimmele, when, on his way to a medical conference in California on September 11, his flight, United Airlines 175, vaporized in a cloud of jet fuel against the south tower of the World Trade Center. Trudell asked Mortenson to carry her husband’s medical books to Kabul, believing education was the key to resolving the crisis with militant Islam.

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“It was one of the most incredible things I’ve ever seen in my life,” Fedarko says. “Here comes this teenage girl, in the center of a conservative Islamic village, waltzing into a circle of men, breaking through about sixteen layers of traditions at once: She had graduated from school and was the first educated woman in a valley of three thousand people. She didn’t defer to anyone, sat down right in front of Greg, and handed him the product of the revolutionary skills she’d acquired—a proposal, in English, to better herself, and improve the life of her village.

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“It was a very humbling victory,” Mortenson says. “Here you have this Islamic court in conservative Shia Pakistan offering protection for an American, at a time when America is holding Muslims without charges in Guantanamo, Cuba, for years, under our so-called system of justice.”

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“When your heart speaks, take good notes.” Judith Campbell

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It is my vision that all people of our planet will dedicate the next decade to achieve universal literacy and education for all children, especially for girls. Over 145 million children in the world remain deprived of education due to poverty, exploitation, slavery, religious extremism, and corrupt governments. May this book, Three Cups of Tea, be a catalyst to bring the gift of literacy to those deprived children who all deserve a chance to go to school.

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