Man with a mission
'Three Cups of Tea' author steps up school-building effort
As the situation in Pakistan and Afghanistan seems headed from bad to worse, Greg Mortenson, co-author of the blockbuster Three Cups of Tea (140-plus weeks and counting on the New York Times bestseller list), and his Central Asia Institute are building more schools in that volatile region than ever before. The ongoing effort is the subject of Mortenson’s new book, Stones into Schools, a sequel that is at least as good as its inspiring predecessor.
“This year has been by far our most successful year,” Mortenson says during a call to his home in Bozeman, Montana. On this particular afternoon Mortenson is at home caring for his 13-year-old daughter, who had her tonsils removed earlier that morning. “She loves singing, so that’s the main thing she’s worried about—her voice and vocal chords,” he says.
Mortenson, it quickly becomes obvious, is not a man for sound bites. He is well-read (“I read about two books a week. I read all nonfiction, mostly related to my work, much to my wife’s dismay. Right now I’m reading The Graveyard of Empires by Seth Jones.”). He is knowledgeable enough about working successfully in Afghanistan and Pakistan that the U.S. government, and especially the U.S. military, now regularly seeks his advice (“I’m pretty much a pacifist, so it’s a little hard for me to tell our politicians and the public that the military really gets it. But from my honest perspective on the ground, I’d say a lot of our commanders and NCOs do get it.”). And he is thoughtful, rather than ideological (“We often have to work with some pretty shady characters, including the Taliban, opium smugglers and corrupt government officials. [The success of the work] is about empowering elders, listening more and building relationships. It’s about getting local buy-in. . . . I always say politics won’t bring peace, but people will.”). In conversation, one thought leads him to another, which leads to an exploratory aside, which leads to a question, which leads to a humble demurral, which leads to a revision of the original thought. All of this is part of Mortenson’s genuine personal appeal.
Circling back to the original question about the success of his school-building effort, Mortenson says, “It took us eight years to set up the first 30 schools. This year we set up 31 schools. Over the last two years we’ve been moving significantly into areas where the Taliban prevail and we’re able to do that entirely because of our relationships with the local elders.” None of the schools Mortenson has helped build has been forced to close, despite the growing insurgency, because, he says, “the community is so fiercely devoted to something they’ve put their sweat, tears and blood into.”
"I always say politics won't bring peace, but people will."
Stones into Schools continues the story of these devoted relationships that Mortenson began to tell in Three Cups of Tea. Like its predecessor, the new book offers a dramatic narrative of derring-do, a geographical and cultural education about a poorly understood region of the world that has become increasingly important to U.S. interests, and a moral education about the value of humility in international relationships.
But Stones into Schools is also different from the previous book. For one thing, it makes a compelling case for what Mortenson calls the Girl Effect—the importance of educating girls and young women in the developing world. Educating girls, Mortenson says, “reduces infant mortality, reduces the population explosion and improves the quality of health and of life itself.” In addition, Mortenson points out, young men wishing to go on jihad “first must get permission from their mothers. . . . The Taliban very deliberately target impoverished, illiterate communities because many educated women refuse, even at the risk of their lives, to allow their sons to join the Taliban. There is a profound influence from the mother, especially if she is educated.” So communities where Mortenson’s organization builds schools must agree to send their girls to school.
Another difference between the two books is in the telling of the tale. Three Cups of Tea is written in third person, and Mortenson is the story’s main protagonist. Urged by Viking, his publisher, Mortenson tells the second installment of his story in the first person. “I’m a pretty shy guy,” Mortenson says. “I was really embarrassed to write it in first person. My wife told the publishers, ‘If Greg writes a book in first person, it will be a pamphlet.’ ” But with help from editor Paul Slovak (“I can’t praise him enough,” Mortenson says) and assists from writers Mike Bryan and Kevin Fedarko, he has produced a compelling first-person account that, ironically, is less about Mortenson than it is about the accomplishments of the “Dirty Dozen,” the ragtag local staff that has assembled around Mortenson’s school-building effort over the years and “is now achieving much more than anything I could ever do. They’re willing to risk their lives. They’ve gone into areas where it would be very, very risky for me to go. I’ve been enjoying taking a back seat and watching this happen.”
Finally, Stones into Schools gives a glimpse of Mortenson’s changing role. Because of the phenomenal grassroots response to Three Cups of Tea, he now spends far less time in distant reaches of Pakistan and Afghanistan and more time on speaking tours or in his office in Bozeman, building the organization to support the burgeoning efforts of the Dirty Dozen. To avoid the cynicism and burnout he has seen in other career humanitarians, he has made a deliberate choice to take better care of himself “emotionally, mentally and physically.” His wife, Dr. Tara Bishop, tries to limit him “to 120 days away a year, although last year it was more like 160 days.” The couple has a date every Tuesday night, “no matter what,” and he devotes every Saturday to his son and daughter. “I’m just a very stubborn Midwesterner,” Mortenson says. “I work very hard at things. I’m not a rocket scientist, and I’ve tried to stress how many failures I’ve had. It is sometimes painful, but you have to let people do things themselves. So now I just call myself a cheerleader, or I say I am the Chief Tea Drinker.”
Well, then, long may Greg Mortenson drink tea—and continue to write about it.
Alden Mudge writes from Berkeley, California.