Analysis of the Greg Mortenson’s Autobiography ‘Three Cups Of Tea’

The autobiography Three Cups Of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin goes through the life experiences of Greg Mortenson in his quest to build schools for disadvantaged children in the desolate parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan. This essay investigates the qualities that Mortenson possesses that have helped make him a contemporary symbol of humanitarianism.
How does Mortenson’s story show the qualities necessary for a good Humanitarian? To answer this question, this essay makes a thorough analysis of this autobiography by analyzing the things that Mortenson has done and what persuaded him to do them. With that in mind this essay is intended to try and decipher which qualities or traits have guided him thus far, qualities which seem extremely beneficial to his quest. In the essay, each trait has been explored in depth, looking at the ways Mortenson has demonstrated that particular trait and how it helped in the end. This autobiography has been supported by some secondary sources from the internet that include book reviews that have been posted along with interviews that have been conducted with him.
Therefore with these sources, I have made generalizations as to what qualities make a good humanitarian. Upon conclusion, I discovered that with the right amount of compassion, desire to succeed and being able to blend into different cultures then one can be a good humanitarian.
“Power is the ability to achieve purpose. Power is the ability to effect change;” these were words spoken by the legendary Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King and from these words, one can gather that there is some extraordinary power that any individual can possess, as long as they have the ability to make a difference in the lives of others, it does not matter whether on a large scale or not.

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Throughout history there have been great men and women who have been known to possess this extraordinary power, such as mother Teresa who dedicated her life to helping the poor but amongst these people is Greg Mortenson, a man who from being a mere nurse has risen above all odds and has become a world renowned humanitarian who has done development work in Central Asia (Pakistan and Afghanistan). Most of his work has been the construction of schools for both the Pakistani and Afghani children but it also extends to giving a helping hand at refugee camps in these areas. To date, Mortenson has built over one hundred and thirty schools and some of them catering to just girls.
Greg Mortenson, along with the award winning journalist David Oliver Relin have written an autobiography of Mortenson’s life – Three Cups Of Tea – one man’s mission to promote peace…one school at a time – from the time he discovered his true calling through all the ensuing events, sharing in detail how he tackles every obstacle that comes his way.
How does Mortenson’s story show the qualities necessary for a good humanitarian? For most people it has been a mystery as to what qualities must be possessed for an individual to become a humanitarian and exercise charity. I think Mortenson is one of the best people to help illustrate these qualities because he started from nothing but has now become a man to whom even the US Military looks to for advice. How is it that this ordinary man who failed to climb K-2 has achieved so much in life?
This topic is significant in that as much as most people might want to help the needy, they may not know where and how to start and the qualities that may help them in their quest. Even universities have started offering courses that help create great humanitarians and aid projects, courses like development work and development theory finance. Just the mere prospect of having these courses offered at universities shows that this is a booming industry and observing people like Greg Mortenson can help a lot of people who are interested in helping others. Other humanitarians like Sir Edmund Hilary have seen this advancement in humanitarian efforts coming, and in his book School House In The Clouds, Hilary spoke of the need for aid projects in the world’s poorest places he says, “Slowly and painfully we are seeing worldwide acceptance of the fact that the wealthier and more technologically advanced countries have a responsibility to help undeveloped ones” (pg 53).
Mortenson’s philosophy is also that of Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen whose idea is that, “You can change a culture by giving its girls the tools to grow up educated so they can help themselves” (pg 234). In Mortenson’s case, these schools were not built overnight; Mortenson encountered problems but he persisted and in the end the results were very rewarding. Mortenson has shown that an ordinary person like himself can make a difference in the world by having the right amount of compassion, determination and the ability to rise above prejudices and work within another culture.
“The poor do not need our sympathy and pity: the poor need our love and compassion.” These were words spoken by the Nobel Peace prize winner, Mother Teresa, one of Mortenson’s idols. From the beginning, our introduction to Mortenson is of a man who doesn’t pity the needy but tries to help them as much as possible.
The source of this good-heartedness can be traced back to his parents who were also generous people. Irvin Mortenson (Greg’s father) was an army veteran-turned schoolteacher in Tanzania who while there “threw every molecule of himself into the great achievement of his life-raising money for and founding Tanzania’s first teaching hospital, the Kilimanjaro Christian medical center” (36). Also, his mother, Jerene Mortenson, “laboured with the same single-mindedness to establish the Moshi International School” (36). With such parents, it is no wonder Greg Mortenson turned out the way he did.
Mortenson’s compassion is easily noticeable in the sacrifices he has undertaken for the sake of his family. The Mortensons lived in Africa for most of Greg’s childhood and although they had done so much for the Tazanians, when they went back to America they were struggling financially and Greg Mortenson’s compassion is well illustrated when after graduating from high school, he enrolled himself in the army just so he could bring in some money. To show how rare this trait is Mortenson says: “The kids at my school were amazed I’d even consider the military. But we were broke” (40).
Christa, Mortenson’s sister, was epileptic and for the sole purpose of finding a way to help her, Greg studied neurology (42). Not only that but when they were growing up, Mortenson made sure that no one made fun of Christa. After college, Mortenson wanted to start working as soon as possible but because he wanted to spend time with his sister, he took a year off-not many people could do that — which is why when Christa died, Mortenson took it really hard but wanted to honour her memory by climbing K-2, a mountain in central Asia infamous for being one of the toughest to climb in the world (42-43). Another clear depiction of Mortenson’s compassion is when he offered to quit school when his father was dying of cancer so that he could take care of him in his last days (42).
Mortenson’s compassion can also be seen in the sacrifices he makes for others and his desire to satisfy everyone. This whole idea of building schools started in a village called Korphe where Mortenson was taken after he had been lost on K-2 Mountain and had seen about eighty children trying to teach themselves on the ground without a teacher and had made the promise to build them the school (33). While there, Mortenson distributed all he had to the people of that village and had gone out of his way to help their sick, hence earning his name – Dr. Greg (30). On his way to fulfill his promise, the people of other villages were trying to bribe him into opting for their village and not Korphe and the guilt that Mortenson felt knowing that he could not help them frustrated him which is why he ended up promising to one day build the school for them, no matter what it took and this signifies his compassion to the extreme (91).
Also, going out of his way to organise teachers and paying salaries along with calling in an eye specialist for the children and elderly of refugee camps that “strained to feed, shelter and educate hundreds of thousands” of people is an extreme act of compassion that clearly shows his big heart (208). Further, whenever there was a war happening, Mortenson was usually robbed of sleep worrying about those poor people (214). He used to spend nights reading about Pakistani history and trying to learn more and this shows a man whose good-heartedness made him even forget the necessities of life like sleeping.
Perhaps the best way he has demonstrated his compassion is by fulfilling most of his promises; he promised to build a school for the Korphe people and he did that and even more, he also built them a women’s vocational center fully equipped with sewing machines (193). He also promised to build a school for the people of the villages who were trying to bribe him and he did; not only for them but for many other villages.
It is usually said that a leader has a clear idea of what she or he wants and he would do anything to get it regardless of any obstacles that he may face and likewise, Mortenson was a leader who, in his cause to build schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan, has come across a lot of setbacks that would make most people give up but because he had a lot of determination Mortenson just pushed on and can now be identified as a well respected humanitarian.
His determination is easily portrayed in the sacrifices he makes in order to raise the necessary funds for the construction of the schools. These acts include struggling to write many requests to as many potential sponsors as possible so that he could build the first school (47). We learn that, “he wrote to every U.S. senator. He haunted the public library, scanning the kind of pop culture magazines he would never otherwise read,” in search of sponsors and this just shows his eagerness to succeed ( 49).
“To save money while he was trying to raise funds for the school, Mortenson decided not to rent an apartment” and chose to live in his car and to take showers in the bathrooms of a climbing club that he was a member of ( 49). At night he would be bothered by the police so he had to hunt for parking places where the police would not find him (49). What person in their right mind would do something like that, especially for people he did not have exceptionally strong ties with, unless they were really determined to succeed and even going to the extremes of starving himself (51)?
In like manner, while he was in Pakistan with the necessary funds for the school, he lived in “an eight-by-eight-foot glassed in cubicle on the hotel’s roof that seemed more like a garden shed than a guest room” (57). Here again the image is of a man who is prepared to endure all the hardships that come his way (57). He could have just used the money he had on him and checked into a proper hotel but no, he had to try and save as much as possible.
Before he had left America, “Mortenson converted everything else he owned into enough cash to buy his plane ticket”(56). What if everything in Pakistan did not work out and when he got back, what would he have? Nothing, but because he knew what he wanted he did it anyway.
Mother Teresa once said: “We ourselves feel like what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean but the ocean would be less without that drop.” Mortenson believed in this saying and strived in every way to make sure that the drop he was adding was at its best hence why he even started reading books on development theory finance so that he could be a better manager and along with this he even flew to Southeast Asia so that he could learn more from other programs that did the same job that he did (234). Only a man who really wanted to make things work would go this far.
In the time that Mortenson has been in Central Asia, he has taken great risks, risks that had he been somebody else, he would have left without any delays and these risks include exposing himself to the conflicts that are taking place there. In 1996, Bin Laden (a leader of the Talibans – Islam extremist) called for an armed struggle against any Americans, and when this happened Mortenson was still there and ended up being held hostage for some time before he was released; but the terrifying prospect that he kept delaying leaving Asia although he knew how dangerous it was, shows his pure determination along with his love for these people (156).
Patience is a prevailing attribute that Mortenson seems to possess and in physics; a spring can be stretched and return to its original place, but there is a limit to that stretching (elasticity limit), and when this point is reached then the spring will never go back to its original position. Greg Mortenson’s patience is synonymous to this spring and the similarities are easily noticeable because throughout, his patience has been tried at different turns and this patience helps to eloquently demonstrate his determination. The fact that Mortenson only received a single reply from the letters he wrote and all his grant applications had been turned down after waiting over six months; the fact that Mortenson still continued even after this major setback is a clear indication of his determination (52)
As with the physics analysis, however, at some point Mortenson almost had a mental breakdown because after struggling for over two years to get a hold of the funds required to build the first school, when he arrives at Korphe to begin the building project, he discovers that before they can begin they have to build a bridge to carry across the necessary building materials. This required him to go back to America to get more money for the construction of the bridge. Looking back at the way he had struggled to get the first twelve thousand dollars, obviously it wasn’t going to be easy to get the extra funds. Predictably, he did struggle and this failure led to him almost giving up hope. He was just on the brink of giving up but the words of a fellow mountaineer, Dr. Louis Richardt brought him back: “Pull yourself together, Greg. Of course you’ve hit a few speed bumps but what you’re trying to do is much more difficult than climbing K2″(106). These words gave him the strength to continue. This pure act showed a lot of determination on his part.
Again, Mortenson’s determination can be seen in the problems he faces and the way he overcomes them. After the formation of the Central Asia Institute (CAI) which was founded by a single sponsor – Jean Hoerni – who covered all the expenses, Mortenson’s work in Pakistan advanced extremely, but following the death of the sponsor, the company started having monetary problems. Mortenson refused to hire an assistant because of fear of dipping into CAI’s funds (228); he also refused an offer of a salary increase along with refusing to hire office space. All these things show a man who is determined to continue in his cause and was desperate to save as much as possible so that his work can continue.
During this time of hardships in the company, Mortenson started to hold seminars where he tried to raise awareness for his work and get funding, but sometimes “he faced a sea of empty seats” (228) but the fact that he still continued to go to every state in America as planned shows that he had hope that at some point he would get lucky and the message would be out and his determination is enormously conveyed in this way.
Now, some rich people wanted to flaunt Mortenson to their peers and look good with the promise that they would fund his company and because Mortenson was desperate, he had no choice but to play along. At some point he even went to Canada with one of them but in the end he got nothing in the form of funds from him. He tried everybody, even the people whose legitimacy he doubted. An old lady who said she had money to give called Mortenson over and he obliged because of his desperation but this woman turned out to be just a lonely old lady who just yearned for company (231). A person who would do all this is indeed determined to get to his destination.
It has been said that “Good intentions and money are great, but it is partnerships and great personal relationships at the grass roots level that gets things done in a third world country” and from the onset Mortenson has proved himself to be one of those people who are extremely sociable and form partnerships quickly. Throughout his quest, what Mortenson has been doing the entire time is building his rapport and trying to gain the trust of the natives of the countries he was trying to aid. His individualism and non-affiliation with both big NGO’s and the political systems in any country are the factors that may have helped him reach so far as compared to all other development charities that have tried to help these people.
Of course there were a number of barriers that hindered his progress and these include the language barriers because at first he had not learned their language; the custom barriers that also hindered his progress because if he went against custom, his work may be cut-off; and lastly the religious beliefs.
The education of girls in that part of the world is taboo and people in Pakistan and Afghanistan believe it goes against their religion. According to BBC News, when parents were asked why they didn’t pay for their female children to go to school, the parents would say’ “Because it’s wrong, it’s irreligious, it’s improper – they should stay at home and prepare for their real lives, their married lives.” Mortenson was going against this taboo in every way and this caused a lot of problems for him. “I have heard that an infidel has come to poison our Muslim children, boys as well as girls; with his teachings. Allah forbids the education of girls. And I forbid the construction of this school.” (152) These were words spoken by one Haji Medhi who, along with his men went to Korphe and were trying to stop Mortenson’s work. Also, “Greg learned that the Sher of Chakpo had declared a fatwa against him…Pakistan is ruled by civil law, but also by Shariat, which is a system of Islamic law” (184). It wasn’t only this once that a fatwa was issued against him but twice. After an issue of a fatwa has been made, the courts have to decide what to do, but luckily on both counts he was not implicated but rather the courts saw his work as a gift to their children.
From the onset, we see Mortenson as a man who is able to quickly gain the trust of the people around him. George McCown, a board member of the American Himalayan Foundations once said: “Greg is a guy you immediately like and trust…watching all those people work with him…It was obvious they loved him. He operated as one of them and I wondered how in the hell an American had managed that” (122-123). How indeed has he managed that? The answer to that mystery might be that Greg has an eagerness to learn people’s ways, he tries in every way not to offend them and he does not distinguish himself from them but sees them as his equals, he sees everybody as his equal.
His eagerness to learn their ways is easily noticeable when during his second visit to Pakistan, he asks the tailor who was putting together his outfit to teach him how to pray (62). What business of his was it how these people prayed? This eagerness to pray is also accentuated when he tries to pray with the religious leader of Korphe (67). For him to even enter the compound where the Korphe religious leader lived was a problem because he did not want to offend him; he understood that he was a non-Muslim (infidel) trying to educate the children of Korphe and he didn’t know how the religious leader would take it (67). This trait of not wanting to offend is also signified with the guilt he felt when he had worn their traditional dress inappropriately and was therefore scolded for it (62).
Again, unlike big organizations that just throw in millions without requesting anything from the locals, Mortenson required that each village donate land and labour and this is one of the things that might have helped him gain the trust of these people – involving them. Mortenson says: “I’ve driven past dozens of schools in Northern Afghanistan that have been set up by conservation Corps or USAID(United States Agency For International Development), and you see a beautiful school building but no one in it”
Also, although Mortenson was offered large sums of money by the US Military, he had to refuse because he understood that his “credibility in that part of the world depended on not being associated with the American government, especially the military” (295). Had the people thought he was associated with them, they would shut him out. The American military never really stopped to ask what the people of Pakistan or Afghanistan wanted but just did what they wanted without consulting with their elders. In an interview for MSNBC(a television network), Mortenson says that following an earthquake in Pakistan in 2005, tens of thousands of tents were sent over and most of them implosive and the people would huddle in them with kerosene lanterns for light and hundreds of tents imploded and hundreds of people died and some were burned. But had anybody asked what they wanted they could have said they could make their own canvas tents if they send over canvas and sewing machines” Mortenson on the other hand asks what they need and he would rather supply them with that than anything they did not ask for.
When investigating this research question — How does Mortenson’s story show the qualities of a good humanitarian? — it is easily discernable that by showing the qualities that Mortenson possessed, this story Three cups of tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin clearly shows that it all begins with the amount of compassion that one possesses. If one does not have a desire to help the needy then they would not succeed because how could one do something they do not really have the desire for?
Then comes the degree to which they are willing to bend their will in order to help make that particular act a success. They need to be ready to make a lot of sacrifices along the way, sacrifices that could mean they have to live differently from the way they are used to. Mortenson’s experiences show that in most cases the journey will not be easy but with the correct amount of determination and eagerness to succeed, eventually you will get there.
Usually the people who require most help are the people in remote parts of developing or undeveloped countries and most of the time these people have customs that most ‘outsiders’ are not familiar with and may even be a whole different ethnic group all together and most of the time aid organizations or humanitarians are going to have to try and learn their ways. Finally, listening to them, incorporating them in the decision-making process is also a wise move because that way, their needs are catered for.
There have been great humanitarians like Mortenson who have possessed these qualities: Mother Teresa, Fred Cunny, Per Anger, Dalai Lama many others. By reading autobiographies of such people, these artifacts of our culture can give aspiring humanitarians the necessary qualities for being great humanitarians.