Mortenson writes final chapter of Book in Common

Laxson speech caps year-long study of Three Cups of Tea

COMMON THREADS <br> Greg Mortenson’s speech Tuesday capped the year-long community-wide discussion of his book <i>Three Cups of Tea.</i>

Greg Mortenson’s speech Tuesday capped the year-long community-wide discussion of his book Three Cups of Tea.

Photo courtesy of chico performances


That’s the title Greg Mortenson gave to the first chapter of Three Cups of Tea, the critically acclaimed book that describes his work promoting peace and education in a volatile region of the Middle East over the last 16 years.

During his 90-minute address to a sold-out Laxson Auditorium audience on Tuesday (April 22), Mortenson, who seems younger than his 52 years, was quick to point out the many shortcomings of his life, which includes totaling the family car at his first driver’s license test and missing a 20-yard field goal in a crucial college football game.

But it was another failure, an unsuccessful attempt to climb K2—the world’s second-tallest mountain—that led him to a far-reaching campaign for education that has positively affected the lives of thousands of children in the Middle East.

In 1993, Mortenson became exhausted and weak during his descent of K2 and somehow wandered into the tiny Pakistani village of Korphe. It was there that Mortenson learned the concept behind his book’s title from the village chief: If you drink one cup of tea with people, they remain strangers. After a second cup, they become friends. And if you drink a third cup, they are as close as family.

“This doesn’t mean that you can just go around drinking tea and that will solve all your problems,” Mortenson added, getting some chuckles from the crowd.

He remembered noticing, during that first visit, a group of children scratching math problems in the dirt. Mortenson said that the kids’ longing for education touched his heart, and he immediately promised that he would return to their village to build a school, although he had no idea how to make that happen.

Photo By

Forty trips to the Middle East, 78 new schools, and two nonprofit organizations later, Mortenson has not slowed down. His story, Three Cups of Tea, co-authored with David Oliver Relin, was first published in 2006, and has been on the New York Times bestseller list for 115 weeks in a row. It is currently Chico State’s and Butte County’s “Book in Common” and has brought together students and community members for discussions and book clubs over a period of several months.

“This book is more than an adventure story, more than a humanitarian tale; it is a book with a message,” Chico State President Paul Zingg said during his introduction.

Mortenson’s message is simple: Education is the key to peace in the Middle East.

Despite being kidnapped, caught under gunfire, and issued death threats, he has continued to push for increased education opportunities, and works especially to increase the literacy of girls. Women play key roles in their villages but are often prevented from learning to read and write, he said.

Funds for the new schools are raised in part by Pennies for Peace, an organization that gets American kids involved in Mortenson’s project by collecting spare change. The program has grown to include 3,825 participating schools.

In 2000, about 800,000 students attended schools in Pakistan. By 2008, that number had grown to 7.2 million, representing the greatest increase in school enrollment in history, Mortenson said. The female literacy rate has escalated to 38 percent, a success in which Mortenson has played a crucial role.

Although Mortenson admitted that his frequent trips and long hours are difficult on his family, he indicated that his work is far from done. The 110 million children in the world who don’t get to go to school deserve to be helped, he said, suggesting a $6 billion-a-year “poverty bailout” by the U.S. government to eliminate the problem.

“Listen to the people. They don’t want troops; they want education,” he later said above a cheering crowd in response to President Obama’s plan to send 17,000 additional troops to Afghanistan.

Mortenson’s audience, a mix of children, college students and community members, seemed to hang on his every word, smiling, laughing and breaking into applause throughout his lecture. Along the way, he taught them a traditional Muslim greeting that means “Peace be with you”—his hope for all of Pakistan’s and Afghanistan’s children.