Vinoth Ramachandra

The Fourth Cup of Tea

Posted on: December 30, 2009

On our recent trip to the US we were given a copy of Three Cups of Tea, an engaging account of  an American Greg Mortenson’s contribution to village education in Pakistan and Central Asia. My wife, Karin, has read the book and has written the following review which we are sending to friends involved in community development work. It is a topic that arouses her ire and enthusiasm in equal measure. [Warning: since it is written by her, it is a little longer than my normal blog posts!!]

Three Cups of Tea has been hugely popular in the USA. Not only was it a #1 New York Times Bestseller but, according to the Afterword of the book, it is ‘a freshman, honors, or campus-wide required reading selection in over eighty universities and hundreds of schools. It is also required reading for senior U.S. military commanders, Pentagon officers in counter-insurgency training, and Special Forces deploying to Afghanistan…’

The book recounts the story (with the help of journalist David Relin) of Greg Mortenson, an American male nurse with a passion for mountain climbing. Mortenson grew up in Tanzania where his missionary parents worked to improve local health and education.

The story begins with Mortenson’s failed attempt in 1993 to climb K2 in Pakistan, the second highest mountain in the world. Mortenson loses his way and almost his life. As he stumbles back toward his camp he takes another wrong turn and ends up in the poor village of Korphe where he is nursed back to health by the village chief Haji Ali. Out of gratitude to his host Mortenson promises to return to build a school for the village.

While this is a wonderful example of human solidarity and a joy to read, quickly the story changes from one of mutual giving and mutual respect to the story we have become all too familiar with: namely, the donor/helper “one-man show”! The front cover of Three Cups of Tea even proclaims that Mortenson’s story is all about “One man’s mission” and “one ordinary person” who can really “change the world”.

Sociology, psychology and pedagogy (if not plain common sense) have taught for decades that the poor and disadvantaged, no less than the rich, need to be shown respect if they are to develop (or maintain) self-esteem and to see how their lives can make a meaningful contribution to the world.

However, despite so much talk by development NGOs and “think tanks” about empowerment, participation and partnership, donors/helpers still determine what the poor need. The involvement of local people in their own development happens only when and to the extent foreign donors and helpers decide. The compassion the latter show, while genuine, too often masks feelings of superiority and lack of respect for those receive help. It is difficult not to conclude that this book, too, falls into that category.

Why do I say this? To begin with, it is Mortenson who decides what needs to be done (put up a school building in Korphe, Pakistan) and then goes about planning it singlehanded without any consultation with the beneficiaries (the folk in the village). If you have read the book you might remind me that Mortenson does, later on, listen to Haji Ali, the chief of Korphe.  The important point, though, is that Haji Ali is in a very different position in relation to Mortenson than anyone else: Haji Ali took in a sick and vulnerable Mortenson nursing him for an extended period when the latter had nothing to offer in return. Haji Ali’s hospitality came before Mortenson’s good works and is the inspiration and reason why the latter thought of the work in the first place. No other person could take the liberties Haji Ali takes in correcting him.

Let me mention three places in the story that I found particularly shocking:

The first is where the narrator states that Mortenson has “assembled an American board and a scruffy Pakistani staff” (p.190) Among these “scruffy staff” was one Ghulam Parvi who “had served as the director of…SWAB, Social Welfare Association, Baltistan. Under his leadership SWAB had managed to build two primary schools….before the funds promised by the Pakistani government dried up and he was forced to take odd accounting jobs.” (p.137) Why are such local people who helped make schools in Pakistan a reality through contributing land, work and expertise considered “scruffy” in comparison to a distant American Board?!

Secondly, despite knowing Parvi’s expertise in building schools, Mortenson accepted the position of Director of the Central Asia Institute (an American project to build village schools all over Central Asia). He also accepted an adequate salary for himself while “he offered Parvi a small salary to supplement his income as an accountant.” (p.146)

Thirdly, when Parvi is later made the director for Pakistan of Mortenson’s expanded institute  Mortenson allowed Parvi to address him with honorary titles such as Dr. and Dr. Sahib (even though he was not  a medical doctor), while continuing to follow his own ideas instead of encouraging the latter’s leadership. Listen to the following exchange:

“For a long time, I’ve been worrying about what to do when our students graduate,” [Mortenson] said. “Mr. Parvi, would you look into what it would cost to build a hostel in Skardu, so our best students would have some place to stay if we give them scholarships to continue their education?”

“I’d be delighted, Dr. Sahib,” Parvi said, smiling, freed finally to organize the project he’d been advocating for years.

“Oh, and one more thing,” Mortenson said.

“Yes, Dr. Greg, sir.”

“Yasmine would be a perfect candidate to receive one of CAI’s first scholarships. Can you let me know what her tuition would be if she went to private high school in the fall?”

Yasmine, 15, was Parvi’s daughter, a straight-A student who had obviously inherited her father’s fierce intelligence, and just as obviously inspired his fierce devotion. “Well?”

For a rare, elongated moment, Ghulam Parvi, the most eloquent man in Skardu, was struck silent, his mouth hanging open. “I don’t know what to say,” he said. (p.305)

This is not a relationship of equals. The Big White Chief is dispensing largesse to the natives. If such an unequal relationship is to be redressed, the donor has to relinquish decision-making in favour of the other, not put the latter in a position of perpetual, subservient gratitude.

Instead of admiring the Lone Ranger who “takes on the world” and “brings about change”, we should be making serious efforts to identify local people such as Ghulam Parvi who are  already busy making changes and, drawing alongside, simply support their efforts.

Richard Sennett is a world-famous sociologist who has taught at the London School of Economics and at New York University. In his book entitled Respect, he recalls his early childhood in the late 1940s growing up in Cabrini Green, a notorious post-war housing project in Chicago. Cabrini Green was an ambitious, well-intentioned attempt by social engineers and architects (none of whom actually lived on site) to combine an experiment in racial and social integration with low-cost housing.

Sennett  sums up his experience of what went wrong with Cabrini Green, repeating a truth that has been amply demonstrated all over the world:

“These projects denied people control over their own lives…they were rendered spectators to their own needs…were mere consumers of care provided for them….they experienced that peculiar lack of respect which consists of not being seen, not being accounted as full human beings…” (Respect, Penguin 2004, pp.12-13, my emphasis)

Three Cups of Tea is not easy to criticize, because Greg Mortenson is such a sacrificially committed and very likable person. Also good things done by Americans for Pakistanis and Afghans are very encouraging to witness.

Mortenson is right to participate in relief and development. He is right that we who have more than enough ought to give sacrificially and participate in making a better world. But we from the West really must be determined to do this respectfully! Will we ever learn? Will we ever be willing to give up fame and that exhilarating sense of personal achievement that comes with “taking on the world” by ourselves?

26 Responses to "The Fourth Cup of Tea"


I know Mr. Ghulam Parvi his son is my friend. Ishaq(his son) is taking care of the construction of the hostle. indeed it is a great effort to help the people of baltistan.


m askari aziz

Thanks Karin and Mr. Aziz for your comments on Three Cups of Tea — mutual relationships and walking with people on their journey is so imortant—

Everyone has something to contribute because we are ALL valuable. We do need to drink more tea together which, I guess is medicinal as it somehow allows the eardrums to open up and we can actually hear one another if we listen……….

Cheers to another cup of tea………

Steve Goode

Indeed, indeed, indeed. The discernment and elucidation of this article is very helpful. Let’s drink a fourth cup of tea for Respect. Thank you Karin.

Thank you for sharing your point of view on this famous book Karin! I haven’t read it, so I feel like I did after reading you! The feeling of superiority, or “better-than-thou” attitude is an issue to be addressed not only in development work, but also in everyday relationships , even within one same community!

Just another thought on this book — it was one of my favorite books in the last few years — not because Greg Mortenson was a development expert, – he was a mountain climber that wanted to make it to the top of the mountain and plant a flag in memory of his sister who died.

He grew up in Africa and saw the impact of missionary parents who built one of the top hospitals and top schools led by Africans today.

Greg also was taken in after getting lost on the mountain by a Muslim leader or he could have easily died – His daughter through this interaction was able to become a doctor through this and other schools. I have to say that these Muslim leaders stood up to this young crazy American who sometimes did not have a clue helped teach him invaluable lessons.

Even as Greg has made mistakes, building several hundred schools for girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan has made a huge impact. Even though they get burned down by those who do not believe girls should be in school and studying — there are people who will find a way to do that.

We have to find more people that are willing to be bridges, that see women empowered, completing school and serving their peoples. I guess that is the reason that I have just purchased Greg’s second book called Stones into Schools – promoting peace with books, not bombs in Afghanistan and Pakistan

Having just completed reading Three Cups of Tea, I deliberately looked for negative comments knowing that with all of the glowing tributes to Mortenson there just had to be several brickbats. My quibble with Karin’s negative statements are these:
1) American Mortenson didn’t wait until he was rich before he began his mission to build Korphe’s school unlike Bill Gates, Angelina Jolie, Jay Leno’s wife, Oprah Winfrey, etc. etc.; he was, by North American standards, a poor person.
2) Mortenson’s ‘adequate’ salary for himself’ – ask his wife about the US cost of living at the time, and how much her income was required for the family to live modestly!
3) Lack of respect is hardly the way I would describe the relationship between Mortenson and the people for whom he works. Although I, too, consider ‘scruffy’ to be unnecessarly pejorative, Mortenson is often described as pretty scruffy-looking himself! And who were the first to give him the title “Dr.”?
Was it a title he gave himself or even encouraged? (See p. 31)
5) Self-aggrandisement? Because of the PUBLISHER’S blurbs to entice people to read the book? Because of honours, speaking engagements, TV interviews, speaking engagements? The man raises money in the US! The only way to do that successfully is to be portrayed as a larger than life ‘hero’.
Damning with faint praise is what I call Karin’s response to Mortenson’s work. If the condemning letters from his own people after the Twin Towers catastrophe didn’t dissuade him, I doubt that Karin’s comment would do so. But think, woman, what if he had just given up then? What if he gave up today?

I agree with you, Joan and Steve, that no one reaching out to the needy should be dissuaded from doing so. Far too few of us who have some access to wealth actively help.

But I do not infer from this that good will, compassion and sacrifice somehow excuse us from treating beneficiaries with respect.

It is easy for us to sympathize with the hardships and goodness of Greg Mortenson, but I am calling us to see the perspective of Pakistanis and Afghanis who should be supported instead of led by outsiders.

Let us not forget that education for girls – despite glaring deficiencies – is not new to Pakistan and Afghanistan, nor is its resurgent focus a foreign import. Both countries have their share of university educated women (in pre-Taliban Afghanistan 60% of medical doctors were women) and locals such as young Afghani Sadiqu Basiri Saleem ( take initiative at great personal cost to bring education to girls in remote areas.


Today i have mostly been ….arrogant!!! Thank you Karin.

Karin I agree with your critique that much that passes in wealthy countries for mission or humanitarian assistance, as for example in the overwhelming response to the tragedy in Haiti (I have read eye witness accounts of how swarms of Western medical teams literally bullied their way past or over teams from Third World countries) is often the western flag-planting, lone-ranger, opportunist-tourist or corporate showcase kind of mission and philanthropism, that gets involved to prove a point, or as a publicity stunt. Why so much medecine for Haiti now, when genuine help for Haitians in so many lines of assistance to build their nation has been denied for so long?

When it comes down to actually learning the language of people “needing mission”, finding who their heroes are, and following their leaders in the task of learning what help will be meaningful for them, we wealthy and mobile world citizens from western countries make a profound discovery, more often than not, that we are the ones in need of mission and true philanthropism, to wean us from our self-grounded self sufficiency. When we can receive others’ kindness at a point of real need (a disposition which many wealthy westerners will never reach) then we know in what spirit to reach out to those different to and poorer than ourselves.

This has been my experience growing up and living and working and choosing to stay in South Africa.

Thank you for your thought provoking piece.

Just also ticking the boxes for any follow up

Well written Karin. The shortage of committed, genuine community rebuilders is not an excuse for sanctioning the kind of dependancy that Mortensen’s (well-intentioned) projects engender. I have not read the book but have witnessed this in our own lives and around us in community work where the ‘aided’ is merely the receiver and not the active particpant in the decisions that shape their present and future. Personally, we have had to sever such ties rather than live out someone else’s life in servile dependancy (and the ones in question were Indian and not foreign donors…just to say that this tendency is one that ails the donor irrespective of geography). The system is too well-entrenched in the macro-world of donorship even in the domain of Christian “giving” and am afraid correcting it will prove harder because the “aided” has inherited an entrenched dependancy that feeds the position and power of the giver. But it has taught us valuable lessons in our giving and your review affirms those. Blessings

I wonder whether Mortensen is a CIA or other agent. I heard him speak at a college. He flashed slides as he spoke. Some slides were of Petraus and McCrystal. He spoke highly of them and explained how his way, building schools, was a lesson for the military to be more effective in its mission. Hmmmm. When it was time for questions, he censored questions dealing with the war. He brought the war up and then prohibited questions about the war. Strange. It was reported to me by a college student who had the ability to know that Mortensen flew in on a private jet and got $20,000 bucks for his talk.

Thank you Karin. I went through the comments as well. Three cups of tea has been a controversial book in Pakistan. Greg has written many false stories. He did not pay any scholarship for Parvi,s daughter Yasmeen. The stories he added in the book for the Americans are not true. Yes he is confirmed to be CIA agent. I have finished helping him, as he damaged my position in the society. You people will be shocked to know that in his website he has shown 16 ghost school projects. Climbers and trekkers know that 1) there is no Girls High School in Kandey and Gulabpur. 2) Jinnah Public School Skardu, Al-Mustafa Public School, Pari Gongma Primary School, Goma Pari Primary School, Primary Primary school, Women honour model school are his ghost projects. He is now helping to the American Army in Afghanistan. We also negate his statements in the Chapter The Red Velvet Box about Syed Abbas, Iran and Fatwa.

If what you say is true, why don’t you write to the publishers Penguin books and expose him? You should also write to the journalist David Oliver Relin who wrote the book with him; and also send letters to the Washington Post and the New York Times saying what you say to me. All these addresses will be available on the web. Perhaps you should also send your comment to those who wrote to my Blog saying how impressed they were with Mortensen’s book. You should ask them too to use whatever influence they have to bring out the truth. (from Karin)

Yes I already did. I wrote to David, Greg, CAI Board members, but they are all under the influence of Greg. Greg has committed by himself in an email to me that there are mistakes and falsehood in the book. My objections continues since the draft stage of the book. But we are helpless. The only way for us rest only to go before court of justice and ask the relevant people to come and explain before the Court.

You should write to the publishers, with copies of Greg’s admissions. If they refuse to withdraw the book, seek legal advice.

Thank you for the considerations. A poor needy person of Karakuram mountains cannot threat even an American back packer. The only way is to ask Greg if he come to this part of Pakistan, while he refrains from coming here. Did not come to
this area since 2007.

Dear Karin and Ghulam

I was in G-B this summer. I saw the empty school CAI built in Hushey, I heard many of the things Parvi wrote from just about every single person I talked to. I am appalled. I am so so sorry. How can we correct that? I just wrote an email to Greg. A friend who was in the Wakhan told me that some of the schools built there are empty as well.
Parvi can you get in touch with me?


Ibex, thank you. I have asked a journalist to meet and interview Ghulam on this, so that the truth can be told worldwide. Anything you can do would also be appreciated.

Ghulam, please see the recent comment by IBex and also my reply. If a journalist contacts you about this, please tell him/her everything.

I would be happy to help.

Hello Karen and Ibex. Please tel me how to contact Ibex on his email address. Few journalists are asking me, but I dont know how to resolve the problems. Yes if the Climbers and Trekkers could just give attention towards the matter, it will soon be cleared, specially about the Ghost projects, which Greg has shown on his website under the head *Regional Maps*.

I agree with you kiran.
There is a lot of other false information is included in this book.
I can tell you the whole story of Mr. Greg from the day when he came to Pakistan in 1993 with the K2 expedition till it publishes this book.

i am the resident of that area where he built those school.

The real story is something else….
The man behind Greg is someone to whom I know, who helped him from the day one.
And he supported the K2 expedition as a local tour operator.

If you want to know the real story then you can contact me.

Ahmed Baltistani

In this New York Times best seller, Greg has given his biography in details. He belongs to a below average family, passing days in miseries. His education, his job training etc. etc. clearly declares his social status.
What a strange thing.. While working with the village communities of such a part of the world, which Americans declare the most underserved region of he World, within no time Greg Mortenson becomes a) Doctor (Medical), Philanthropist, Historian, Religious specialists with reference to Islam and Buddhism, Politician, Bureaucrat, Critic and analyst on Army matters, climber, humanitarian, lover and follower of Mother Tressa, (where people believe a new date of death for the pleasure of Greg), Saver of Balti children in special and Pakistani Children from Taliban. He also comments on the role of Saudi Goverment, Iran Government, Pakistan Government etc. etc. claiming that he is a humble social worker. He also comments on the personal lives of different people and groups of the area, for which no body can allow and tolerate. And in the end, the ignorant American Readers blindly believes on the tales of the book 3 cups of tea.

If you listen to the people on the other end, we declare the book is full of false stories, based on one sided, specially designed against Islam, Balti culture and Pakistan as well. People condemn the contents of the book.

Now see: On page 141 (1st edition) about Korphe Mosque he writes: “It had stood for nearly five hundred years, and had served as a Buddhist temple before Islam had established a foothold in Baltistan”.

On page 142 Greg injects a very poisonous remarks telling: “ A few months earlier, Mortenson had read in the Islamabad papers about Pakistan’s latest wave of Sunni-Shiite violence. A Skardu bound bus had passed through the Indus Gorge on its way up the Karakorum Highway. Just past Chilas, a Sunni-dominated region, a dozen masked men armed with Kalashnikovs blocked the road and forced the passengers out. They separated the Shia from the Sunni and cut the throats of eighteen Shia men while their wives and children were made to watch. Now he (Greg) was praying like a Sunni at the heart of Shiite Pakistan. Among the warring sects of IslaM. Morenson knew, men had been killed for less”.
This had never happened. The story is totally false and based on ulterior motives of Greg Mortenson and his humanitarian work. The American readers should know, that in the 21st century, nothing is hide out of the eyes of the print and electronic media. The CBS TV, BBC, VOA and other International TV channels have their reliable reps in Islamabad, one can ask and verify this story. It is biased, dishonest and totally false story. Greg Mortenson want to divide and destroy the religious harmony of Baltistan and Gilgit, and injects poison among the new generation, for whom he claims to be the Hero.
Greg has put black paint on the faces of the Americans who will travel in the mountain in the future.

Considering that the controversy from 60 Minutes is bubbling up, these critical comments may be true 🙂

I think it will be the children, particularly the girls of Pakistan and Afghanistan that are affected by this story, if it is true. I just read the following which is an interview from the first article about Greg:

Greg is not a development worker nor has he worked with NGO’s nor Boards before writing Three Cups of Tea or Stones into Schools. He has spent serious time away from his family in reaching out to remote areas. He has made mistakes as we all have. He has been ripped off as we all have. He is a maverick like many pioneers or trailblazers and has offended people. He has made a ton of money from these books that he has said should outlive him in providing for children’s education and scholarships for years to come. Hopefully that will be true with this independent review of CAI and his Board’s engagement. There are too few people and organizations reaching out to the remote areas of the world because of all of the challenges. Hopefully, they will not be the ones who continue to suffer because of these mistakes.

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December 2009
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