The Power of Three Cups of Tea
September 13, 2009
Rev. Jane Page
(Readers Note: Direct quotes from AP articles cited are in italics.)
Yesterday, September 12 – at 3:45 p.m. Eastern Time, the following was posted by the Associated Press:
About 50 civilians, security forces and militants were killed in a wave of violence around Afghanistan, including a bomb that left 14 Afghan travelers dead in one of the country's most dangerous regions. Five American soldiers died in two attacks using roadside bombs.
The attacks Friday and Saturday reached a broad swath of the country, demonstrating the spread of the Taliban insurgency, which had been largely confined to the country's south and east in the years after the 2001 U.S. invasion. Half of those killed in the most recent attacks were civilians, who often find themselves caught in the grinding war between the Taliban and U.S. and NATO forces.
Every day there are headlines in our papers and editorials on the opinion pages about what one journalist calls “The Afghan Abyss.” What are we to do?
According to one recent (8-31-09) Associated Press story:
U.S. casualties have been mounting since President Barack Obama ordered 21,000 more American troops to Afghanistan, shifting the focus of the war on Islamic extremism from Iraq to this country where the global conflict began nearly eight years ago.
Since the reinforcements began arriving last spring, American deaths have climbed (with this past August being the highest month ever).
The latest casualties occurred as the top U.S. and NATO commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal sent his much-anticipated strategic review of the Afghan war to the Pentagon and NATO headquarters.
"The situation in Afghanistan is serious, but success is achievable and demands a revised implementation strategy, commitment and resolve, and increased unity of effort.”
McChrystal did not ask for more troops but is expected to do so in a separate request… according to two NATO officials.
And because the Pashtun tribal regions on both sides of the “border” between Afghanistan and Pakistan have become regions where the Taliban and Al Queda trained, hid, and recruited young men to join the fight – the US is now targeting areas of Pakistan as well.
U.S. officials had hoped that the recent Aug. 20 presidential election would establish an Afghan government with the legitimacy to combat the Taliban, corruption and the flourishing drug trade.
The vote, however, was clouded by allegations of widespread fraud (that we continue to read about every day) as well as threats and intimidation by the Taliban. Here is one man’s story about going to vote:
"I was on my way to a polling station when Taliban stopped me and searched me. They found my voter registration card," Lal Mohammad said from a hospital bed in Kabul. After cutting off his nose and both ears, they beat him unconscious with a weapon.
"I regret that I went to vote," Mohammad said, crying and trying to hide his disfigured face. "What is the benefit of voting to me?"
Meanwhile, I’ve read many other articles and editorials with contrasting statistics and arguments for ameliorating the very difficult situation in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. As I deliver this sermon, I’m confused. I do not know if there is any kind of military answer. Many nations since the time of Alexander the Great have attempted to change this region with military might and ALL have failed. So I have doubts whether increased troops can make a difference. And I do not know if an election – in this region – can make a difference. But I do know – that one man, Greg Mortenson, in his own quite way, – IS making a difference – school by school, book by book, and pencil by pencil.
Greg shares his story in the book co-authored by David Relin entitled, Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace, One School at a Time. If you have not yet read it, I encourage you to do so.
Now his story is not all about success – in fact, his first chapter is entitled “Failure.” Greg’s sister Christa had died of a massive seizure on her 23rd birthday. As a tribute to her he declared that he would climb K-2, the summit most climbers consider the toughest to reach on Earth, and leave Christa’s necklace wrapped in a Tibetan prayer flag there at 28,267 feet. He was an experienced climber and felt totally prepared for the journey. After all, he had summated Kilimanjaro at age eleven and had even made several successful Himalayan ascents. He came close, but on September 2, 1993, the summit had receded into the mist and he was separated from the climbing party and the trail. He had already struggled for 78 days at high altitudes, and he felt like a “faint, shriveled caricature of himself.” He knew he had failed – and not only failed, but may not make it back alive.
You’ll have to read the book to get the details – but the good news is that he eventually wandered into the village of Korphe. As noted in the children’s story, these good folks took him in and nursed him back to health. And before he left, he vowed to return to build them a school.
Now Greg Mortenson was not a rich man. In fact, Mortenson lived basically out of a storage room. His love for climbing meant that he would work as an emergency room nurse, save money for an expedition, and then spend that money. How in the world was someone like him going to keep his promise to the people of Korphe? He began a letter writing campaign to folks who COULD afford to help and explained his goal. He typed (on a typewriter) 580 letters and got one small check. Mortenson’s mom was an elementary school principal and suggested he come to talk to the children at her school. He wasn’t asking for a donation – but the children and their teachers decided to bring in pennies for a 6 week period of time to help him build this school. And the children collected 62, 345 pennies. That check his mom sent from the children for $623.45 represented to him the first step toward building the school – and it came from children. Later he connected with another mountain climber, Jean Hoerni, who had accumulated a lot of wealth in his lifetime – but did not part with it easily. Mortenson told him he had estimated that it would cost 12 thousand dollars to build the school and Hoerni sent him a check. Even so, for a long time it seemed it would not happen. Mortenson’s story is like a slow dance with two steps forward and one step back. But he learned along the way to do this slow dance with grace – and that is another compelling part of his story.
One of the lessons that Mortenson learned was the necessity of getting to know folks and conforming to their culture in doing so. Part of that culture included the drinking of tea – and he drank loads of it in the process of building this school. The book is called “Three Cups of Tea” because of the ritual used by the people in that region. Haji Ali, the Korphe Village Chief said:
“Here (in Pakistan and Afghanistan), we drink three cups of tea to do business, the first you are a stranger, the second you become a friend, and the third, you join our family, and for our family we are prepared to do anything – even die.”
While he was getting ready to build the school at Korphe, other villages insisted he visit them and loaded him up on tea and food – trying to convince him that the school should go in their village instead. And Mortenson learned of the great need – not just for education – but for an education that was balanced. There were schools going up in the regions – in fact a great many schools have been built there in the last decade. But these schools are built by the Wahhabi sect from Saudi Arabia.
Wahhabism is a conservative, fundamentalist offshoot of Sunni Islam and the official state religion of Saudi Arabia’s rulers. Many Saudi followers of the sect consider the term offensive and prefer to call themselves al-Muwahhhiddun, (which some translate as Unitarians for worship of one God). In Pakistan, and other impoverished countries most affected by Wahhabi proselytizing though, the name Wahhabi – has stuck.
While Mortenson returned with more money for new schools from his newly established Central Asia Institute foundation, he found that his education efforts were dwarfed by these fundamentalist Islamic schools. Mortenson reported that Pakistan’s dysfunctional educational system made advancing Wahhabi doctrine a simple matter of economics. A tiny percentage of the country’s wealthy children attended private elite schools. But vast regions of the country were scarcely served by Pakistan’s very inadequately funded public school system. Some of these schools are in name only – with no teachers, no buildings, and no supplies.
Mortenson says: “I don’t want to give the impression that all Wahhabi are bad. Many of their schools and mosques are doing good work to help Pakistan’s poor. But some of them seek to exist only to teach militant jihad.”
The book also notes that the curriculum of these schools consists primarily of rote study of the Koran and many do not include any science or social studies, and very little math.
In contrast, Mortenson’s work is giving thousands of students what they need most – the tools to pull themselves out of poverty. And one very big difference is that Mortenson has a primary focus on educating girls --- who are, of course, banned from Wahhabi education.
Many say that our concern should not be on education in this region, but on eliminating terrorists. But perhaps Greg Mortenson’s fight – IS a fight against terrorism. Many of you may remember reading a report of Mortenson’s work in Parade magazine back in 2006. In that article he states: “If we try to resolve terrorism with military might and nothing else, then we will be no safer than we were before 9/11. If we truly want a legacy of peace for our children, we need to understand that this is a war that will ultimately be won with books, not with bombs.”
Perhaps those views were formed from a conversation he had with former Pakistani General Bashir Baz, now the owner of a small aviation company who was arranging a flight for Mortenson from Pakistan to Afghanistan several years ago.
I’m going to close with this passage just as it was shared in Three Cups of Tea.
Bashir paused to watch a live CNN feed from Baghdad. He was struck silent by the images of wailing Iraqi women carrying children’s bodies out of the rubble of a bombed building. As he studied the screen, Bashir’s bullish shoulders slumped. “People like me are America’s best friends in the region,” Bashir said at last, shaking his head ruefully. “I’m a moderate Muslim, and educated man. But watching this, even I could become a jihadi. How can Americans say they are making themselves safer?” Bashir asked, struggling not to direct his anger toward the large American target on the other side of his desk. “Your President Bush has done a wonderful job of uniting one billion Muslims against America for the next two hundred years.”
“Osama had something to do with it, to,” Mortenson said.
“Osama, baah!” Bashir roared. “Osama is not a product of Pakistan or Afghanistan. He is a creation of America. Thanks to America, Osama is in every home. As a military man, I know you can never fight and win against someone who can shoot at you once and then run off and hide while you have to remain eternally on guard. You have to attack the source of your enemy’s strength. In America’s case, that’s not Osama or Saddam or anyone else. The enemy is ignorance. The only way to defeat it is to build relationships with these people, to draw them into the modern world with education and business. Otherwise the fight will go on forever.”
Oh, may that NOT be so!