Speaking Volumes: Greg Mortenson’s Bitter Brew

(Published in the Business Standard, April 26, 2011. This was such a sad column to write; Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea set me and several other friends on a journey of exploring how best to make donations of money, books or time to local libraries, and briefly inspired a few very big dreams. The sense of betrayal is very strong, for many of us who were Mortenson fans, and I’m hoping that the Central Asia Institute will get its accounting and focus in order and continue to build and maintain schools.
But even if the Three Cups of Tea story has been tinged with bitterness, I am grateful that reading that book years ago led me (and others) to so many interesting library and literay efforts. It was through Mortenson’s book–and through the generosity of a friend who gave me Wood’s book–that I discovered Room To Read, and the work it does in India among other countries, for instance.)

If you wanted to change the world, 2006 was a good year in which to find inspiration, in the lives of restless men with a will to make the world better and a yen for mountaineering.

Two of them, Room To Read’s John Wood and the Central Asia Institute’s Greg Mortenson, released books in 2006 that would continue to inspire people around the world for the next five years. One of them is in trouble, his story questioned after an investigation by CBS’ 60 Minutes.

There are many parallels between Wood’s story and Mortenson’s tale. Wood, trekking in the Himalayas, stumbled across a Nepali school and was struck by the absence of books for the children. The Microsoft employee returned with the promised books, building what would become the first of many libraries and schools as part of the Room To Read network. Wood founded Room to Read in 2000, writing about the experience in Leaving Microsoft to Change the World in 2006.

Wood’s focus was on Room To Read’s roughly 1,128 schools and 10,000 libraries, built and maintained across India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Vietnam, Sri Lanka and parts of Africa. His book is a corporate memoir — inspiring, but crisp and blunt about the challenges of running an organisation that wanted to change the way the world’s children read. His teachings are blunt, gleaned from experience; it’s from Wood that you learn how much better the small, open-to-all reading room works in India, for instance, rather than the intimidating, closed space of the government library.

Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea belongs on the inspirational literature shelf. His story was gripping: in 1993, Mortenson wrote, his passion for mountaineering got him into trouble, and he stumbled into the tiny village of Korphu in Pakistan’s Karakoram range. Nursed back to health by the villagers, Mortenson promised himself he would return and build them a school, which he did despite the rugged terrain and despite being briefly held captive by a group of men who appear to be from the Taliban. The Central Asia Institute, founded by Mortenson, has established 145 schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

But what made the book a bestseller was the drama, and Mortenson’s ability to touch people’s hearts. The title is drawn from an incident where he sits down with the statutory wise man of the village, Haji Ali: “…Haji Ali spoke. ‘If you want to thrive in Baltistan, you must respect our ways. The first time you share tea with a Balti, you are a stranger. The second time you take tea, you are an honoured guest. The third time you share a cup of tea, you become family, and for our family, we are prepared to do anything, even die. Doctor Greg, you must take time to share three cups of tea….’”

It was this kind of wisdom, as well as the message of hope, and Mortenson’s clearly etched passion for educating girls that made Three Cups of Tea such a bestseller, much-loved in India and elsewhere in the world. As with Wood, Mortenson’s lesson seemed to be that it was possible to change the world – “one school at a time” – though the numbers make you wonder which man was more focused on the actual goal.

It is this aspect of the book, and the Mortenson legend that the CBS television show sought to investigate. The accusations carry weight because they are made by a respected writer — wildlife and mountaineering expert Jon Krakauer, author of Into Thin Air and Into The Wild. Krakauer casts doubt on Mortenson’s story of stumbling into Korphu at death’s door — the reality seems to have been more prosaic, with Mortenson pledging to build a school after a normal trek. He also challenges Mortenson’s account of being held by the Taliban, with one of his “captors” denying the story. Mortenson’s responses have been evasive, and he has no good reason for refusing to appear on the 60 Minutes show.

But the real damage arises from the 60 Minutes investigation of how the money raised by Mortenson’s charity is spent —the implication is that the charity spends almost as much on funding Mortenson’s book tours as it does on actually setting up schools.

The CBS show has spread dismay and sadness around the world; the accusations suggest that Mortenson exaggerated much of the truth — and that his charity is unprofessional. No one questions the real, if limited, value of the work he has done; and if organisations like Room To Read have done more in roughly the same time-span, it is not a crime for a charity to be disorganised. There is, as Krakauer and others have pointed out, a more serious breach of trust — those who believed in Mortenson’s legend and the power of three cups of tea are entitled to ask why there weren’t more schools, and fewer book tours.

The real sadness is in having to separate the wisdom of Three Cups of Tea – listen to the people you’re trying to help, believe that you can make a difference, slow down and take time to understand the way things run – from its accuracy. I thought, like many other readers across the world, that this was a true story, and it is heartbreaking in a way Mortenson may not understand to be told that it is, instead, a very colourful one.





One response to “Speaking Volumes: Greg Mortenson’s Bitter Brew”

  1. Anonymous Avatar

    John Wood continues to inspire through unvarnished words and specific actions. I continue to support Room to Read; Mortenson always struck me as a slick storyteller, and never got into the "wisdom" that he was (re)selling. Running a charity/ non-profit is not a license for bad bookkeeping, and taking donations for a cause should require some accountability. Tall tales from an ex-mountaineer!

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