Sunday, September 13, 2009

Suggested Serving: Three Cups

I recently finished reading "Three Cups of Tea" by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin. The difficult thing about this book, for me, is that I really don't think it was as well written as it could have been. Usually this alone would be reason enough for me to not recommend a book. However, I think the topic and content of the book are significant enough to stand on their own.

For those out there who aren't familiar with the story, the very short version is that it's about this American who tries to build schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Obviously, it isn't as simple as that, but you really should read the book to find out more.

I have spent the better part of two years reading the blog of a dear friend who was living in Egypt. Many of the topics of her blog were similar to many of the challenges Mortenson faced in Pakistan. I therefore felt that I could vicariously relate to Mortenson's predicaments. However, the big difference was in the telling of the events. My friend was able to find humor is her situations, while Mortenson's story feels more like drudgery. For example, at one point, Mortenson is on a flight to Afghanistan. Seven of the eight Afghan commercial planes were bombed in the aftermath of 9/11, so on Mortenson's flight, the eight pilots took turns of about 15 minute increments so they could all log flying time. In my head, I'm imagining some sort of relay-race-cum-musical-chairs for turns in the pilot seat. It could really be quite amusing, especially with the appropriate music and a lot of gesticulating. However, the book basically says exactly what I said two sentences ago. I realize the book isn't supposed to be a comedy, but there were a number of situations that really could have been quite comedic and instead they were dully written. I'm not sure if that is a lack of skill on the part of the author, or if Mortenson really didn't find the same things funny as I did, and so they were not portrayed humorously in his retelling.

The next thing that bugged me about the book is that I am always surprised by the gall some people have! At the start of Mortenson's decision to build schools, he plans on building just one, and he figures he can do it for about $12,000. That's really not a lot of money to raise, and he writes 580 letters to various people, including senators, news anchors, and anyone else he can think of who might be interested in this project. He gets one response with a check for $100. While I admire that this doesn't deter him, I was a bit annoyed by how he treated this enormous rejection, as if everyone else were wrong and he was the only one who was right. On the one hand, I'm pretty sure that all successful nonprofits are driven by people who are absolutely convinced that their cause is the most important cause. This is part of the reason I've had so much trouble picking a cause to support: I haven't decided which one is the most important to me. On the other hand, it really pisses me off when organizations get mad that I don't want to donate to their issue. I actually had a phone call from some cancer organization where the woman said to me "Don't you care about helping children?" She actually said it as I was guilty of murdering babies by not giving to this organization. So, of course, I said, "no, I don't care," and hung up. It's not that I don't care, but I wasn't interested in being treated poorly by an organization asking for my money. Hello? It's my money and I worked hard for it. I'll do with it what I damn well please. For the record, I volunteer to tutor adults, I participated in the American Cancer Society's Relay for Life, I made a donation to help rebuild a local family's home, and I'm volunteering with my company to help relandscape a community organization in October. So it's not exactly like I'm a stingy miser.

On the positive side, I am mature enough to understand that my personal complaints really aren't a good reason to not read this book and pass on it's message.

Mortenson did finally get funding for his first school (and many subsequent schools), and he created an organization called the Central Asia Institute (CAI). This is the organization that handles the funds that enables Mortenson to continue to build schools in impoverished central Asia. Mortenson insists that his schools allow girls, as he believes educating girls is the secret to a peaceful society.

I took a class called "Peace through Commerce" as part of my MBA program, and one of the topics covered was microfinance. Without going into a lot of detail, microfinance is exactly what it sounds like--really small loans to people. For example, if you give a $15 loan to a cheese maker in a third world country, they can buy a special kind of thermometer and make better cheeses, which they can then sell at higher prices, and make more money, and improve the standard of living for their families. Microfinance organizations have found making loans to women, rather than men, to be more successful. Successful in two senses: women are more likely to pay back the loan, and women are more likely to use the extra income they earned as a result of whatever they did with the loan money to better the lives of their family, specifically their children, usually by sending them to school.

Additionally, it has been discovered that educating girls, specifically, to the fifth-grade level does all sorts of wonderful things for a society, including decreasing infant mortality, decreasing domestic abuse, decreasing violence, and creating a more productive society. Between what I know about microfinance and what I've learned about the importance of educating girls, I am really beginning to think that Mortenson might be on to something!

Here's where my personal irony comes in to play: after fifth grade, I HATED going to school. I COULD NOT think of a worse fate than having to go to school for the rest of my life (I realize that sounds rather melodramatic, but you're about 10 in fifth grade, and if you consider that you're about 22 when you graduate from college, those 12 years really do seem like the rest of your life when you're looking at it from the perspective of a 10-year-old). At the same time, I realized that I was way better off being a girl in America than I would have been in many other places in the world. And I did go to college, although I really, really didn't want to. It was easier for me to go to college and hate it for four years than to not go and have to spend the rest of my life explaining to people why I didn't go.

Those are two luxuries I think all girls should have: the luxury of having the option to HATE school, and the luxury of going to school being an easier choice than not going.

So while I won't say that Mortenson's cause is the most important one, or that "Three Cups of Tea" is the best book I've ever read, I will say that his cause is worth pondering and that his book is worth reading. All in all, I think that's fair praise.

1 comment:

  1. Virginia,
    Antie Carol also hated jr. high and high school. She was confussed about what was expected of her, who she was supposed to please, and on and on. She was glad when school ended. So your hating of school was not and is not your solo problem. Many people feel or felt the same. It was a tough time for many.
    Have you read The Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, or Hands of My Father?