Buffalo, New York, USA
January 01
Traveling through the universe.....just tarrying on this planet savoring life. I get the "Last Word" sometimes in "The Indian American' and relish the privilege to have a few Op-eds published in "News India Times". Niche 'n nice!


APRIL 18, 2011 5:26PM

Storm in the "Three Cups of Tea"- Greg Mortenson

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I had posted my review on the talk by Greg Mortenson given in Buffalo on November 10, 2010. Not many people commented on my article here but it caused quite a bit of a stir in India. My brand of cynicism was hailed as unwanted by Greg's ardent fans. I was taken to task by several readers of my blog in “The Indian American”. 

Well, a fresh round of questions that have turned up upon an investigation by CBS, which was aired on Sixty Minutes, April 17, 2011... makes me  post this with a sense of profound inquiry. I do not feel guilty about having had misgivings before and questioned some of his ideas. That is not the point. I truly wish to know WHY?  

So here goes the post as I had written it ….

Greg Mortenson came to town yesterday. An honorary doctorate from 16 universities, twice nominated for the Nobel, I met this shy yet confident personality, who did not seem to be used to the bright light of fame. He spoke from the heart about the work he has been doing in Afghanistan.

I agree that our soldiers, have succeeded in their limited mission and cannot also be responsible for the humanitarian work that must follow wars. Greg’s work is impressive in building schools from stones in Afghanistan starting in  Korphe. He has won the hearts and trust of a people who are by nature suspicious of foreigners, the hard way.... school by school, rock by rock.

He started off with a video that showed us the bleak vista which he is helping to rebuild. Even as the camera pans the buildings in Kabul one gets the sense of unadorned simplicity. Here and there are some architectural pieces but they are bombed out of recognition. He talked of the little boy Gul who was so interested in the proposed school project but died by a land mine. Gul’s father’s face was a study in human resilience and suffering. Greg’s personal feelings towards the boy, and Haji Ali were stirring as he went through some of the details in “Three Cups of Tea” to drive home his conviction about the role of education and awareness in bringing lasting peace.


The book is required reading for those in the Army who go to that part of the world to fight,  instituted by none other than General David Petraeus!  What could be reason to embellish a story that by itself is inspirational? Just to make a book a bestseller? Is that a reasonable explanation by someone who might have been a Nobel Prize winner? Could it be that he simply did not know? Is it  a legitimate reason? 

I continue from what I posted before…….

Listening to him talk I could not help having a few questions which went unasked. Would Mr. Mortenson have got as much attention, if instead of Afghanistan he had built these schools in Myanmar, Tibet, Nepal, any of the other depressed Eastern Himalayan sector, or even Kashmir? Another author in the past UB reader’s list was Khaled Hosseini who with his thousand splendid suns illuminated the kite runners from Afghanistan.

Afghanistan is then the focus I must deduce.  Don’t get me wrong, I think the job is splendid, but why is it that such work is so much more glorified that the quiet teacher in a rural town in the US or anywhere else, who do their job the best they can? Why is it that in ethereal circles of well settled professionals, they commiserate about the sibling teacher sister with hushed voices? Why is it that a child who aspires to be a teacher is met with “Why not a doctor?” It must be more the scope of the project at hand rather than teaching itself. Greg’s scope is admirably huge.


He threw up some slides with known wisdom about education. I could not but think about the one which says “If you educate a boy you educate an individual; if you educate a girl you educate a community” an African proverb. I would take extreme objection to it if I was a male teacher, a responsible father or citizen of the world. This is not to put down the basic principle that yes all girls should be educated and that all children have the basic human right to knowledge. But to separate out females from males by proverbs, which are more socially relevant rather than universal, is surely unnecessary in the US. What about the simple logic that both sexes need to be educated for a healthy society to flourish.

He talked about the importance of “elders” and listening to them and lamented the lack of it in the US or Western world. I come from the East and yes there is a huge advantage in learning from wise elders and talking to them and letting them lead the way. But even Greg would agree that this is an individual honor deserved by the older generation and given by the younger generation voluntarily. Not all elders have wisdom, and I would especially question the elders of Afghanistan who might know wonderful glorious stories of their past but have done very little to take charge of their own society and bring it to modern times. Is it okay for the children there to be so bereft of resources? Is it okay for the warlords to have run the town and kept their own girls down? Aren’t the elders the ones who have actually actively kept the country marking time and confounded them with religiosity, social and cultural taboos? As wonderful as it is for the villages in India to have been hearing the tales from “Ramayana” being told and retold (it is still fascinating, I wholeheartedly agree), or about the British Raj and the Freedom Movement, is it not also incumbent upon society to be proud of their present? Is it not incumbent upon the elders to find ways and means of disseminating knowledge through the means of the newer technologies and thus make the next generation vested in their future? To stick rigidly to history and wishing things to be the way they were without a balancing viewpoint about the present and future is sure the definition of fundamental thought. In fact one of education’s strength is in encouraging creativity and curiosity about the unknown. To make the further correlation that in the Western world there is no inter-generational give and take is not deserved. Modern technology has opened up the world to the silent majority who used to remain quiet in the past and has allowed them to actively participate in discussions.

His idea of empowering local people instead of doing charity rang a bell with me. I have always considered those who label their life work as charity as disingenuous. The word itself has inequality embedded in it automatically presuming that one is somehow better than another and is thus more qualified to be doing “for” rather than “with” someone. Logically helping one’s co-traveler results in a journey being successful, all scientific endeavor is collaborative, we are a society not individual islands. Education is the only way to enlightenment and awareness and has been the shining torch in the world and for me all my life.

As we snaked our way through the lines for his autograph I could not help notice the number of police that had been recruited to keep peace around the man.

book3Commentary: Why did a man of peace need so much security?

My questioning some of his ideas casued a flurry of negative reactions. A recent investigation by CBS aired this past Sunday on Sixty Minutes found quite a few of the facts in the book simply not corroborated by their research. The dates are incorrect. The schools sometimes do not exist? The kidnapping did not happen. So my question again to Mr Greg Mortenson is WHY? What could possibly be the reason to want to make more money than what the book would have made if it had been true? It is absolutely no(n) sense to me.

The video from AlJazeera English is linked and it makes me upset to think that one of the major programs we might have taken pride in estbalishing contact with minds and hearts where we are fighting  is now under fire. Could it not be simple and honest just this once and not be about money Mr Mortenson. Was the idea not big enough for you? Was the work not worthy enough? Did you really NEED this storm in your tea cup which in this case, might take all the good work down with it?


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With With great power comes great responsibility... the bigger the stage the more is need for transparency.
Indelible Ink, Greg has raised millions of dollars based upon this book and his retelling it in his talks . They are inspirational even without the embellishments. To take pennies from children based upon lies and untruths seems so wrong unnecessary. If he has simply told it like it was maybe he would not have made that kind of money but it would still be okay and enough and more. To have this tarnish the work is incredible. I have donated myself so I know the feeling....
This has been a sad and embarrassing development - not just the untruths in the book, but things like his institute paying for his book tour, but not getting the proceeds from the book ... which has made Mortenson an effing millionaire. And to do it all on using the most downtrodden of humans, little girls in Afghanistan...

P.S. - cute title!
Tell me abt it Myriad ! His ideas had realized questions in me way back when he spoke and it was tough to write the way I did seeing as how important he was. But I felt that if I were review him correctly I needed to bring even his big ideas under a microscope to examine. Got flak for it galore... and today feel miserable that there was much bigger wrong under all that meekness.
Tell me abt it Myriad ! His ideas had realized questions in me way back when he spoke and it was tough to write the way I did seeing as how important he was. But I felt that if I were review him correctly I needed to bring even his big ideas under a microscope to examine. Got flak for it galore... and today feel miserable that there was much bigger wrong under all that meekness.
I remember reading your blog about this. I don't think I commented, but like you had questions. I wish I had seen 60 min., and having not I will also wonder about the last questions you ask.
Usually when one gets a feeling of there being something not quite cohesive in an intellectual's thought process it makes one think Buffy. Why not? What do the holes mean? Why are there holes at all. Most of the times I have noticed that the holes are real and sometimes remain conundrums> But to be taking money under a false pretext is just as bad as the Wall Street bankers. It seems as if we have salesmen around us always selling snake oil and tiger piss.
I caught part of this today. Well done, Traveller1. You filled in what I had missed. Did he really raise hundreds of millions with that book?


Golden Zuma
For citizen reporting.
I think there are two sides to this. The explanation Greg gave is they lied to the reporters from 60 minutes because they don't agree with the premise of educating girls.
I don't think you can compare what he does to American school teachers. He risked his life on many occasions, doesn't claim benefits, or get a salary.
I think the verdict is still out.....
What is so special about the work done in Afghanistan, you ask. Why is this glorified? It is a photo op, T1, it is propaganda, that is all. They have been doing this forever.

As for the "separation of boy and girl," it is deliberate, to further the cause of women. This strategy usually works in America, but boy, is Afghanistan the wrongest country for such a scheme.

Great post, it always good to read you. R
You have made many points that are food for thought. This is a very thought provoking commentary. xlnt
Thanks for writing this. Even though he lived a lie, I think he did some good things. Ego is something that can wrap it's tentacles around you and not let go. In an earlier time, before the internet, people got away with this kind of stuff all the time. I can't even begin to image what we would have dug up on our founding fathers if we had Google back then.I couldn't believe what I was seeing on 60 minutes. His world fell apart and he's still professing innocence. Great Job!
What Scanner said.

Adulation and money, like power, corrupt.
Zuma and Susie Thanks for the visit .... Susie I do still wish to blv that all is not for naught . That indeed the scope of his work transcends the motives behind the obvious discrepancies. I admired his work, but my questions are still there. The automatic respect for elders which he spoke so condescendingly of. I am from the East. If that is one thing I have learnt is that respect is to be earned. I may touch your feet as a custom and take your blessings as a gesture of love but true respect comes from a deeper place. It is not automatically positively correlated to age.
But I agree the jury is out ...we shall see
Thoth Scanner, ONL, and Myriad,

I shall be keenly following this work since I have donated freely to it. I have been inspired by it to go out there and teach at the High School level meself. If even half of what he has achieved is above board it is a thousand times more than I can ever achieve. But my point is exactly that. We may never achieve anything becasue we are careful about doing the right thing. So is thinking out of the box in ways undeserving the ONLY way to achieve anything? Does the end justify the means? Do we now feel bad that we never tried any of this and thus do not get anywhere? How is one to judge one's own life work?
It was a scam. He used his organization to make money. I know it's awful--really, really awful--but move on..because the only thing more awful would be to continue to make him a celebrity.

Nikki and BOKO, agreed upsetting and more than agree moving on............!
I checked my copy and there is no mention anywhere if it is a fiction or if it is a true story. But there is the address at the end of the book requesting to send in the money ( the paperback version I have). Since he personally went around retelling the story without mentioning its fictional nature and collecting money, he sure is guilty. Wondering if there is any rule in the publishing world to mention the nature of writing - true story or fictinal or autobiographical or semi-autobiographical or what not and where and how (as Indelible Ink has mentioned). more details pour in.... the field looks more and more murky. Whats upsets me most is that by itself the truth would have been powerful enough. Might not have broken piggy banks of children to share their precious pennies but would have gotten him enuf monies to do what he did . The necessity to get more than that with lies is totally so out of character for those who concern themselves with just doing what is theirs to do and being driven about it ..that at that point one HAS to conclude a more sinister purpose. It just does not make sense otherwise.$1-million/

Today April 5. 2012..... !