Monday, May 2, 2011

Greg Mortenson: 'Three Cups of Cappuccino'

'Three Cups of Tea'...

I remember joking w/ my sister, Claudia, when she asked me about Greg Mortenson's "Three Cups of Tea", as I'd spent decades working on development issues in Nepal. I told her that I should write a book called, "Three Cups of Coffee", a more pungent, aromatic modern double shot of espresso in the Himalaya to contrast with Greg's soothing, relaxing, semi-colonial image of an afternoon tea in the Karakorum.

Cards on the table: I've never read Greg's book nor met the man himself, so I don't have much to comment on this stories, exaggerated, heroic or misunderstood.

I have, however, spent a few decades, like many friends and colleagues, working on similar issues of basic education, community organization and leadership development in someone else's culture. That in itself has me reaching for another shot of coffee...

Because it's what I have often referred to as 'hopeful-hopeless' work. Our dreams and aspirations are so real and yet imagined. Our desire to help, as my dear, dear friend Robin used to say, "make the world a bit less miserable..." is hard-wired into us. We come with some extra chromosone of empathy. Even though we are a species known for the survival of our fittest -- our unique double helix of being is balanced awkwardly between that clever instinct for survival with an almost innocent desire to protect the weak and the vulnerable.

Odd ducks, we are, trying to glide in the sacred realms while often tripping in our ungainly efforts to be simply good, moral and compassionate.

Yet, for all of those who believe that humans are a selfish breed, there are those tender emotions and acts of kindness that fill our hearts and provide a sense of our redemption in a difficult world.

Thus, when we find an individual or organization that touches our good graces, that appeals to our higher ambitions, that reminds us that 'but for the grace of g-d goes me...', we often respond with generosity and trust.

I know this because I saw this time and time again during my work at Save the Children. When I I first joined I thought the name too overstated, too grand, too misconstrued. I tend to try to find a common mean closer to ground realities, rather than 'reach for the stars', as Bette Davis once said. I prefer not to indulge in ideals or unfulfillable hopes. I didn't want to be marketing something that was unattainable or unreasonable.

But, over the years, this anxious concern did find a balance for me between the aspirational, almost religious name of the organization and the more complex, human reality of the actual field work. I came to accept that name because I found so many good, caring and intelligent people w/in the organization who thought seriously about the integrity of our work and the institution. My respect for them elevated, as well as grounded, the agency name in a host of personal effort and struggle.

Which, I believe, is equally true of CARE, ActionAid, WaterAid, PLAN, USAID, UNICEF and other organizations working to alleviate poverty in this world.

'Hopeful-hopeless', as I said, another of the word-play contradictions that help me balance my thoughts and emotions...

Yet those 25 years also taught me many lessons about people, development work, management, advertising, ambitions and disappointments.

I still remember that envelope-making project in Gorkha district I started in 1984 in honor of my beloved Grandmother Rose Rose after her passing. It seemed such a good and straight-forward project. Train some villagers, preferably Janjati or Dalit families in the skill, provide them the basic equipment, link them with a purchaser/middle man and -- et voila! -- new income for these families and good deeds made manifest in this world!

Of course, as you knew, it didn't quite work out that way... The villagers were not accustomed to this craft, didn't have a place to store the reams of paper, were busy with their daily labors to keep the family afloat, didn't really have an easy contact w/ the buyer as they were in a villge and the envelopes were, by and large, an urban need, etc., etc...

I remember the sadness I felt in realizing after some months that the 'good' I had hoped to do in the name of my grandmother had been another modest Ozmandias, another well-intended gossamer effort that turned to dust soon after I turned away...

As my older friend, sage and inspiration, Bruce Lansdale used to say: "No good deed goes unpunished..."

I wasn't punished for that failed project, unlike other more large-scale ambitions when one's actions face political, social or personal resistence or aggression, except in the way when one feels that you've let yourself or someone else down -- which is a very real form of self-doubt.

There's an image in my mind that always returns every few years of this naked human ambition, not in a do-good, development sense, but the effort of man to control or conqueor his surroundings. I once worked for a few months in the Kordofan province of the Sudan, running a way-station for oil folk in the late-70s. I used to joke that we had the largest stock of food for a thousand miles in any direction (which was true...).

One day on a long, meandering drive with a friend, a few hours from nowhere in the brush-like landscape of central Sudan, we came across an enormous bulldozer, the size of large tank, resting on a mound of earth with nothing resembling a work-site or habitation anywhere near by. It was my '2001' (the movie) moment when, if I hadn't known what the original purpose of the machine was for, I would simply have stared w/ gaping jaw at the strange, metallic beast that had come from some distant world and been abandoned there in front of me...

Yet, over the years, I have seen many primay schools, healthposts, forest plantations, irrigation canals and government offices lying as abandoned and isolated and pathetic in the hills and terai of Nepal as that unforgettable image of modern technology and aspiration in the wild emptiness of the Sudan.

Of course, there are successes in 'development' work. We have seen positive changes in the education or public health standard of certain communities and countries. There are impressive and dignified achievements in individual lives. There are mango and orange orchards where they did not exist before. There are irrigation canals or women's cooperatives where they did not exist before. There are trained village workers who did not have those skills before...

The record of modern, post-colonial Western 'development' assistance can be defined both by its accomplishments and noble objectives -- but the story would not be complete without a realistic assessment of the misplaced idealism, the excesses of external funding, the impact of an foreign agency on a local culture, the mixed ambitions of the people themselves (the villagers, the staff or the government officials), or the corruption and rigid hierarchies within each organization one must work with to achieve those elusive ambitions.

What Greg Mortenson faced in the complex Afghan or Pakistani society can be no less than what I know from Nepal, Bhutan or the other Asian countries, including Afghanistan and Pakistan, where I have worked over the decades.

But what struck me poignantly years ago was the repetitive advertising for his book any time I visited the States. No matter what city I was in, there seemed to be a full page ad for "Three Cups of Tea", either promoting the book and/or to meet Greg himself to hear his inspiring stories first-hand.

I wondered what motivated Greg, what type of man he was, how he seemed to be able to give so fully to his cause -- and where the funds for the publicity were coming from. Along w/ this perpetual book tour were the increasing number of articles in magazines and on the web about the unusual Greg Mortenson and his tale of survival and transformation into the archetypical Western saviour bringing goodness and generosity to the under-served people in a distant land.

The famous 'White Man's Burden', I believe is the title of a recent book (that my son, Joshua, described to me...).

Or, as my mother used to say, "If it sounds too good to be true, it usually is..."

Maybe I was skeptical, as well, of a solitary, even if well-meaning, American achieving as much as Greg seemed to promise in the rugged frontiers of the Northwest Province along the Afghan-Pakistan border. It seemed too much like a wannabe tale of daring and do-good, where those who were fighting us on one side of this ancient, untamed border turned to gender-sensitive lambs on the other after meeting Greg...

I am no expert on the NW Frontier, but I have been to both Afghanistan and Pakistan on a number of occasions between 1995-2001 when I was the regional director for Save the Children. I know a bit of those valleys, the Khyber Pass, Kabul, Mazar-i-Sharif and the proud, independent cultures that inhabit those dry, isolated and rough lands. I have some experience with community development programs there. I have witnessed the passion of those children for an education and yet the societal restrictions and proud paternal authorities that control their lives. I know how different those traditional Central Asian Islamic cultures are from the Hindu-Buddhist world below the Himalaya -- and yet how similar some structural patterns replicate when foreigners try to 'do good' in someone else's world.

What we promote back 'home', the good deeds that we do, the advertising that helps bring in the funds for us to continue our efforts, can be so removed and distinct from the work that we actually do and the complexities or obstacles that we face in turning good intentions into lasting, sustainable change (as the expression goes...).

I remember once telling an SC advertising executive that he couldn't keep using a photo of a Nepali child carrying a 'doko' (a traditional basket on one's back) with the tag line: "Stop another form of child abuse!" I tried to convince him that, even in the 20th c., this was simply the way that Nepalis in the hills, men, women and children, carried water, firewood, corn and their daily necessities. They didn't use shopping bags or throw the groceries in the trunk or backseat of the car.

But, he wouldn't listen. He knew the image was appealing to the kind souls of the average American. He knew that that photograph with that caption would raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for the organization. He knew that he had to raise those funds to meet his own annual target for the year. He didn't have time to think about what the image and words did to the realities or self-respect of Nepal and Nepali people -- who would likely never see that eye-catching advertisment in People magazine.

He reached across the table, grabbed my wrist and said with all his confidence and condesension, "It raises money!"

"Three Cups of Tea" raised money, lots of it. It's an endearing, persuasive title, as Greg appears in person to be a gentle, persuasive individual. His book seems to offer the seductive image of two men from different cultures, different worlds, different histories, different languages sitting together to resolve the world's problems. The contextual time where these villagers live in the isolated Karakorum mountains to our modern uber-connected world dissolves in the snap of a photo, the jolly, good humor and affection between the young man who brings education, schools and money from the West to the humble, proud and yet gentle people in a distant land.

But all the recent news based on Jon Krakauer's investigative reporting asks us, "Is it mostly true?"

Again, I don't know. I don't know Greg. I don't know Jon. I don't know CAI, Greg's foundation.

But I do know that we can easily create a romantic tale in a distant land that warms our hearts and encourages us to contribute to the well-being of others. I know how we long for the belief that two people sitting together over a few cups of tea can agree on peace and education for all of their children, the girls as well as the boys. We want to believe that this can be true around the world, for the Dalits as well as the high caste, the Southern Bhutanese, as well as the Drukpas, the Turkomen as well as the Pashtun, the Hispanic as well as the Anglo, the poor as well as the rich, the South Bronx as well as Riverdale...

The fact is that the story takes place far on the horizon, out of sight, when we sleep and dream their daily lives start in a distant land and a different culture. The fact is that their social norms are not the same as ours and their history has taken a hugely different path. The fact is that we don't speak the same language or read the same books. The bitter truth is that we want them to be far away from us and not asking for help on our doorstep or on the corner simplifies and cleanses the reality for us. The black and white images from far away allow us to feel good, better, even kinder without complications or a hint of the complicated realities behind the screen. Greg was content to serve as that screen for us.

I wonder if Greg, like Icarus, didn't fly to close to the sun, to close to the radiance of half-met promises of noble pursuits. I wonder if he didn't come to believe exaggerated truths about himself and the people he was trying to help. I wonder if others, friends, publishers, partners, encouraged these seductive traits in him. I wonder if he sought to sell a story and bought into a lifestyle that quickly began to float away from reality of Pakistan and Afghanistan, float like those ethereal, radiant Renaissance saints, so pure, noble and untarnished by the confusing realities of this world.

I do know that the hard slog and lifetime effort of trying to help bring change in someone else's society is not achieved in a merely few years or through an advertising cyle or book tour. I do know that we are still and always foreigners, 'strangers in a strange land' as the Hebrew scriptures say, when we chose to live and work on international 'development' issues overseas. I do know that our role should rarely be in the foreground, but in the background, slightly off camera, assisting others to gain the skills, knowledge and confidence to lead their communities and organizations.

I do know that we must strive, as Elie Weisel wrote (in "The Gates of the Forest"), to be "honest, humble and strong" while living in this world full of high-minded idealism and egoistic realities. I know that we risk alot in entering someone else's society, to put our oars in someone else's reality, and hope we know or learn what we are doing...

I do know that we are limited creatures, liable of making serious mistakes in our personal and professional lives. I know that, these days in particular, the world is ever-watching, ever-vigilant, ever on-line...

The good work that so many are doing, both high-minded people in their own lands and the well-meaning foreigners who join them, the hard effort of creating new leaders, setting new social standards, expanding an understanding of rights and resources, ensuring that all children can attend a quality school, evolving stronger local communities -- while riding the turbulent waves of the globalization that are sweeping across our continents and countries -- will continue for decades to come.

I do sincerely wish Greg the best. I believe that he cares and wants to do well. But I think that he should step off the fund-raising merry-go-round to spend some serious time reflecting, not just responding, to his critics and this controversy.

For it's not enough to drink three cups of tea, one has to imbibe even more deeply of one's role in someone else's country, of one's responsibilities to them and recall the promises one originally made to one's self, and others.

For along with the raising of the funds for 'good deeds' is the careful and cautious spending of those resources. The shepherding of those funds for the most possible good. The quiet work of empowering others to fulfill their dreams and ambitions.

The life-long, inter-generational changes that imbue a community with pride, self-confidence and self-reliance.


mom said...

of all of the exemplary things you have written, this is one of the best. you should try and have it published as an op ed...even tho' i may be prejudiced. love you, mom

Keith D. Leslie said...

you are definitely biased -- but that's what mothers are for... still, thanks! xoxo, son

claudia said...

grclaand so you should write 'three cups of coffee'.....or at least be able to share your thoughts with greg and others......a lovely essay indeed. who knows, as you wonder, whether greg's initial intentions got morphed into something else, by the pressures of the 'ad executives of the world' or by the pressures of trying to get people in the western world to see at least for a moment, what you and greg see so clearly, if he was just trying to help those children in a way that he saw such need.................your words would be a source of comfort, a gentle hand to simmer the boiling should try to reach him......your work has allowed you to put your feet in his shoes, if just for a write beaurtifully keith.........thank you for sharing..xoxo, claudia

MEM said...

Hey, your Mom's right; it's very good and should be published.This is one of the most sensible and sensitive things I've read in regard to the 3 Cups Controversy.

CAI and Greg Mortenson are both based in my hometown, Bozeman. It's a polarizing issue there. People want to either completely vilify Greg or else defend and deify him (and vilify Jon Krakhauer). I'm happy to read such a nice, balanced, thoughtful approach to the topic.

Keith D. Leslie said...

Tks, MEM, for your kind words! I guess you live in Portland now, friends of Karen, possibly. We have many good friends there these days. As for publishing, I'd be happy to but it's not so easy to find a journal or magazine that would give a stranger space for 2,700 precious words, alas. I'll try and see what comes up. I tried to find your blog, too, but it didn't open. best, Keith