Three Cups of Skywalker

by David Week on 06 August 2011


The furore around l’affaire Mortenson has died down.

At its height, opinion and speculation filled the blogosphere. Some hoped Mortenson would make it through the flames. Some wrote of how he had inspired them to care. Others pointed out that his development model, based around school construction, was bad from day one; that anthropologists had long protested, to deaf ears, his misrepresentations of Pashtun culture. Some wondered whether this was case of fraud, or of naive mismanagement. Some criticised his board. Others criticised those websites that have attempted to become the ratings agencies for all things philanthropic. (One of those websites, after the scandal broke, quickly rewrote its rating criteria to include—of all things—whether the organisation produced any impact…)

A few writers said that although they’d had the book pushed on them by friends, they couldn’t stand to read it.

I’m with them.

Let’s start with title: “Three Cups of Tea”. This refers to the following supposed tradition:

On the first cup you are a stranger.
The second cup you become a friend,
and the third cup you become family.

Are the Pashtun really the cheapest dates in the world? Is that all it takes? Did Mortenson get them mixed up with the American “sex on the third date” rule? Surely, if the British, who also loved tea, had known of this simple rule in 1842, they would not have suffered the “fearful slaughter” of 20,000 of their fleeing and defenseless troops at Khourd Caboul. (The Afghans did spare one man—the surgeon Dr. William Brydon—whom they allowed to live, it was rumoured, just to ensure that his eye witness report got back to the British.)

Now I don’t want to replace one cartoon image of a people with another. I’m just saying that this “three cups of tea” story paints the Pashtun as simpletons, rather than the complex people that they no doubt are. Real, full-blooded human beings do not automatically make you part of their family after three cups of beverage.

The second thing that this title implies is that Mortenson, through his heartfelt dedication and acceptance of local mores and customs, has become one with that people. And this self-congratulation continues into the sub-title: “One Man’s Journey to Change the World… One Child at a Time”.

I understand why this book repels me from the get-go. But I wondered for some time how all this (and it doesn’t stop with the cover) could possibly appeal to so many people who are otherwise astute, discerning, intelligent and responsible.

Then I realised what Three Cups of Tea really is.

It’s Star Wars.

When George Lucas wrote Star Wars, he was under the influence Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero with a Thousand Faces”. Campbell claimed to have studied all the world’s myths and stories, and distilled them down to a simple 12-step format. Something like AA. (I need to emphasise at this point that Campbell and his theory have no cred in the anthropological community, for whom the idea of distilling all the world’s cultures into one, easy-to-drink milkshake is just the opposite of what you have to do if you want to authentically understand someone different from you.)

Campbell’s template is called the “Hero’s Journey”. In a nutshell: ordinary guy living ordinary life gets a “call” to go on some great adventure, meets various challenges, is assisted by various companions encountered along the way, almost dies, goes through the fire, is transformed, and returns back to his own world/culture, carrying this new transformational knowledge.

This has become the template for many a Hollywood film. The American public, in particular, is conditioned to this story format, which pops up as well in presidential elections (Obama, Bush), history of technology (Edison, Jobs) and popular culture (Oprah.)

First, note that the “ordinary guy” should be really ordinary, so we can identify with him her. Luke Skywalker is kind of loser: a farmhand. So is Frodo. So is Susan, in Desperately Seeking Susan and Joan Wilder in Romancing the Stone and Forrest Gump and…


  • Mortenson has cast himself as the hero. He is Luke Skywalker. He starts therefore, by projecting himself as a failure: hence the title of his first chapter.
  • He is called on his great adventure by an exotic figure—a Pashtun R2D2.
  • He goes on to cast some innocent Afghans who invited him back his village as Ewoks: people in funny robes, with guns, who kidnap him.
  • He cast the US military as the Empire.
  • I don’t know if he ever wrote about the Green Zone, but if he did, it would no doubt be the Death Star.
  • The children are Princess Leia. (Note how the children portrayed seem always to be girls.)

I leave the rest of the analysis to you.

But development is not a movie. And that’s what’s wrong with whole development story of Three Cups of Tea. But the problem with Development as Star Wars is not that it’s a story—we do understand things through stories—but that it is the wrong kind of story.

We do not need stories in which some variety of white person leaves the comfort of their ordinary life, dons local garb, suffers with natives, has eyes opened, and emerges to tell their story for them. The days of Albert Schweitzer, T. E. Lawrence and Wilfred Thesiger are gone. As fascinating as those stories are in historical context, they do not portray the kind of relationships with others to which we now aspire, nor are they appropriate to today’s ethics or geopolitics.

In the story of development today:

  • the hero is a woman in a poor community
  • who is called by her conditions to leave her customary role
  • faces all kinds of challenges, in which she is assisted by various companions and helpers, none of whom is white
  • goes through fire
  • transforms herself
  • and in so doing, she starts to transform her community.

Or perhaps it’s not a story structured as the Hero’s Journey at all: but structured in other ways, using story forms from other cultures, forms we never even imagined, and which will enthrall us in ways that Mortenson’s Indiana Jones Does Development never could.

I look forward to reading those stories.I know they’re out there. I’m going to go start looking for them, right now.

  • Glad to hear you note today’s ‘story of development.’  I’ll be addressing that particular narrative (the one of woman as hero, who rises above all, including the (evil) men, to overcome) in my dissertation on urban farming in Senegal.  Yes, those stories enthrall, but are they fair?  Are they just?  Are they told to make funders feel a certain way?  And to sell a certain brand? Is the story of women’s subjugation as an overriding (and underlying) narrative ‘true?’ Is it helpful? What is the purpose of a story that singles out individual ‘can-do’ spirit in the context of a global political economy that may be more to blame for ‘underdevelopment?’  Does it unfairly transfer blame to ‘backwards’ societies, when the real scrutiny should rest on global economic policies and practices that are more to blame?  Is development about promoting the (possibly mythical) heroic potential of women?  

    • Hi Stephanie. Indeed, as I wrote out that story of the “heroic woman”, I thought to myself: wait a minute, here I am using the same template! Hence my final lines, re going out and looking for genuinely alternative stories: which are perhaps not heroic at all. 

      One thing that I didn’t mention is that even American film is moving away from such a simplistic view of human life. Films like Memento, Pulp Fiction, American Beauty, Magnolia.. According to script doctor Robert McKee, it’s because audiences are getting bored with plots they can predict.

      Another area I’ve become interested in is the move in the medical profession towards a “blame free” culture: where there are no white hats and black hats, no persecutors, victims or saviours, but just problems, the origins of which are systemic. They’re moving in this direction because under the “blame” culture, no-one will admit to problems. I think we need a similar shift in development thinking, and there are some early signs of movement in that direction.

      • That’s interesting about Hollywood (and their new found appreciation for nuance and subtlety), because I’ve wondered before that this positioning of good vs evil, black vs white…that we see in development is somewhat a result of a Hollywood view of the world.  Development orgs very often make their case with visual media, and it seems like they’d use the Hollywood storytelling arc to do it.  

        As an aside, I thought one of the reasons The King’s Speech was so absolutely wonderful was because of it’s subtlety.  It respected the actual story, it seems to me, instead of turning it into something simplistic and overwrought.

        There are heroic stories in the developing world, but they are subtle and mundane, IMO.  That people are ‘making something out of nothing’ in many of African cities is something I would point to.  Of course it isn’t ‘nothing’ that they are leveraging. They use relationships and ingenuity to keep on keepin’ on.  

        Thanks for your posts.  They are always so very thoughtful and well-articulated.

      • Thanks Stephanie.

        Re your aside: Another thing that McKee said (this was in a talk) was that people think that the mark of a good film is that people are talking about it as they leave the theatre. But, he says, the real mark of a good film is that people leave in silence, still trying to absorb what they’ve just seen.I like your example of African slumdwellers (and indeed slumdwellers everywhere): and look at what they are producing, CITIES, the largest and most significant of human artefacts. The BBC did an excellent three-part series, sans white people, sans heroes, about the people who live and make Lagos.

        Lagos Stories

        Another great film, this time in Brazil
        Bus 174
        (that’s the whole film)

        And the amazing work of journalist Sorious Samura:
        (you can download his film there.)

        “Award-winning journalist Sorious Samura is increasingly gaining a reputation for a new kind of journalism which not many others can do. It’s ‘real’ reality TV – stories that offer a unique perspective into the lives of people facing terrible situations. On this journey he set out to become, for all intents and purposes, a refugee. He traveled to Chad to live with a family in a refugee camp for one month. He lived under exactly the same conditions, eating what they ate, drinking what they drank. Sorious built close intimate relationships with the people in this situation sharing their hopes and fears. This film provides a unique insight into what life is really like for a refugee.”

      • Ooo.  Glad I came back here (as I’m avoiding my work).  Thanks for the links.

  • I resent too that so much of middle America was suckered into thinking that by buying his book and paying $100 to go to a speech by him they were solving the problem and condemmed several more effective ways/players for not seeing how it really should be done, Greg’s Way.

    • Hi Joan. You make an important point: it’s not just the waste. It’s the misdirection away from what is real.

  • Anonymous

    Your last set of bullet points is terrific.

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