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Leading with a green thumb

An agricultural researcher who studied at UBC puts his knowledge to work as the new governor of Kandahar province

By JEFF DAVIS | MAR 09 2009

Most Canadians have come to know Kandahar only in the last decade, as the place where Canadian soldiers go to fight. In most photos, this part of Afghanistan seems a dusty, desolate war zone, where people eke out an impoverished existence from chalk-dry soils.

But many, including Kandahar province’s new Afghan-Canadian governor, Tooryalai Wesa, remember that it hasn’t always been that way. Dr. Wesa recalls the “good old days” when Kandahar was renowned for its agricultural products and fed much of Afghanistan with its pomegranates, grapes and vegetables. The family farm he grew up on had the first tractor in his Arghandab district village, and his uncle provided farmers from all around with seeds and advice.

While his father was a well-known newspaper editor in Kandahar City, “Toor” Wesa followed in his uncle’s footsteps, studying and teaching agriculture at Kabul University before fleeing, like millions of others, during the Soviet occupation.

But now, having completed a doctorate at the University of British Colombia, writing his thesis on how to rebuild Afghanistan’s fractured agricultural system, the 58-year-old is using his influential new position to try to rebuild the livelihoods of his people.

Late last year, Dr. Wesa was tapped by Afghan President Hamid Karzai to be governor of Kandahar. An agricultural researcher and Canadian citizen since 1998, he had moved back to Afghanistan in 2004 to contribute to the country’s redevelopment.

After finishing his thesis in 2002, Dr. Wesa had worked on contracts for Canada’s departments of foreign affairs and immigration, advising Canadian diplomats and officials about his home country. His former research supervisor at UBC, Tom Sork, says it was Dr. Wesa’s dedication to helping his people that pulled him back home.

“One thing that really impressed me about Toor was his commitment to people in Afghanistan and improving things there,” says Dr. Sork, professor and associate dean, external programs and learning technologies, in UBC’s faculty of education.

In February Dr. Wesa was back in Canada to meet federal officials in Ottawa and visit his wife and family in Coquitlam, B.C. A quiet and modest man, he spoke about his plans for rebuilding his province’s ability to feed itself.

Nothing seemed to excite him as much as Canada’s main “signature project”: the refurbishment of the Dahla Dam, a $50-million initiative of the Canadian International Development Agency. Dr. Wesa says the dam, which should irrigate some 10,000 hectares of arable land once it’s completed in three years, will be a huge step towards Afghanistan’s self-sufficiency.

It’s not know-how the people of rural Kandahar are missing, Dr. Wesa adds. It’s water. “The people are very much experts in agriculture,” he says. “If you improve the infrastructure, I’m sure we will be in good shape.”

Indeed, Afghanistan used to enjoy a well-organized national agricultural extension program that employed adult- education techniques tailor-made for the often illiterate but practically savvy farming community. Prior to the Soviet invasion in 1979, some 300 agricultural extension units operated in Afghanistan, about two or three per district. Each extension unit, Dr. Wesa says, was staffed with up to 15 farmer-teachers who held bachelor’s or graduate degrees and taught orally and by demonstration.

The governor is working on a number of agricultural initiatives. Among his plans are an agricultural machine rental system and a system of cold storage so Kandahar farmers can preserve their fruits and vegetables for the winter months when supplies run short. He hopes to expand international sales of Afghan pomegranates, grapes and roses.

He is also planning some agricultural education projects aimed specifically at women. With a male population devastated by war, he says, women must be educated to raise dairy animals and poultry, as well as shown ways to preserve fruits and vegetables.

A university president

Dr. Wesa’s journey in higher education began at the University of Kabul, where he earned his first degree in agriculture. He worked as a teaching assistant at the university before receiving a scholarship to continue his degree at the American University in Beirut. When war broke out in Lebanon, he was forced to leave without finishing his studies. By now it was 1979, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan prevented him from returning home. Instead he continued his studies at the University of Nebraska, earning a master’s degree in agriculture.

A remarkable milestone on Dr. Wesa’s career path was that he was head of a university even before he had earned a doctoral degree.

In 1991, Afghanistan was in the midst of a civil war, following the end of the Soviet occupation. Tooryalai Wesa had returned from the U.S. to work as an associate professor of agriculture at Kabul University, at the time the only university in Afghanistan. One of his duties was to help administer the national university entrance exams, and he traveled throughout Afghanistan, but not to unstable Kandahar province, where students were missing out on a chance at a university education.

“Due to the political unrest in Kandahar, Kandahar schools were dropped from the university entrance exam for a few consecutive years,” he says. “I raised the question of ‘why not Kandahar?’ The answer was ‘it is dangerous and we cannot send the team there.’”

He soon gathered together a team of young faculty members for a mission to Kandahar, a project that would grow significantly in scope. Local Kandaharis told him that, as Afghanistan’s second largest city, Kandahar should have a university of its own. He took up the issue and quickly gained the support of the province’s governor, as well as tribal leaders, intellectuals, community leaders and members of parliament.

Back in Kabul, the idea caught the attention of the Ministry of Higher Education and the Prime Minister’s Office, and Kandahar University became a reality in 1991, with its founder at the helm. “Since I initiated the idea, everybody agreed to put me at the top of Kandahar University administration,” he explains.

Since Kandahar is “very agricultural by nature,” says Dr. Wesa, the university’s first faculty was an agricultural college. Today it has 1,100 students and includes faculties of medicine and engineering.

In 1997, the Afghan researcher moved with his family to Vancouver to enrol in a PhD program in educational studies. At UBC, he met Dr. Sork, who would become over the next five years both a teacher and a friend.

Dr. Sork, originally from California, had advised students from Africa and South America, and understood how to work with often illiterate farmers and their communities to unlock the potential of their war-torn lands.

“There are other ways of engaging people in educational activity that don’t rely on high levels of literacy,” says Dr. Sork. “I think Toor realized there was a lot of experience-based knowledge and knowledge that had been passed from one generation to the next about agriculture in Afghanistan, and he wanted to take advantage of that.”

Despite their very different backgrounds, Dr. Sork and his student had much in common: both had grown up on farms, held degrees in agriculture and had studied at the University of Nebraska.

Soon, the educational interchange began to flow both ways. “He sort of became my tutor about Afghanistan,” recalls Dr. Sork. “Each time we’d meet to discuss his research, we’d start with him giving an update on what the political dynamics were in the country.”

Studies at UBC soon became a family affair, with his three daughters enrolling and eventually completing degrees. His wife, Rangina Wesa, who had trained as a medical doctor, did both volunteer and paid work at UBC’s teaching hospital.

For his research, Dr. Wesa delved into how the fragments of Afghanistan’s shattered agriculture system could be pieced back together. In preparing his thesis, entitled “The Impact of the Soviet Union Occupation on the Agriculture Extension System in Afghanistan,” Dr. Wesa faced some pessimistic derision from friends and colleagues.

“It was Taliban time, and they were saying ‘What are you doing with this thesis? You are Canadian now – where are you going to apply this?’” Dr. Wesa says.

Nevertheless, he was determined to finish and held faith that someday he could lend a hand in rebuilding his country. “A sixth sense was telling me that sometime when I am done with this there will be an opportunity to apply it.”

For his thesis, Dr. Wesa reached out to hundreds of agriculture experts in the Afghan diaspora, trying to reassemble the traditional knowledge war had scattered around the world. He contacted universities, the United Nations headquarters and international agricultural organizations and eventually interviewed 115 Afghan expatriates across Europe, Pakistan and the United States.

Then, like so many others, Dr. Wesa watched the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001, and knew his time would soon come.

“It would have been easy for him to get comfortable here in Canada and disconnect with his concern for what was going on in Afghanistan,” says Dr. Sork at UBC. “But he never did that and he was quite anxious, once he finished his studies here, to get involved with the effort going on in Afghanistan, especially after September 11.”

In 2004, Dr. Wesa returned to Kandahar. He began working on a range of development projects with organizations like USAID, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization and as a senior policy adviser on the poppy trade to the Senlis Council, an international think tank. His activities soon came to the attention of President Karzai, an old school chum from his youth.

Dr. Wesa is modest about his recent success, but says his background is as good as any for the challenges his country faces. “There is no school to graduate governors or presidents or prime ministers,” he remarks, describing the plethora of management, communications, budget, staffing and administrative challenges he now contends with.

Back in Canada, Afghan-Canadians appear quite pleased that Dr. Wesa has been chosen as the new governor of Kandahar.

“Governor Wesa will bring a moderate perspective,” says Jahan Zahab, spokesman for the Pashtun Peace Forum, a Toronto-based Afghan civil society group. He says the forum was happy to see a man without a jihadi, warlord or narcotics background assume the important office. “He was not involved in the fighting,” he notes. “He does not have that big baggage that others have.”

But Canada, too, has changed his life. While his daughters will probably stay in Canada, his wife says she plans to return to Afghanistan. “It is in hell now,” she observes, and that’s why they both want to help. “We were both born there, we both grew up there. It is a wonderful place for us.

“But,” Mrs. Wesa adds, “as Canadian citizens we have the same feelings for this, our second country. Both of them are, for us, mother countries.”

Jeff Davis is a reporter with Embassy, a newsweekly on foreign affairs based in Ottawa.

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