Agriculture expert Tooryalai Wesa, 58, grew up in Afghanistan’s Kandahar province, but has lived in Coquitlam, B.C., for 13 years. After spending much of the past four years back in Afghanistan working as a development consultant, he was appointed Kandahar’s governor late last year.
Q: You were in Europe in 1991, with your wife and three daughters, when mujahedeen fighters overthrew what had been the Russian-backed government in Kabul. How did you end up in Canada?
A: We went first to Switzerland. I applied to different universities in Canada and luckily the University of British Columbia accepted me as a Ph.D. student, and we moved to Vancouver. It was a hard time—no word of English, three children. My wife was a professional medical doctor, but she wasn’t able to practise. In 2002, I completed my program. I taught for a year or so in the Asian studies department of UBC, then started working as a consultant on Afghanistan with international organizations.
Q: And that work brought you to President Hamid Karzai’s attention?
A: My last assignment was from October 2006 until September 2007 in Kandahar. After that I needed to go back home for family responsibilities. When I was leaving Afghanistan, I met President Karzai and he asked me to work for his government. I told him I could not because I had responsibilities at home. Then, last year, during the first week of December, President Karzai’s secretary called and said, “The president wants you here.” I got a ticket for Dec. 15, I was in Kabul Dec. 17, I met the president Dec. 18. He offered me this job. I came to Kandahar on Dec. 19, and here I am.
Q: What made you want to go back, leaving a safe, relatively easy life in Canada for such a difficult task in Kandahar?
A: Everybody asks me this question. I had been in Canada since 1995. But still I was always working on Afghanistan. Now is the time that the country needs us. As a person who grew up here, now is the time to share what I have. Plus, in addition to my knowledge, my education, I know the people here. I know the social structure here, the tribal structure. I can connect easily to the people here. The people will tell me things they will never tell to an expat. Right now I’m a bridge between my two homes, Canada and Afghanistan.
Q: What has changed in Kandahar since you were a kid growing up there?
A: I first came back in 2006, after 17 years away. People were so lost, so worried. They had been through a lot—the drought, the fighting. Many of them lost family members. Two of my younger brothers were here. It was difficult for me when I went to their homes to meet their families. They were staring at me. They didn’t know me until I introduced myself, and we talked and got used to each other. The buildings I remembered [in Kandahar City] were mostly destroyed. Slowly, slowly, I got invited in by people from my home district, Arghandab. I mentioned some names I remembered from my village, my grandfather’s name. They were very supportive.
Q: You’re a highly educated agriculture specialist now, but you started out life in a rural village. When you came home to Kandahar, did you find the traditional rhythms of life as you remembered them?
A: I remember the connection within the farming family. They were learning from each other, grandfather, to father, to son. These connections were not there because a large gap had developed. During these last 20, 25 years, most of the farmers replaced their agricultural equipment with guns. It was hard to bring them back, to push them back to their farms. They were making more money with their guns.
A: Militias, different warlords, smuggling. It was easy money for them rather than working hard on the farm. And people were growing poppies, because there was no market now for other agricultural products, no connection between farms and the market. Roads were destroyed, bridges were destroyed.
Q: You’re a Pashtun, and those of us following the news from Afghanistan have come to think of the Pashtuns as a warlike people, hard to govern. What would you say to those who have that impression?
A: Pashtun is a peculiar nationality. They are people of their word. If you promise something, you will do it, no matter what it costs you. They are not war-lovers. They are trying to defend their rights, their property, their privileges.
Q: What about Kandahar itself? We picture it as a sort of wild frontier.
A: In history, the politics of Afghanistan is controlled from Kandahar. This was the capital of Afghanistan 200 years ago. Most of the kings in the history of Afghanistan were from Kandahar. Even the Taliban. President Karzai’s family is from this area.