Providing help, hope to Afghanistan
By Katie Lietz
Years of civil war and Taliban rule left Afghanistan ruined and forced millions of people to abandon their lifestyles and livelihoods. Now, the Afghan people are rebuilding with assistance from international organizations and institutions, and from Purdue Agriculture faculty and alumni.
Photo provided by Benton Wisehart
Children wait outside the livestock market in Gandj in Western Afghanistan. Purdue alumnus Benton Wisehart lives and works in a province near this market.
Benton Wisehart, a 1998 agricultural economics graduate, now works in the western Afghanistan city of Herat. He oversees programs for women, children and refugees in five of the country's provinces along the Iranian border for the International Rescue Committee, a nongovernmental organization that works in 33 countries.
A native of Los Osos, Calif., Wisehart came to Purdue to learn about life and school in a new place; that drive also led him to pursue an internship in Russia during his undergraduate years."I knew I wanted to go back (overseas) and learn more, contribute more, experience more," he said. After college, Wisehart volunteered with the Peace Corps in Moldova and worked in Malawi and Ecuador. "Traveling to these places will tell you very little about them. I want to live here; I want to have friends here; I want to work here."
After a year back in the United States, Wisehart got bored and took jobs in Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia and finally in Afghanistan. His work has included teaching about human rights and health, organizing schools and building community centers.
"The women we work with are awesome. Last fall they begged us for math classes so they could tell if local shops were ripping them off, so we gave it to them," Wisehart said.
He also works with the Refugee Returnee Settlement Project, which provides vocational training to returning refugees who fled the country in the 1980s and '90s because of war. The project teaches these returnees skills as varied as silk worm production, agronomy, animal husbandry and cake decorating. "People here are about as tough as a human can be, amazingly resourceful, respectful and compassionate," he said.
But for Wisehart, this isn't just a charity mission. "I see myself as being over here to assist, but I am also here to learn," he said. "I approach my life abroad as a two-way street."
Education - the formal kind - has also been a focus for Purdue's faculty. East of Herat, in Kabul, Afghanistan's capital, students wait - some for days - outside the Ministry of Education to take a university entrance exam.
Here, one Purdue Agriculture professor is forming a plan to restore the country's major university to its pre-war prominence. Kevin McNamara, a professor of agricultural economics, began his involvement with Afghanistan in the 1970s as a Peace Corps volunteer. Now he's assessing the educational needs at Kabul University. "The facilities here were destroyed," he said. "Students don't have access to computers or the Internet … faculty members have been isolated for the last 20 years."
Options for the $4.2 million in aid include bringing Afghan professors to Purdue to train in the College of Agriculture or sending Purdue faculty to teach in Kabul. McNamara and others believe that good instructors lead to informed graduates, which means the quality of life in Afghanistan will improve. After the investment of these funds, McNamara hopes to do even more to help rehabilitate the country.
"What I'm doing now is exploring opportunities to stay involved," he said. James Lowenberg-DeBoer, professor of agricultural economics and interim director of international programs in agriculture, hopes that, in time, Purdue students can become more involved in a cultural exchange with Afghanistan. But for now, the goal remains to build up one of the country's most valuable resources. And he believes Purdue is just the institution to help out.
"Almost every economically successful country has built its success, in part, on a productive agriculture," he said. "This is something we know how to do and have done well in the past. We can do it again in Afghanistan."