NEW SWEDEN, Maine — For many Americans, Afghanistan conjures up images of a Taliban-infested desert land where deadly explosions and gunfire are a way of life.
But where others see a nation ravaged by war and terrorism, one Aroostook County man sees a people and culture that have captured his heart.
“The fact is Afghanistan is really a civilization caught in the crossfire,” Luther Whiting of New Sweden said. “They don’t like the war going on there any more than we do.”
Whiting will leave Bangor today on the first leg of a trip that will take him to Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The destinations are hardly hot spots for the casual tourist, but that’s OK — tourism is the furthest thing from Whiting’s mind.
The 20-year-old third-year student at Southern Adventist University in Tennessee has far more than an adventurous summer vacation on his mind.
Instead, he will travel to the region as part of his work with the nonprofit organization Noshaq Inc., which he founded earlier this year.
Its name comes from the Noshaq Peak, Afghanistan’s highest mountain.
Afghanistan, he said, is the perfect place to combine business skills with the nonprofit sector to help people living in some of the most remote and rugged regions on Earth.
“I’ve come to understand that small industries and some kind of export they can sell in the urban centers can really help empower people living in small villages,” Whiting said. “That, in turn, provides sustainable income for them.”
Whiting got his first look at Afghanistan in 2006 when he joined his parents in Kabul where they were working in the health field.
“I expected to see a country that we see in the news with turban-covered men and roadside bombs everywhere,” Whiting said. “What I found was a country with a fascinating culture and wonderful people.”
Whiting spent seven weeks in Kabul in 2006, and when he left he knew he would return.
In the spring of 2008 he went back to work for an aid agency in a public health program in the country’s central highlands at 9,500 feet.
“I just loved it,” Whiting said of his life in the tiny and remote village. “It completely confirmed everything I’d felt about that country.”
It also left him with a burning desire to help the people he had befriended.
“These are real people with real needs,” Whiting said. “It’s a place where a little bit of money can go a really long way in helping.”
Whiting plans to visit targeted areas in some of the remotest and poorest areas of the country — places that are isolated by mountains, near-impassable roads and distance from urban centers.
Meeting with village elders, Whiting said he will listen closely to what they say their villages need and what trades, skills and talents exist there.
“We will then discuss how the potential of these abilities can be released through the creation of microbusiness projects,” Whiting said. “After some research, we work together to choose the best way to create a successful entrepreneurial project.”
By creating exports into urban areas, villagers not only gain a sense of their own empowerment, he said, they also earn real money that may be used for health, education and infrastructure projects.
The major goal of the trip, Whiting said, is to lay the groundwork and begin networking with village elders.
“We are targeting two areas and will sit down with the local leaders,” he said. “Last summer I made a list of possible communities and contact people.”
Whiting said he plans to be in Afghanistan for the summer and, while he is learning the language, he will travel with a translator.
During his visits, he said, he feels no real danger, something he said mystifies those who know him.
“That’s what ends up making me a bit nervous,” Whiting said. “Everyone tells me I’m crazy to got there, so then I start second-guessing myself.”
But he won’t be alone this summer.
“My college buddy Michael Taylor from Georgia is coming with me,” Whiting said.
Travel into the country is not difficult, he said. Because of his involvement with his Noshaq nongovernmental organization, Whiting was able to obtain a business visa.
While there, the two men will stay with families.
“The people there are so friendly and welcome you into their homes,” Whiting said. “While I’m there I do wear local clothes and try to speak the language.”
For their part, the Afghans seem to welcome his help, though Whiting said many are beginning to regard America as the latest in a line of invading countries.
Then there is the Taliban.
“I can’t say I’ve ever met a Taliban,” Whiting said. “But every villager knows where they are.”
For now Whiting is relying on donations to fund his dream and Noshaq, and is confident he can make it work.
“This is something I’m looking at doing for the rest of my life,” he said. “I read somewhere you need to follow the dream that captures your heart.”
Information on Noshaq Inc. and how to make a donation is online at www.noshaq.org.