Southern California Nonprofit Brings Clean Water to Malawi, Africa

By John Fredricks
John Fredricks
John Fredricks
John Fredricks is a California-based journalist for The Epoch Times. His reportage and photojournalism features have been published in a variety of award-winning publications around the world.
July 31, 2021 Updated: August 3, 2021

A Toyota 4×4 minibus displaying the letters WWFA drove along the rocky, uneven terrain of a rural road in the African nation of Malawi’s Thyolo District. 

Suddenly, it came to a complete stop.

Several passengers wearing purple and gray T-shirts sporting the same letters shown on the minibus—an acronym for the nonprofit Water Wells for Africa—got out to assess their next challenge: crossing a fragile wooden bridge that spans over a small ravine. It makes a creaking noise at the touch of one passenger’s foot. Another passenger surveyed the surface for any nails that might puncture the tires.

“Wow, that looks fun,” said WWFA founder Kurt Dahlin before hopping back into the minibus with the team’s driver. He has been driving across bridges like these in Africa since starting the multi-national Redondo Beach-based organization in 1996.

Just 30 feet below the bridge, a woman is undistracted by the visitors while washing clothing with a small child on her back.

“OK, we’re off to Juma,” Dahlin said.

The Need for Clean Water

The small team was on their way to dedicate a newly built water well in Juma Village No. 2B and coordinate with the elected village well committee at the pump-action borehole as part of the WWFA 2021 Site Inspection Tour, which was put on hold last year due to coronavirus travel restrictions.

They were greeted by 50 villagers who clapped and sang in celebration upon the team’s arrival.

“I just love this,” Dahlin told The Epoch Times before greeting the committee in Chichewa, Malawi’s most spoken dialect. “Can you believe this is the first time they have ever had access to clean water?”

“Water is essential. There are now 30 families in the area that are benefitting from this—for generations to come.”

Epoch Times Photo
Children enjoy clean water from a well built by Water Wells for Africa in Lupapa Village, Malawi, on July 6, 2021. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)

Benefits are already being experienced by Juma No. 2B villagers as they intake the improved changes that many of Malawi’s rural villages undergo after receiving a donated water well that cost about $7,000.

“We are healthier here now,” villager James Kaipa joyfully shared with the team. “After the experience of the borehole, effects like diarrhea and disease are now not as common as they used to be.”

Kaipa and three other villagers were commissioned by the organization to act on the water well committee assigned to care for the Juma No. 2B well donation. Their training, which lasts about a week, helps them understand how to fix minor problems with the well. They also receive lessons in hygiene and sanitation from WWFA’s Malawian staff to ensure the well’s sustainability, along with major improvements to village wellness.

Within the small minibus team is WWFA Los Angeles volunteer Mike Griffith, who, after years of financially supporting the organization, was able to join the 2021 Site Inspection Tour.

“We’ve always supported WWFA, but didn’t have the opportunity to go in the past due to parenting, jobs, not the right time, et cetera,” Griffith told The Epoch Times. “But this year timing opened and happened.” 

“I’ve seen many videos of the experience over the years, but it’s so great to help firsthand and get all of the senses going. I remember being excited to see the water wells actually in the field being used and now I’m actually here.”

At the Juma No. 2B water well site, Griffith added to the village celebration by decorating the well with colorful paper. A group of women standing nearby took notice and started clapping.

It was the first time in the history of this remote village that they have ever had the opportunity to enjoy safe drinking water.

Epoch Times Photo
Villagers use their new well built by Water Wells for Africa in Khobwe Village 2, Malawi, on July 6, 2021. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)

The Journey

During the 1994 civil war in neighboring Mozambique, Dahlin, then-pastor of missions at Hope Chapel Hermosa Beach, led an exploratory team to Malawi after learning that the country, which is ranked 174 out of 189 countries and territories on the Human Development Index as one of the poorest countries in the world, was accepting war refugees. While the world’s news focused on the Rwandan genocide to the north, members of Hollywood began to experience frustration that fundraising and aid weren’t bypassing Rwanda’s borders.

A donation by actor Charlie Sheen and stuntman Eddie Braun funded the first humanitarian expedition into Malawi, which Dahlin credits for paving the way for the organization to succeed. 

“Some people in Hollywood [who] were interested in helping contacted me because they wanted to help,” Dahlin said.

“The violence going on there and everything taking place with a lot of aid that was getting stolen and sold. The civil wars in Mozambique were prompting refugees to come into the southern border of Malawi, so I said we’ll go there, we’ll check it out, we’ll film it.”

Upon arrival, it didn’t take long for the team to see that the key deterrent to their survival was dirty and diseased water sources.

“I was overwhelmed with the painful daily struggle of Malawians to obtain simple drinking water,” Dahlin said.

“Some women were walking 6 to 8 hours a day to find a single bucket of dirty and diseased water. I was determined to see what could be done to help these people in their daily struggle to obtain water. [During that] trip in 1994 we discovered that need.”

After Dahlin’s film crew documented the struggles they witnessed, they packaged the material and brought it back to the United States. An initial screening of the footage in Los Angeles left the audience in shock. The extent of the crisis attracted more people to follow Sheen’s lead and donate funds to help provide the Malawian people with clean water resources.

“That was the germ of the seed that would be Water Wells for Africa,” Dahlin said. “It grew as the global water crisis became more visible all over the world.” 

“Any donation [that] comes to Water Wells for Africa goes directly to our water projects, and we have a lot of people that donate because of that model. One hundred percent goes to water development.”

‘The best way to get clean water to these kids’

Early on, WWFA also made it possible for well donors to join site inspection tours to see the wells they helped fund.

Paul and Rachel Ilger have volunteered with WWFA since 2009, and have now donated multiple wells throughout Malawi. The former teachers, now approaching their 70s, both took a prayerful consideration before making the decision to leave the comforts of home in Los Angeles to join the site inspection tour this year.

“This year we were praying to be able to make the trip, but it was doubtful [because] I’d found out I had terminal cancer and my physical condition was deteriorating,” Paul told The Epoch Times. “We prayed and prayed and finally concluded God would have to either heal me miraculously or at least tell us we could go despite the disease. 

“Our church was praying also and even raised $8,000 to install a water well with our name on it, but even they assumed I wouldn’t be able to make the trip.”

One morning soon after, while Ilger was reading the Bible and praying, he said he received his answer.

“The Lord quite literally broke into my prayer and told me I was going,” Paul said. “It wasn’t an audible voice, but the message was even more sure than if it had been. I didn’t say anything to my wife initially because I wanted to find out if God had said anything to her as well.”

Paul asked Rachel if God had given her any feedback.

“Yes,” she replied. “He told me that we should go to Malawi.”

“So that decided it for us. If God says to go, we go,” Paul said.

The Ilger’s 12 years of experience and admiration for Malawian culture gave them the proper expectation for what they could expect on their journey.

“They have almost nothing, we have almost everything,” Paul said. “Other than that, there are some wide cultural gaps to be overcome. They’re a very modest people in how they speak and act.”

“Women in town may wear slacks, but that would be scandalous in a village,” Rachel added. “In public, men and women do most things separately—sometimes it’s hard to tell who is married to who. They’re extremely polite and wouldn’t think of telling us if we were to offend them in some way. They’re very generous even though they have so little. When you talk to them, they look you straight in the eyes as if they’re inviting you to gaze into their soul, completely without guile. I find that quite remarkable, though hard to describe.”

Epoch Times Photo
Water Wells for Africa volunteers Paul and Rachel Ilger test the water at a well they donated with their church in Maggie Village B, Malawi, on June 30, 2021. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)

Like the Ilgers, Jessica Stewart is another volunteer from Southern California who hasn’t only been to Malawi several times, but has multiple water well donations she had the honor of celebrating during the 2021 Site Inspection Tour.

“What prompted me to serve in 2021 was the fact that the pandemic was keeping people from receiving help,” Stewart told The Epoch Times. “Malawi is one of the world’s least-developed nations, so to neglect people living in need wasn’t right. I had to go do whatever I could.” 

“I’m a follower of Jesus. He taught me to care for the poor, the sick, for widows, orphans, and those living in the margins of any society.”

Stewart’s son, Joel, put the world’s dire need for clean water on his parent’s radar.

“When my son was 10 years old, our youth pastor invited him to watch a short film with the youth group,” Stewart said. “In the film, he learned that people were drinking dirty water because it was the only water they had access to. He learned how sick they would get, and that waterborne diseases were killing a lot of children.

“He came to me after and asked if I heard that kids could die from diarrhea out there. His eyes filled with tears.”

“Did you [know] we spend more money on chips and ice cream than what they need to get new water?” Joel asked his mother, adding that he wanted to break his piggy bank open and donate the money toward a freshwater well.

Six years later, Joel died from complications related to acute myeloid leukemia. He left behind a mission to help children get the clean drinking water they need to survive.

“All of his money went to continue his legacy of compassion and empathy for children without clean water,” Stewart said. “We knew WWFA was the best way to get clean water to these kids. We say we want to see cures for cancer. Waterborne disease is like their cancer in Malawi, their prevalent disease. It does not cost as much, so how can we all not help?”

The Commissioning

Nestled against a window at Istanbul International Airport, Chris Treegarthen, 34, inflated a blue air mattress in the hope of catching a two-hour nap before his next flight. He was only one flight in on the three flights needed to get to his destination in Blantyre, Malawi, where he would rendezvous with the rest of his WWFA team. At that point, they had been on the ground working for three weeks without electricity or running water.

Treegarthen, from Lawndale, California, has been volunteering with WWFA for a decade.

“I volunteer for this trip because I believe that this is the most important and useful thing I could be doing with my time,” Treegarthen told The Epoch Times. “This is my 10th trip, and every time I reflect and think about how uncomfortable it can get, it’s such a special opportunity to help people that are struggling to survive daily.”

Epoch Times Photo
Water Wells for Africa volunteer Chris Treegarthen rests off a stomach sickness at the Water Wells for Africa basecamp area in Malawi’s Machinga District on July 5, 2021. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)
Epoch Times Photo
Water Wells for Africa volunteer Chris Treegarthen talks with a Malawian customs official in the City of Blantyre upon his arrival on June 26, 2021.(John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)

Upon arrival, Treegarthen and other passengers on his small airplane were shuffled into a tent on the runway where coronavirus safety measures were taken into account by airport and immigration personnel. When paperwork was requested, Treegarthen reached into his bag and pulled out a letter stating his status as an essential worker in the county, signed by Malawi’s Minister of Education and authorized by the president of the country, Dr. Lazarus Chakwera.

But even before getting off the plane, Treegarthen was prepared for the challenges Africa would throw at him on the WWFA 2021 Site Inspection Tour.

“This trip is very taxing on your body,” he said. “You are camping in some of the most rugged environments on the planet. … [People don’t] come to write a book or take pictures. … They are doing it because they love God and they love people.”

Just hours after getting off his airplane, Treegarthen was helping unload equipment from the rugged 4x4s the teams were using to access villages in the remote and unforgiving terrain that often relegates other water well organizations to Malawi’s paved highways.

“WWFA is an organization that has been consistently helping people in dire need. I love how we go hours down dirt roads that many times were not designed for cars to travel on and help those on the fringe of society. When you share this wonderful gift of water, it brings authentic joy to everyone involved in the process.”

On a busy dirt road just outside the city of Blantyre, a white Toyota 4×4 caked with mud stopped right in front of the vehicle Treegarthan and his team were in. It brandished the same WWFA logo as the one on their own doors.

Ed Fleshman, a sergeant from a sheriff’s office in Northern California, exited the passenger door and stretched after traveling along the rough roads for hours. He got connected with WWFA through contacts at his church, and came to Malawi for his second site inspection tour when he fully began to understand their pressing need for clean water. 

After fundraising and making the proper scheduling arrangements, Fleshman made his first trip with the organization in 2019. He has since returned, despite the challenges Malawi threw his way.

“The idea that access to such a basic need like water was still a struggle for so many, and the [idea that] access to even the simplest medical care was out of reach for them, really struck a chord in my heart and made me realize that I could not ignore it,” Fleshman told The Epoch Times.

“As a Violent Crimes/Homicide Detective for 11 years, I worked sex crimes and human trafficking cases as part of my assignment and the implications of the well for the lives of the children in the village weren’t lost on me.”

Epoch Times Photo
Water Wells for Africa volunteer Ed Fleshman stretches his legs after a long ride one hour north of Blantyre, Malawi, on June 28, 2021. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)
Epoch Times Photo
Water Wells for Africa Volunteers Chris Eggleston (L), and Daniel Dahlin (C) help Chris Treegarthen (R) tie down equipment on a truck before heading to Malawi’s Machinga District on June 5, 2021. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)

Fleshman’s experience in law enforcement allowed him to share a robust appreciation for how completely a water well could impact a rural community. The water wells established on this trip weren’t only improving the health of villagers, but they were also eliminating cases of rape and human trafficking through rural village networks.

“Since the girls in the villages did not have to spend half their day carrying dirty water, they could now go to school and achieve things in their life never before possible,” Fleshman said. “With the water, family gardens can grow more consistent food supplies. And with that education and community stability, the likelihood of being traded and trafficked goes down.”

Along with ending human trafficking, creating agriculture, and improving family life, the boreholes built by WWFA were creating an impact in the small African nation. However, it came with the challenges of encountering disagreeable terrain.

In Malawi’s Machinga District, Edwin White, WWFA project coordinator, manned one of the organization’s four-wheel-drive vehicles. Dahlin rode shotgun.

“The Machinga District is of the hardest areas to work in because of the terrain to explore new borehole sites and explore potential drill sites,” White said. “The land cruiser is probably in the shop about every four weeks getting repairs.”

White’s Toyota Land Cruiser was in the Machinga district when the 4×4 suddenly became stuck in a ditch. Within minutes, villagers in the area arrived with a shovel and machete to help dig out the back bumper, which was stuck in the edge of a hole. After an hour and a bag of pre-made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, the team was back on the road with a 90-minute journey ahead to their basecamp.

Epoch Times Photo
A local villager helps dig out the rear of a Water Wells for Africa 4×4 in Malawi’s Machinga District on July 8, 2021. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)

In the back of the Land Cruiser sat Isaac Chikonde, a registered nurse based in Blantyre, Malawi, who helped run Project Heart to Heart, a sister organization of Water Wells for Africa that provides medical aid for rural villagers. He has been working with Dahlin for years and knows the firsthand effects of the impact a water well has on a rural village.

“The issue of diarrhea is a huge problem in the villages,” Chikonde told The Epoch Times. “Over time, it leads to decreasing the body’s resiliency to fight off sickness and disease, including cholera. This leads to many deaths we see out here, especially in Machinga.”

“When WWFA puts a water well in a village, the village not only sees a boost in better health and longer life, but also a huge improvement in daily life. Women who usually made the three-kilometer walk to bad water sources are now free of this task, and young girls no longer miss their school lessons. It’s amazing to see how family life changes for the better.”

Like his U.S. counterparts, Chikonde feels driven by God to serve others in their need.

“The act of caring for people is something that comes from God. This is about fully loving other people and not ourselves,” he said. “This purpose is to honor Him.”

After the completion of eight new water well site inspections throughout the Machinga District, Dahlin and his team were tasked with breaking down base camp and heading back to the city of Blantyre. A 6 p.m. curfew was enacted by Malawi’s government to enforce coronavirus restrictions, but the hurry wasn’t enough to phase Dahlin. He was too excited about the organization’s accomplishment of completing 70 new water wells over the past year.

“Seventy thousand villagers now have clean water for the first time in their lives this year,” Dahlin said. “Over 460 remote villages have now been provided water wells since the founding of the organization in 1996.”

Dahlin had the smile and energy of someone who had the stamina and drive to do this job for the next 100 years, if given the opportunity.

One week after the Ilgers made it safely home, they realized this was most likely their last trip. Ilger reflected on the well that they were able to donate with help from Legacy, their church in Winnetka, California.

“The well is a symbol of something far greater,” Paul said. “When we dedicated our well on this trip, I requested the villagers to ask themselves a question whenever they used it: ‘Mumadziwa kuti Yesu amakukondani?’” 

The question, he said, translates to the following: “Do you know how much Jesus loves you?”

John Fredricks
John Fredricks
John Fredricks is a California-based journalist for The Epoch Times. His reportage and photojournalism features have been published in a variety of award-winning publications around the world.