DENTON — During February, about 35,000 villagers in northern Tanzania were able to pump fresh, clean water for the first time in their rural communities.
It’s a far cry from the daily two- to five-mile trek to mud holes where women wait in line to lower plastic buckets into deep holes in the ground, filling them, then hoisting them on their heads to carry home.
The women will use this water for cooking, washing, rinsing, bathing — and drinking.
For Kenny Wood, 79, his quest is always “one more well” in Africa.
The founder of Lifetime Wells in Denton, as well as co-founder of the nonprofit Lifetime Wells International, has driven himself to provide clean drinking water for the people of Ghana and Tanzania for the past 16 years.
He is a lifelong member of St. Benedict/St. Elizabeth Parish in Caroline County, Md.
In 2006, Wood, known in remote areas of Ghana as Chief Living Water, volunteered to set up a drilling rig donated by a Methodist church in Pennsylvania. He journeyed to Ghana, set up the rig, saw the need — and never looked back. At the time he was 62 — and nine years past his first heart attack.
His nonprofit organization, Lifetime Wells for Ghana, has since evolved to include Tanzania. Wood’s sand well-drilling expertise limited him to the coast of Ghana. Merging with Dave Powell’s Wells for Relief International, a small rock well-drilling organization based in Media, Pa., the two men formed Lifetime Wells International.
As of December 2022, Wood and Powell’s teams have drilled over 3,000 wells in the two countries, providing fresh water to over a million people.
From the beginning, Christine Pommary of Ghana has been the point person on site, navigating people, paperwork and policy.
The work in Tanzania began in 2011 when Wood responded to a call to help people who “were suffering badly from drinking dirty water,” according to the nonprofit’s website. “Since then, Lifetime Wells International has installed over 1,000 hand-pumps in Tanzania.”
On this last trip from Feb. 1-25, Wood and his team drilled 52 wells out of 60 attempts.
“Kenny’s amazing,” Dave Whaley of Denton said. “He’s got a heart of gold. To see a 79-year-old man get so energized — I mean, it’s like he throws into another gear. But yet, even when things are really (poor), he’s always got a positive outlook.”
This was the eighth trip for Whaley, 63, who is a director of the nonprofit. When he turned 50, he checked a box on his bucket list and accompanied Wood to Ghana. This last trip was his first in about five years.
Whaley’s “gig” is soccer balls; he stuffed 36 deflated balls and a pump in his luggage. When he trades a real soccer ball for one made of rags wrapped in string, “that’s like Christmas,” he said.
Because Whaley is a self-employed home inspector, he can take the time off. After getting his booster shots and malaria meds, he and Wood flew 17 hours to Dodoma, the capital, about 300 miles inland from the Indian Ocean. They exchanged currency at the airport (cash only is expected for transactions), and a $100 overnight stay in a hotel, they headed for the mountains in the north, a grueling 12-hour drive across rough terrain. Wood subsisted on tuna pouches, local produce and beer at the end of a long day. Whaley took along peanut butter, jelly and tortillas.
In mid-February, Wood’s son, Ben, who is president of Lifetime Wells of Maryland and a director of Lifetime Wells International, flew to Tanzania to join the team, but the project was almost scrubbed before it even started.
The drilling rig needed repairs that would have taken days, if not weeks, in the U.S. But the ingenuity of African machinists using materials on hand got the team on the road in a day.
Wood’s independence and years of experience, despite recommendations of the district commissioner, guided his decisions.
“We find our own place where the people need it the most,” he said. Word travels “for miles quickly” from village to village, and he is sought out by locals who ask for his help.
During the February 2023 and October 2022 trips, he drilled wells among Maasai tribes who approached him. Wood admires the Maasai people, who are Christian, intelligent and entrepreneurial, he said.
The contrasts were striking. Brightly dressed and adorned Maasai women traveled for miles to retrieve their daily water from a mudhole. Later, fresh water gushed from a new well tapping water table just feet away from the same mudhole.
“You just want to get more, you want to do more in that area, you know,” Wood said. “That’s why we work late, start early.”
The satisfaction of seeing the faces of those who witness their first well producing prodigious amounts of fresh water propels Wood to keep going for 12 or more hours a day.
“It’s hard to figure a word” to describe the feeling, he said. “It’s just appreciation and happiness knowing that they’re going to get water.”
Although rain provides “good water,” it’s scarce during dry spells.
“You get sort of accustomed to seeing (people gather dirty water) all the time,” Wood said. “My first trip to Ghana just exploded my mind, and I’m sitting there crying myself to sleep. It’s a shock to see people getting that nasty water. Then you start getting hardened to it, but you just want to get more (wells drilled).”
“You do a lot of praying when you’re there all day long,” said Wood, who is a lifelong member of St. Benedict Catholic Church in Ridgely. “You know, ‘Just let me get water for these people.’”
Watching the faces of villagers watching their well produce water is an experience that “really gets you pretty choked up,” Whaley said. “There are some slop holes that — I mean, we’ve seen the ugliest of the ugly. And to, all of a sudden, find that water … ” Whaley struggles to find the words.
Like Wood, he instead tells a story or shares an anecdote.
“There’s one region in Ghana where 70% of the kids had what they call river blindness, which was a parasite in the water. And what they’ve done there is more or less eradicate it,” he said.
In addition to his well-drilling work, Wood teamed up with Kevin White of Easton, who is the founder of Global Vision 2020. They’ve worked together with Ghanaian ophthalmologist Dr. Wanye Tle, Lifetime Wells Vision to perform 8,550 cataract surgeries and 54,000 treatments for bacterial blindness, and dispense 27,000 pairs of USee eyeglasses (White’s award-winning invention) as of December 2022.
Wood keeps track of the numbers, but Whaley said Wood also tells the stories of those who can suddenly see, such as a man, blind for 16 years, who could see following cataract surgery that cost $400 or $500.
Drilling wells and restoring vision — and paying for them — occupies Wood’s thoughts constantly when he’s back home, Wood said.
“It’s like he’s just absorbed with it” Whaley said. “He says, ‘Well, they need it.’”
While the 40 year-old drilling rig and a couple of trucks stay in Tanzania, Wood said he needs to acquire and ship a new water truck (that always needs patching), pumps and pipes.
“We’re managing,” Wood said, chuckling.
It “doesn’t hurt” that there are “so many people praying for us.”
Wood hopes to head back to Tanzania in June or July, if it’s dry enough.
“I can’t wait to get back there, dig in there and do some more,” he said.
For more information about Lifetime Wells International, visit //www.lifetimewellsinternational.org/. To learn more about Lifetime Wells Vision, visit //www.lifetimewellsvision.org/.
This story first appeared in The Star Democrat, Easton, Md., www.stardem.com Used with permission.