Settling into comfortable chairs in their secluded Arlington home, a glowing fire holding off the coolness of a recent morning, Sandy and Bud Mulcahy, both 78, are smiling, eager to talk about the trip that gave them new purpose. It was, they say, a journey guided by the very hand of God, a crossing that may have been destined from the beginning.
They never guessed that in the autumn of their years they would call up their talents again and search for a hidden treasure of life-giving water thousands of miles from home.
They say they came out of Africa changed — and determined to return.
But truth to tell, they hadn’t really wanted to go in the first place. They were, after all, settled into a comfortable routine. They spent time in Texas and in Colorado each year and had no need to travel farther, especially since the chemo and radiation treatments hadn’t stopped Bud’s recurring malignant tumors. The pain, the uncertainty and the struggle to remain optimistic had sapped their energy and dulled their enthusiasm.
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Their son had insisted they make the journey; see the animals, wonder at the vastness of the Serengeti plain, inhale Africa’s primordial rhythm of life.
They had waved him away, resisted his pestering for at least two years, and then, to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary, the Mulcahys took their son’s advice.
They packed their bags and set out in 2010 with just each other and the sense of adventure they’d always known together, never dreaming that this African safari would change their lives as well as the lives of hundreds of strangers.
“We always traveled alone,” says Bud, a retired engineer who had worked in the space and nuclear industries before opening his own firm. “We were never ‘group travelers.’ … We didn’t stay in American hotels … took whatever kind of transportation was available.”
Yes, his wife says, they were the independent sort, but when they set out for Africa, they had no idea that they’d need the help of many others to finish this journey.
Once on the continent, they hopped a couple of puddle-jumper planes to reach remote destinations in South Africa and Tanzania and endured a 12-hour bus ride into Kenya.
“We weren’t sure if we were even on the right bus,” says Bud. His smile is wide remembering how that old sense of adventure bloomed again in that ancient land far from home.
“It was the ‘offseason,’ and so beautiful,” explains Sandy, a longtime teacher who had worked for her husband after he opened his firm. “We saw all the animals: elephants, lions, giraffes … everything.”
What they didn’t see were crowds of tourists. In fact, the lodges were almost empty.
“By the time we got to Kenya, there were only about six guests in a lodge that had the capacity for 30,” Sandy remembers.
The staff lavished those few travelers with attention, and the Mulcahys quickly became friends with the waiter who served their meals.
Of course, they talked of home: theirs and his. An easygoing, smiling man, Yegon Richard told them about his village, Kapkesembe, 100 miles from the camp.
Forgotten by time, it was a place lacking in every way. It had no electricity, no jobs and no money. Simple sanitation was missing. There was little education, less hope and scant leadership. But a lack of clean water topped the list of needs.
Each day, four times a day, water was hauled from a muddy, sometimes stinking creek, he said. The people of Kapkesembe boiled it first, then drank it and cooked and cleaned with it — and expected nothing better.
When their time in Kenya was over, the Mulcahys left Yegon a generous gratuity and headed for home, but the man’s stories had already stubbornly taken root in their imaginations.
On the flight from Nairobi to London, Bud leaned close to Sandy. “We’re going back,” he said. “We’re going to drill a water well.”
Determined to succeed
But back in Texas, Bud and Sandy found little support for their dream of drilling a well in Africa. Their church didn’t want to be involved; their friends said it was impossible.
“When they said it couldn’t be done, well, that was like waving a red flag in front of a bull,” says Sandy. “Bud was determined to drill a well.”
Bud shrugs and rocks back in his chair. “I took this as a challenge. I’m getting to the end of my life and I have talents. I want to keep using them,” he says.
The first step was to get some professionals to come on board — engineers like himself. It took months of phone calls, weeks of chasing rabbit tracks that led nowhere. And then, one day, Bud learned that a Kenyan pastor would be in Colorado raising money for his church. Bud was to be in Colorado at the same time, and a meeting was arranged.
The Kenyan minister agreed to help get the government permit and help with the well. The permit was secured in a record two weeks, and a hydrologist was sent to find a well site.
With a site secured, the Mulcahys selected a drilling company.
“The owner had been educated in Indiana. … He worked in the States, returned to Kenya and started Watta Haus,” says Bud. “He visited the site and sent us a proposal of $16,000 for a well with a hand pump.”
It was a small amount of money, really: half the price of a pickup truck, a tad more than a 2014 Kia Soul, the cost of a handmade and artist-signed Hermes handbag.
But it was a sum the Mulcahys didn’t have, so they set out to raise the money. They set up a ministry called Africa Water Wells, and eventually Grace Covenant Church in Arlington took care of the donations, making sure all the money went directly to the project. But it was a hard sell.
“I wasn’t on board at first,” says pastor Jason Freeman.
Bud and Sandy didn’t have time to fret about the preacher’s lack of enthusiasm. They were speaking to any group that would have them in Colorado and Texas and the money started rolling in.
In 2012 they went back to Kenya to watch the drilling. Several supporters, including Freeman, went with them. “Everyone paid their own way,” says Sandy.
It was to be a time of celebration, but days of rain made the road into the village a muddy soup. The trucks did not arrive on the scheduled day, or the day after that, or even the day after that.
The people who had traveled to Africa with Bud and Sandy began to wonder if the drillers were coming at all. Doubt colored every hour. Maybe this project was too much for a handful of Americans to tackle after all.
“Members of our team were beginning to think we were being led down the wrong path,” says Freeman.
Patience pays off
And then, on the fourth day, the trucks rolled into Kapkesembe, and when they left, the village was a new place.
Freeman and the others were sold. “It’s amazing what clean water can do,” he says. “It’s life-changing … dramatic. The villagers always had to boil the water before using it. They were shocked when they saw us drink from the pump,” he says.
Clean water may have changed the lives of the villagers, but the Mulcahys’ faithful demonstration of commitment to the project was itself transformative.
“When you see Bud and Sandy’s commitment, you have to get on board or get out of the way,” says Freeman. “I was sold.”
Aware of what the Mulcahys had done, the villagers were inspired to do more for themselves. They raised a metal shed with toilets and a kitchen to house a new school for children through seventh grade. The wealthier villagers donated money to hire a headmaster and 10 teachers.
“That wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t drilled the well,” says Bud.
The school is called Clean Water Bud Academy. The hope is that it will expand to include 12 grades and eventually become a boarding school.
Back in Texas and Colorado, supporters kept sending money, and soon there was enough to outfit the Kapkesembe well with a solar pump and a 2,500-gallon water storage tank. The village got electricity, too. So far, Africa Water Wells ministry, a completely volunteer organization, has spent about $60,000 in Kapkesembe.
All the money goes directly to providing educational facilities and clean water. There are no administrative costs. Those who travel to Africa with the organization pay their way.
The Mulcahys saw the well come in, but they didn’t think their work was done. They organized a team of volunteers to bring mobile healthcare to the village. They helped set up alcoholism-rehabilitation programs. They arranged for pastoral training for the Christian community there and even set up a sewing workshop to help the villagers develop income-generating skills.
Last year, Bud learned that all his cancers are in remission. “After seven years … he got a clean bill of health,” says Sandy.
But even with this good news, Bud says it’s time to step away from the ministry. “It’s getting bigger than we can handle. … It’s physically harder to travel,” he says. Sandy nods. “We need to find someone else to do this work,” she says.
They are quiet, remembering the villagers, the clean water, the smiles, the songs. The journey has been long, the treasure of life worth the sacrifice.
“I’m grateful … we were given a purpose,” says Bud.
Sandy nods and the fire burns low. “But we couldn’t have done it alone,” she says.