My journey began in January 2001. I was no longer Los Angeles County District Attorney. A month earlier, I had been the county's chief law enforcement officer, now I was moving on but unsure of the direction. Life takes interesting detours when you least expect it.
Conrad N. Hilton Foundation Vice President Dyanne Hayes-Nash had invited my wife, Sukey, to accompany her on a Foundation business trip to West Africa. I was invited to join them. I'd never been to West Africa. They thought I could take some good photographs for them.
We were in the West African countries of Ghana, Burkina Faso, and Niger, meeting with NGOs, government officials, and mostly with villagers in rural communities. The most startling fact I heard early on was this: close to 70% of rural farm communities throughout West Africa do not have access to safe water.
Visiting the villages quickly brought home the consequences of unsafe water: high infant mortality; severe and recurrent illness for villagers of all ages; blindness; unsanitary living conditions; low farm production; absence of opportunity for private enterprise efforts; and, for girls, virtually no opportunity to attend school. I documented all this but was also mesmerized by images of hope and beauty among their women and children—their eyes, smiles and body language. Sometimes they were sad or questioning, but mostly eager and alive.
I was moved countless times by the stories the people of West Africa shared with me.
With the assistance of the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, I returned to West Africa four more times to photograph and subsequently published the book, “Water Is Key: A Better Future for Africa.” My idea was to use it to make people in the developed world aware of both the consequences of unsafe water and the life changes that come when a well is drilled deep into the ground.
I was moved countless times by the stories the people of West Africa shared with me. One mother who was so proud that her daughter became the first girl in the history of the village to attend school. That happened because a well was drilled in her village and so she and her daughter no longer had to walk miles for their water needs. You could see the pride and joy in her face.
Another encounter stenciled in my brain the importance of providing villagers with a borehole well in or near their village. In a meeting with Mali’s President, Amadou Touré, he told me: “I cannot tell you how important your work is, not just to me, but to my people. If I had the money, the first thing I would do is make sure every village in Mali had a sustainable supply of safe water. With safe water, everything good follows.”
After the book was published, I started speaking to community groups, primarily in Southern California hoping to motivate them to take action. In February, 2008, I spoke to a group of women who decided to help. They named their organization, “Water Is Key,” after my book and started fundraising. In 2009, I joined forces with them and in 2010 we formed a 501(c)(3).
I have continued speaking to community groups around the country, not only to raise awareness but to raise money for Wells Bring Hope. At the conclusion of my presentation I ask the audience as individuals or as a group to help sponsor one well. I also ask them to connect me to other groups where I might give my presentation. The results have been amazing, enabling us to bring safe water to many thousands of West Africans. Girls now go to school in those villages and the women often become successful entrepreneurs with micro-credit loans. All because you and people like you have helped us finance the wells that make all of this possible.