A family of five people stands in front of a desert landscape at sunset

Wilfred’s Leap of Faith

A Malawian village builds resilience one drop at a time

A man in an orange shirt and shorts stands with a tool over his shoulder next to an irrigation canal with mountains in the background

“In the beginning, God created the earth. He started with the environment. And later He created man to take care of the environment.” — Wilfred Charles

Wilfred Charles is a 35-year-old farmer and pastor who helped his community grow resilient against drought by building an irrigation system in his village of Mitawa.

When Wilfred was young, there was a famine in the village. There wasn't enough food to go around, so he became underweight.

Now, Wilfred and his wife Magrate Nthawani have four children: Bright, Joyce, Rodgers and Mphatso. Wilfred doesn’t want them to suffer like he did. It’s important for him to make sure he has enough food to feed his family.

Two children pose for the camera
A child seated in a classroom
A child leans against a wall
Silhouette of a woman carry a jar on her head with a child following in the background

In 2010, USAID introduced Wilfred’s community to irrigation farming to water their crops. The community started looking for volunteers to build irrigation canals. At first, more than 200 people volunteered. But when they realized how difficult the work was, all left except for Wilfred and five other men.

They did not give up.

The six volunteers worked tirelessly for three years to build the irrigation canal. Meanwhile, USAID provided food aid to support them.

All the while, people mocked them and thought they were crazy. But they did not give up. Wilfred believed this work would benefit his community and persisted with his task.

A man uses a hand tool to excavate ground
A man uses a hand tool to excavate ground
A woman uses a hand tool to excavate ground

“The first day the irrigation water reached our fields, it was like a dream come true,” Wilfred said.

Once the canal was built, water flowed through the fields, and the land was protected from soil erosion. Crops were growing. Now, the community can feed itself —  even amid droughts.

A group of five men smile and pose for the camera

“If the six men did not show up, the whole community would now be facing hunger and our children would be malnourished. Now, we are confident because we have water,” Wilfred said.

A man sits against a tree trunk, facing to the side, looking off in the distance.

“This community means a lot to me because at first we thought we could not do anything. But now we are able to do things that we are proud of,” Wilfred said.

Wilfred and the other five volunteers made the best of the training they received from USAID. With that knowledge and hard work, they changed their whole community. Their village has become self-reliant; they are no longer dependent on food aid to survive a drought.

Two children standing side-by-side pose for the camera

Now, they are providing training to other villages that want to follow their example.

“We still get a lot of visitors who would like us to train them on watershed development. And we are proud to do that,” says Wilfred.

About this story

Mitawa is a group of 35 small villages near the Lingoni River in Malawi. Its residents have suffered from consecutive droughts throughout the years.

In 2010, USAID introduced the community to irrigation farming to regularly supply water to their crops. An extension worker explained how irrigation farming works, and the community started looking for volunteers to build irrigation canals. Wilfred and five other men worked for three years so that their community could regularly supply water to their fields, with the goal of becoming self-reliant.

Six years after USAID introduced the new method to the village, Wilfred’s community is still reaping the benefits of their hard work. People are able to cultivate more, send children to school, build houses and have more economic opportunities.

USAID is helping Malawians to better withstand droughts by giving them the skills and tools they need to prepare and be resilient. By supporting these communities, USAID is supporting them on their development journey to self-reliance.

Video and photos by Morgana Wingard for USAID