In Depth | A Long Way to Lilongwe

How a Santa Cruz faith leader is working to bring solar power, food security and health services to one of the poorest parts of the world: the African nation of Malawi

By Joel Hersch

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A guard at Nkhotakota Prison strikes a pose for the camera. Photo: Michael Daniel

We are inside the brick walls of a rural penitentiary called Nkhotakota Prison, situated near the banks of the expansive Lake Malawi, in southeast Africa. It is mid July, with clear skies overhead and a temperature of 66 degrees—the coldest weather the country has experienced in over a decade. More than 100 Malawian prisoners are gathered on the cement yard listening intently to a talk by our team leader, Patrick “Paddy” Brady, a Santa Cruz native and the founder of a faith-based organization called “His 2 Offer,” or H20.

As he paces in front of the prisoners, with a translator repeating his words in the native dialect of Chichewa, Brady delivers an icebreaker.

“Why am I here today?” he asks. “Because I come from a long line of prisoners, on the opposite side of the world. My grandfather was a prisoner. My mother was a prisoner and my father was a famous prisoner. My father … he stole 16 cars in one day!”

When Brady gets to this part, the prisoners light up and erupt with laughter. When it subsides, he carries on, explaining that his parents became Christians, had lots of kids, lead happy lives, and grew into old age. In prisons, Brady always leads with this backstory to create what common ground he can, present the aid that H20 bring to Malawi in the context of faith, and to provide at least some comic relief, because humor is part of how Brady operates

H20 has been making missionary trips to work in Malawi for six years, where Brady has made an expansive effort to deploy solar power, establish skill training programs inside of prisons, construct medical clinics, drill potable wells, and, all the while, keep management of all the programs in the hands of local Malawians.

“Never do anything for people that they can’t already do for themselves,” he tells me. “We work for solutions to problems with the local leaders and all the labor has to be local. … I never interject myself into the community; I stay in the background. It’s got to be them, because who am I out here? I’m a crazy Mzunga [a white man]. I’m just this old surfer guy from Santa Cruz.”

On this mission to Malawi, our group of nine traveled to this small, landlocked country’s capital city, Lilongwe. Through our production company Swan Dive Media, cinematographer Michael Daniel and I were sponsored to join the trip and produce a film on the work that H20 does. Over two weeks in Malawi, we visited six state prisons, community centers, orphanages, a wildlife preserve, traveled many hours daily in a bus, and spent nights at a university called Africa Bible College, which serves as H20’s in-country headquarters.

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The organization started in 2012 by implementing job training, building clinics, and farming programs in the country’s largest, heavily over-crowded city prison, Maula, but has since expanded into various new programs and today works in 10 of the country’s 27 total prisons. Every part of Malawi suffers a critical deficit in reliable electricity, food, potable water, and funding.

With about 15 million people in the country, an estimated 1 million orphans, and an average annual income of about $244, Malawi is ranked as one of the poorest nations in the world, which is why Brady says he originally decided to work there.

Brady grew up on Beach Hill in Santa Cruz, surfed avidly, and followed a career path into mechanical engineering for NASA. He loved the work, but after retiring in 2011, he made a commitment to allocate the rest of his time on Earth to “transformative work,” and he wanted to do it in a part of the world that truly needs the help.

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Brady is also very active in Santa Cruz, where he is the founder of Bright Vision Solar, which hires homeless U.S. military veterans to develop solar systems and LED lighting equipment. Portions of Bright Vision Solar’s profits are directed into operations in Malawi, he explains.

Brady’s father, Don Brady, grew up poor in San Francisco on Fillmore Street. He had propensity to steal cars—the first before he was 10—and drive them until they ran out of gas. Brady’s mother, Esther, also had her own run-ins with the law. Don served in the Army Air Corps during World War II, flying more than 50 missions as a ball turret gunner aboard a B-24. After the war, his family moved to Santa Cruz where he made a living as a metal worker, and raised his children. Paddy was the youngest.

“He stole 16 cars in one day, which made him a legend,” Brady says.  “He was a pretty serious dude, in and out of prison. Shot down four times during the war.”

However, “he never went back to prison after the war,” Brady says. “He had a life transformation.” It is a transformation like his father’s that Brady wishes to impart to the incarcerated Malawians.

Brady did not talk about it much in Malawi, but we discovered that his father, Don, passed away at the age of 99 just two months before we flew to Africa. I believe it was his father’s recent death that influenced Brady to share so many details of his old man’s life with the prisoners—a way to bring his father along for the journey.

The day before visiting Nkhotakota, our team stopped in another rural penitentiary called Ntchisi Prison, where H20 had built a medical clinic the year before and provided various resources. Upon our arrival, a prison choir assembled and performed a harmonious, soul-swelling a cappella gospel in the local dialect of Chichewa. My business partner and I documented it on camera while personally trying to fully absorb the beauty of those few minutes of the prisoners’ singing.

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Afterward, Brady and I sat down for an interview with the prison’s superintendent, Ben Thulama.

“The prison clinic built for Ntchisi Prison has left an impact on the many lives here,” he told us. “H20 is assisting us in very important ways, with medication, with food—meat for our prisoners’ rations, nutritious rice—and soap.”

Thulama said that, for prisoners to reform, he believes their transformation must occur spiritually, physically, and socially.

“You cannot reform in only one side,” he said. “H20 has helped us in all these ways, but especially in the spiritual side.”

While prisoners serve average sentences of about two to five years, according to another prison superintendent, we learned that Malawi’s judicial system falls between rudimentary and nonexistent. I’m told that many prisoners have stolen food when they were starving, some have committed serious crimes, and others are likely not guilty of any crime at all.

Thulama noted that he would like people in other parts of the world to understand the magnitude of poverty in Malawi.

“There are very vulnerable groups in our country, such as these prisons and orphanages,” he said. “We need assistance from the world’s nations. The government here fails to serve many people who need help, so we need groups like H20 to fill these gaps. … We would like our relationship with H20 to grow bigger and bigger, so that the worst problems we have in Ntchisi Prison will be history.”

Asking for any of Malawi’s institutions to become entirely void of problems is a tall order, which Thulama and Brady acknowledge. That said, H20 is doing important work in a part of the world where getting things done can be incredibly difficult. But it seems that this might be a big part of what Brady enjoys most about what he’s doing in Africa: the boundless problem solving.

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Every day I spent with H20 in Malawi could fill a book, but one that stands out—and was the most obvious homage to Santa Cruz—is the organization’s popular annual surf contest on Lake Malawi. The lake, which is the ninth largest in the world and the third deepest in Africa, is the conjoining point for Malawi, Mozambique, and Tanzania, and its surface kicks up two-to-three-foot swell under a steady wind. With a variety of prizes in the mix—clothing, bicycles, soap, and more—and a combination of African dance songs and ’60s surf rock blaring over loud speakers, thousands of kids come on foot from surrounding communities, including Nkhotakota village. With the H20 team positioned onshore and in the surf break instructing on basic surf stance, gleeful children don lifejackets and get pushed into the sporadic waves. A number of them get short rides toward shore, with looks of shock-turned-excitement plastered across their soaked faces.

As we scan from the beach for any crocodiles or hippos floating into the surf zone, the joyful kids in the water are a refreshing juxtaposition to the men and women living out their lives in the prisons. With Brady keeping score of waves surfed from a thatched hut nearby and thousands of kids dancing to the music up and down the beach, the scene illustrates well the nature of H20’s presence in Malawi.

“Yeah brother, this is Africa—you [have] got to go with the flow, stay positive and have some faith,” Brady says happily when a piece of solar equipment is confirmed to work correctly after doubt was cast. “Things can get pretty heavy sometimes in this part of world—you’re not in Santa Cruz anymore. … [But] at the end of the day, H20 is all about helping these kids, and helping people help them themselves.”

Surfing Lake Malawi from Santa Cruz Waves on Vimeo.

 Keep an eye out for Swan Dive Media’s film on H20’s work in Africa later this year.


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One comment on “In Depth | A Long Way to Lilongwe


  1. Outstanding & ever inspiring! Job well done Paddy; good & faithful servant.


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