Retired Sewickley Heights engineer's devotion to others getting quite a workout in Malawi
September 24, 2012 4:00 AM
Aubrey Briggs' home office is decorated by the gifts of mahogany sculptures he's received.
Bob Donaldson / Post-Gazette
Aubrey Briggs' inspiration for his design, construction and financing a water system for a village in Malawi were the women such as these villagers there who spent their days carrying water on their heads.
By Ann Rodgers Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
In the village of Domasi, Malawi, where women once carried 53-pound buckets of water on their heads for miles, a pipeline now winds down a mountain carrying clean water to their homes.
It wouldn't have happened if Sewickley Heights resident Aubrey Briggs hadn't wanted to play tennis as a youth in Australia. Nor would it have happened without a 21-year partnership between Pittsburgh Presbytery and the Synod of Blantyre, Malawi, of the Presbyterian Church of Central Africa.
Mr. Briggs, 92, a "retired" engineer, will receive an award tonight from the World Mission Initiative at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary for his Living Waters Project. He designed it, oversaw construction and put in $300,000 of his own money.
"I've got enough money to live on. Anything I do now is pro bono. I work through the church," Mr. Briggs said. "I've had my reward, and I'm in good health. I have gone from rags to riches."
He was a farm boy in the Australian outback, where drinking water came from roof runoff. For enjoyment he played tennis on a court that his father had built.
He wanted to continue when he moved to Melbourne to study engineering, but couldn't afford a tennis club. He soon learned that many Melbourne churches had courts. Though he had no religious upbringing, he found a church that let him play in return for attending services.
There he met the two loves of his life. One was Nancy, who died last year after 65 years of marriage. The other was Jesus.
He served in World War II, then launched his career. After designing one of the largest ship unloaders south of the equator, he wanted to move to the United States for more such projects. Facing a seven-year waiting list for visas, in 1957 he took his wife and children on a sugar boat to Canada "so I could harass Washington from close quarters."
In 1959 he got his visa to work for Dravo Corp. on Neville Island. He became a globetrotting authority on design and construction of dockside equipment. In 1985, as Dravo was folding, he bought its research arm, which became Briggs Technology.
He is a disciple of R.G. LeTourneau, who designed and built most of the earth-and-rubble movers for the U.S. military in World War II. Mr. LeTourneau, who died in 1969, was an evangelical Christian who taught other professionals that all their talent came from God and should be used for his glory.
Throughout his career, Mr. Briggs said, whenever he has been stuck on a design problem, "there has been some invisible force influencing me. It gives me capabilities beyond what you would expect normally."
Which is why a few days before Christmas 1992, an agent for a Japanese bank appeared at his door in Rosslyn Farms. The bank believed he was its last hope to fix a $12 million ship unloader it had repossessed in Hawaii.
Fix it he did. The bank then begged him to buy it, with a loan that would allow him to give it back and walk free if he couldn't turn a profit. He became the owner of Briggs Pacific Industries, which he sold in 2002.
All along he helped missionaries with projects in remote regions. He taught a Bible class for decades at Ken Mawr United Presbyterian Church in McKees Rocks and now belongs to the Presbyterian Church of Sewickley.
He was 72 when he volunteered for Pittsburgh Presbytery's Malawi partnership in 1993.
The Rev. Bill Paul, co-founder of the Malawi partnership, hesitated over his age. The volunteers would do hard labor in harsh conditions to restore a church from the era of 19th-century missionary David Livingston. As soon as Mr. Briggs arrived, he spotted a construction error that would have led to a roof collapse. He helped them remove the roof and install proper support.
"I said to myself, wow, it's great that he's part of this," said Rev. Paul, now retired and living in Cranberry but still active with the Malawi partnership. "It's been an inspiration to me to know that age doesn't put someone in a neutral area of life."
The workers mixed cement with water that women carried on their heads for miles.
"All these ladies did was carry water all day long, sometimes with one or two babies on their back," Mr. Briggs said. "I decided then and there I had to find some source of water."
Thus began years of hiking the mountain, once narrowly escaping death in a rockslide. Three miles away and 1,000 feet up he discovered several small mountain streams that could be dammed for a reservoir.
"I never found the real source of the water, but it comes out like the water from Moses' rock," he said, referring to a biblical account. "It was able to catch 850,000 gallons a day."
He faced problems from theft of survey markers for firewood and from corrupt regional officials. He used some skilled construction volunteers from the U.S. and Australia, but paid a local crew far above their government's recommended pay scale.
He hiked the mountains against his doctor's orders after a double hip replacement. He endured a painful case of shingles and an even more debilitating problem from a cracked bone in his foot that wouldn't heal.
Early in planning, Rev. Paul saw him limp into a meeting "and I said to myself 'Aubrey will never be able to do the things we've talked about,'" he said.
He saw many specialists and bought a computer-designed custom boot. Nothing helped.
"We were ready for the last push, to finish it off. I was climbing that mountain two or three times a day, and it became impossible. I was frustrated and angry. I had gone this far, and I was defeated. I'm not used to defeat and I don't take it well. I went to prayer on this. I said, 'Lord, if you want me to finish the job, you are going to have to fix my foot.' The next morning my foot was fixed, and it still is fixed."
The final step was to run a pipe through rock, but he had no jackhammer. "I didn't know what to do, but one of the local people came to me and said, 'I think we can do it for you," he said.
They built a fire over the stone and began a four-day process of heating it to extreme highs, then pouring cold water to fracture it.
In 2002 the Living Waters Project began to flow from a 3-million-gallon reservoir. It serves the village of Domasi, its school, clinic and a five-acre garden.
There's enough water to extend the pipe 21 miles to another 140,000 people, but Mr. Briggs and the Presbyterian Church in Malawi have been stymied by local officials.
"I don't pay bribes or take them. I've never done it in all my life in industry," Mr. Briggs said.
He has greater dreams for water in Malawi, one of the world's poorest nations, which is landlocked with few roads. Attempts at trade down the Shire and Zambezi rivers through Mozambique to the sea have wrecked on a 1,462-foot plunge over 37 miles of waterfalls.
So Mr. Briggs designed a "traveling lock." At one end of the falls area it would enclose a river barge, then roll out of the river, carrying the barge and the water on rails. After traveling the 37 miles, it would return to the river and release the barge. It wouldn't require a massive port. Instead, the river barges and their cargo would be carried on ocean barges that would be raised or sunk to catch and release them.
It would run from Lake Malawi down the rivers through Mozambique to the ocean. He estimates the project would cost just over $100 million.
"Malawi would have unprecedented wealth almost immediately. This is a small investment that will give a big return," he said. "All of the time and engineering that has gone into the system is free of charge. It is a gift to Malawi, given through the Presbyterian Church. I ask for nothing except to have the right to patent the system."
Before he designed the traveling locks he thought he had a commitment from the Malawian parliament for $4 million in seed money to install a winch system and other preliminary work. But while he tried to raise the remainder from the World Bank, he said, officials burned through the $4 million trying to build a major port, talking of a $6 billion project. They also offended Mozambique, which wanted environmental studies before committing to use of its river.
"I just walked away," he said.
This past April, the president of Malawi died. His successor is Joyce Banda, a politician, businesswoman and philanthropist from the region where Living Waters was built. She soon sent word to Mr. Briggs, asking him to resume work on the river project, he said. She has worked out an agreement with Mozambique and obtained international funding for the environmental studies.
"She is the one who gets the credit. Otherwise it would have died," he said. "I'm old now, but I can't resist this temptation."
The final plan lacks only $150,000 for a trip to pinpoint exact placement of the rail supports, Mr. Briggs said. The high cost is because he can no longer hike and needs a helicopter.
While he awaits that trip, the World Mission Initiative at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary is honoring him at a dinner tonight with its first Award for Outstanding Mission Service and Support.
Mr. Briggs is uneasy with the honors. He told parts of his story, about his injuries and the river project, only at Rev. Paul's urging. He's believes he's only doing what a Christian is supposed to.
"I don't deserve all the attention I'm getting now. I'm just an engineer, but I've been given the opportunity to serve all sorts of people," he said.