Len Apfel’s Story, told by Brenda Mottershead

Len - First acquaintance

In Parkmore, each Thursday, there was a celebratory atmosphere as groups of people, dressed in their best, made their way, mostly on foot from Morningside, Rivonia, Wendywood or Sandton and converged upon St John's Church "Centre of Concern".

Thursday is the traditional day off for domestic servants and garden workers in the beautiful northern suburbs of Johannesburg, and on this day, their pale uniforms of servility put away, they came to meet their friends and speak their own languages. They also came to learn.

There were literacy classes in the Sunday School rooms; dressmaking and tailoring in the large hall; an employment bureau in the ballet room; cookery in the Youth Centre; driving instruction or typing lessons; and health advice or treatment from the doctor and dentist who voluntarily staffed the clinic that day. Grace Ntsele, the social worker, was always there, and also one of the clergy, who led the service with which the proceedings always began.

Surveying the activity from a quiet corner in the shade was a gentleman, of small stature, not very young and of comfortable dimensions, of courteous demeanour and natural dignity. His trestle table was stacked with bags of mealie meal, samp, lentils, beans, sugar, dried milk, dried fruit and protein-enriched soup, and he dealt with a steady stream of customers with polite efficiency. As I left the literacy class where I was teaching we exchanged greetings.

I learned that the subsidised food came from IMQUALIFE, which tries to improve the quality of life for the poor, and that Mr Apfel travelled great distances into the homelands, helping the feeding schemes of Operation Hunger in schools and clinics in the deprived areas, where malnutrition was rife. He learned that I taught in Soweto and ran an inter-racial youth group in Johannesburg.

We shared mutual concerns, but our acquaintance was brief, as I left St John's to spend more time in black schools in Soweto. However, when I called at the Centre of Concern to make my farewells before departure in 1983, Mr Apfel said he would call on us when he visited England, and we exchanged addresses.


He kept his word, and a year later my 'phone rang. "Hello. Len Apfel here. I'm in England and I'll pop over and see you for a day when it's convenient."

"Where are you?" I asked.

"In Brighton. My son lives here."

"You can't possibly come from Brighton for a day! Come and stay."

So he came, by coach, soon recovering from the long journey. Each morning he walked for two hours in the woods of Alderley Edge before returning punctually for breakfast at 8.00am. I took him to Styal Mill, to Bollington, Marple and Macclesfield. His interest in mills and canals was, like his energy, boundless. We enjoyed ourselves and the friendship was established.

One day, when, he was talking about education to a group of friends whom I had invited to meet him, he described the conditions in which children in the homelands live, and Marilyn Foster, one of the group (which had hoped to help a black school), said:

"It's not education they need most. It's water! Why don't we build a well?"

We all agreed and Len replied: "If you will find the money, I will see the well is built."


Promises were made. Promises were kept. Numerous letters were written and trust grew. I wondered if Jericho, in Bophutatswana, where Emily lived, might be the right place for the well. Len knew the area. He visited Jericho as soon as he returned to South Africa and met the chief and the headmaster, my friend Mr Kwape.

The need for pure water was desperate. In Mr Kwape's own words: "This side we are hit by severe drought. It is a real difficulty to get water for drinking, cooking, washing and others. For the past three years we have only just got a little rain in March. We wonder what will happen in winter, for normally there are no rains. Our winter is going to be an ordeal."

Meanwhile, in Wilmslow, the first appeal letter went out to churches, local firms, educational and charitable concerns, local dignitaries etc. That created trust here. The response was encouraging. The name Wilmslow Wells was an inspired suggestion from the Rector, Peter Hunt. A willing, ecumenical team of workers was found and the project was accepted and adopted by the local Council of Churches.

Len advised that we should aim for a target of £2,000. From the outset it was felt that the interesting letters from Africa should be shared with our Wilmslow community and that a newsletter was essential. When Brenda Raven became secretary, she pointed out the advantages of a logo. A simple snap was transformed for the purpose by Rosemary Stubbs, a Wilmslow artist, who has continued to be an invaluable artistic adviser.

All our needs were expertly resourced and it was agreed that there would be no administration costs. Len was particularly emphatic about this, and so, at both ends of the operation, all services were to be given free of charge. All monies donated, therefore, would go directly and exclusively to provide water in Africa.

The foundations of Wilmslow Wells were laid.

Between 1984 and 1986 water was found and brought to the surface in Jericho. It was Project No 1 and produced water at the rate of 16,000 litres an hour - enough for the entire village of 20,000 people.

Len Apfel wrote: "This was nothing short of a miracle; Jericho had been reported dry."

It was a miracle that was to be repeated in many villages in Africa as the years progressed.



Len Apfel

Brenda Mottershead in Soweto where she met Len Apfel