Aldo Magazzeni's hair is long, wavy and graying. His beard is full and thick. His appearance suggests an Old Testament prophet or an aging alumnus of Woodstock.
But the look is actually a badge of his vocation, and the beard is an engineering degree of sorts - proof of his seemingly magical power to make water rise from rivers and climb mountains.
That's the reputation Magazzeni enjoys in a half dozen villages in the mountains of northeastern Afghanistan. His ability to make water appear has also earned him many friends in Kenya, where he helped build a village for AIDS orphans.
Magazzeni, 56, does not have a civil engineering degree. But what he lacks in hydraulic science, he more than supplies in ingenuity, will and altruism.
When he and his wife moved to Chester County in 1980, Magazzeni was a serial entrepreneur - developing real estate, restoring old buildings, launching retail ventures, managing construction projects, including private, affordable housing. Today, he is a partner in a company that makes industrial fasteners in Lumberton, Burlington County, while his wife, Anna, manages the Agway store in Pughtown, Chester County.
For Magazzeni, success comes with a major perk: control of his time.
In the late '90s, he set off on a mountain-climbing expedition, scaling a score of peaks on several continents. "It opened up my eyes," he says. "I became acquainted with other cultures. I saw the needs, and the potential of doing something."
He visited Haiti in 2001 with a friend, helping to build a school and church. "I was entirely turned on by the beauty, the humanity and the loving relationships with the people," he said.
When Magazzeni went to northern India and Bhutan in 2003 to climb the Himalayas, the Iraq war broke out. "It really upset me," Magazzeni recalls. "I could see what was coming: more power imposition and suffering." A fellow tourist reminded him that war may migrate to new killing fields, but the suffering lingers and is often forgotten. To wit: Afghanistan.
"I was tired of just organizing protests and complaining," Magazzeni says. "I decided to go do something." He headed for Afghanistan, alone, with no design or plan, impelled by something mysterious, ineffable.
He spent two months in the Panjshir Valley and surrounding Hindu Kush mountains, designing systems to pump water from springs, creeks and rivers to a central tank or cistern, so villagers would no longer have to walk miles up and down steep paths for their daily needs. He rigged up pumps and small hydroelectric power plants, supervised the volunteers, and ordered and paid for the materials.
When he came home, he sold his vintage BMW, a prized toy. Returning to Afghanistan for four more months, he used the proceeds to build water systems in four more villages. Clean-shaven when he arrived, he soon grew a lush beard. The local men admired it and urged him not to shave. He vowed to keep his beard until all the nearby villages had water.
In the city of Kabul, he helped obtain sewing machines for women prisoners so they could ply a trade. He helped set up day care for their children. He helped obtain uniforms so older children at an orphanage could attend school.
"I was treated as a friend, with great respect and dignity," Magazzeni says. "I hope maybe I softened their hearts."
In December 2005, Magazzeni was heading to Ethiopia to contribute his skills to an AIDS mission founded by Mother Teresa. At the urging of a friend, he stopped in Kenya to visit the Rev. Angelo D'Agostino, a Jesuit priest who was working with refugees.
When D'Agostino heard Magazzeni describe his efforts in Afghanistan, he said, "Stay. I need you."
Magazzeni complied, helping the priest for the next six months build a self-sustaining agricultural village on a thousand acres southeast of Nairobi for a thousand children of AIDS victims. Together, they erected houses, a school, a community center, and a medical clinic. Magazzeni's major contribution: He got the water system to work.
"He's pretty amazing, a very spiritual guy," says Anna, who confesses to the hardship of his long absences from their 79-acre farm in Perkiomenville, Montgomery County. "I'm really proud of him." (The couple have a daughter, Elizabeth, 28, an aspiring art therapist who lives in Santa Fe.)
"It's interesting to watch the path he has taken," says Peter Bosch, a photographer and longtime friend who lives in Manhattan. "There's something incredibly freeing about picking up and going off to help others. Aldo understands that in giving to others, the real gift is to yourself, and he's one of those people who gets other people thinking about that."
Magazzeni intends to return to both Afghanistan and Africa. "I'm close to doing this full time," he says. "That's where my calling is."
His mission remains profoundly personal. He is not out to convert or proselytize, enlist or recruit.
"I'm bringing back a picture that may help people open up and see what's out there," he says. "It's unhealthy for the body and soul to avoid knowing what's happening with other people in the world."