Posted by: koolwine | April 2, 2011

Malawi: The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind


A farm boy builds a windmill out of scraps and brings electricity to his home.

Country Focus: Malawi (formerly Nyasaland)

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Energy and Hope

By William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer
Originally published: HarperCollins, 2009.
My edition: Harper Perennial, 2010.  290 pgs.

Acclaim: New York Times Bestseller

You know those landscape photographs that have inspirational phrases written beneath them, the ones that are advertised to corporate managers to award to their employees?  Well, “scarcity is the mother of invention” should be printed on the portrait below in one of those overly scripty fonts.

William Kamkwamba

William Kamkwamba grew up in Malawi, an African country which is scarce of basic services (only 2% of Malawians have electricity and running water).   Not only was Kamkwamba not one of those lucky 2%, but he was also scarce of money (his father was a subsistence farmer), toys (he and his friends made playthings out of trash and vegetation),  schooling (his family could not afford tuition), and for one miserable year, food (floods destroyed the country’s maize crop).

What Kamkwamba lacked in resources he made up for in intelligence, ingenuity, tenacity and friends who believed in him.  Naturally curious about machines and the energy that powers them, Kamkwamba regularly sacrificed his father’s and his friends’ radios for science experiments.  He fretted that his formal education would come to a premature and permanent end and that he would be stuck tending maize fields for the rest of his life.  He was the Luke Skywalker of Malawi, a restless farm boy with big dreams, albeit of just plain light, never mind the saber.

Denied admittance to school and desperate for intellectual stimulation, Kamkwamba continued his education on his own by reading library books.  One day, he stumbled across a  photo of windmills while browsing the shelves.  Reminiscent of the pinwheels he had made as a child and of an acquaintance’s bicycle dynamo, (a bicycle light that uses the spinning motion of the tires to create the energy that powers the light), these “giant beautiful machines” and Malawi’s constant wind inspired Kamkwamba to build a windmill of his own.

Kamkwamba's windmill

It’s not giving anything away to say that Kamkwamba succeeded in building a magetsi a mphepo “electric wind” and bringing electricity to his home.  He was internationally recognized for his accomplishment and taken under the wing of several wealthy and brainy Americans.  Despite being recruited by my alma mater Virginia Tech (home to one of the best engineering schools in the U.S.!), Kamkwamba decided to attend Dartmouth University.  Clearly he was not adequately informed about Hokie football.

Aside from regaling the reader with Kamkwamba’s compelling and unlikely life story, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind imparts interesting tidbits of Malawian culture, from why Malawians give their children names like “Suicide” and “Tombstone” to the integral role maize plays in their lives, to their continuing belief in vampires and witches, to the Chichewa word for “drooling idiot” (kape).

One of the most powerful sections of the book is Kamkwamba’s description of the 2002 famine.  As his family’s meals dwindle and his fellow Malawians die from starvation largely due to the greed of the country’s president, Kamkwamba pushes to free himself from reliance on an uncertain and cruel government.

His current goal is  “creating a new kind of Africa, a place of leaders instead of victims, a home of innovation rather than charity.”

In my book, or what Malawi means to me and maybe you, too

‘Cause everybody’s living in a material world
Not to be outdone by Brangelina’s international adoption spree, Madonna adopted two Malawian children, David Banda (in 2006) and Mercy James (in 2009).  Her interest in the wellbeing of Malawian children may have made Madonna less of a material girl, but unfortunately she hired material staff.  Her charity Raising Malawi was supposed to build a school for girls, but plans have been scrapped due to financial mismanagement that rivals past Malawian presidents’ – $3.8 million spent on “salaries, cars, office space and golf course membership, free housing and a car and driver for the school’s director.”

Book an education
Kamkwamba’s memoir is a testament to how books really can change lives.  The library he frequented was “stocked with books donated by the American government.”  When I was in college, I  co-organized a “Books for Russia” book drive, but couldn’t help wondering if  Russians really had a need for  textbooks that the university bookstore had refused to buy back (which made up the majority of our donations).  I can only hope that there was a Russian Kamkwamb-sky who made all of that postage worthwhile.

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