Have you ever cried with joy? If not, then here’s your chance. This tale, a true story of determination, conquering adversity and ingenuity lost and found in a hostile landscape, will make you cheer as you follow a young African boy who sets out to do the impossible. It’s a story that well embodies the concept of “the audacity of hope” with no strings attached.
William Kamkwamba was born in Malawi, son of a hard-hitting, heavy-drinking father who converted to Christianity after nearly killing a man in a barroom brawl. After the conversion, “the Pope,” as he was called by his buddies, became an exemplary, hardworking farmer who taught his children that cultural myths were important but that cultural superstitions would hold them back. His ability to laugh at superstition and prevail in the depths of adversity doubtlessly inspired his son, who grew to be a boy with a vision and an accompanying ability to get things done. And William’s father respected that.
Forced to drop out of secondary school due to lack of money, William found comfort in a few books that he was able to check out from the library and read again and again. The most important of those was an American textbook called USING ENERGY, a book that he has said to have changed his life. Before he found the book, William was fascinated by principles of electronics and physics. But with the book, he was able to envision how to build a windmill to generate electricity, knowing that this simple intervention could change the lives and fortunes of his family. With electricity to pump water and light their home, the family would prosper and move out of the survivalist existence of the typical Malawian farmer. This was William’s dream.
Having plenty of spare time, the boy began to forage in junkyards, filling his room with hunks of metal and skeins of wire that would one day be useful in fashioning his self-designed wind generator. After seeing William light a tiny light bulb with a bicycle, a local chief helped to bankroll this quirky project. With the funding, William was able to gather the pieces that he needed, and soon, the windmill, created out of junk, began to operate. The wind cooperated, and the whole house was electrified with tiny light bulbs. But tiny or not, it was more incandescence than most of the neighbors had.
Word spread about William’s invention. He was asked by a local high school to help the children there make a windmill. Word spread further, this time to the media, and, suddenly, William’s house had the attention of radio and newspaper people throughout the country. As can be imagined, William’s genius caught the eye of people who had the power to help him. He wound up at a conference of TED (Technology Entertainment Design) in Arusha, where his simple device and his simple presentation earned a standing ovation. One of the first people to discover William’s windmill and laud his abilities, TED blogger Erik Hersman, offered this wisdom: “Where the world sees trash, Africa recycles. Where the world sees junk, Africa sees rebirth.”
The fascinating saga of THE BOY WHO HARNESSED THE WIND is held together with the assistance of writer Bryan Mealer, AP staff correspondent and author of ALL THINGS MUST FIGHT TO LIVE: Stories of War and Deliverance in Congo. Despite his contribution, the flavor is pure African. William’s relationships with his family, his understanding of tribal customs, and his viewpoint on contrasts between home and the highly industrialized Western world are described as he encountered them, in his terms. He talks about the entrepreneurial zeal of Malawian businesspeople who set up tables on the dusty streets and, using a single drop cord plugged in at a kiosk behind them, recharge cell phones and laptops and provide phone minutes and computer time…for a price. One can only imagine that people who create these services and those who utilize them would progress rapidly if they had full-time direct use of such devices as we Americans do.
At the time of this book’s completion, William was attending the African Leadership School in Johannesburg, South Africa. His ever increasing knowledge of electricity and his willing funders had allowed him to vastly improve life back home for his family, with real mattresses, proper mosquito netting and malaria preventatives, full-scale lighting and a drilled well.
You can be sure the world is not through hearing about William Kamkwamba. Lucky world.
Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott on September 29, 2009