The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind – William Kamkwamba (2009)


The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind was honestly one of the more inspirational stories I’ve come across this year in my reading journey. Kamkwamba has a great story to tell via a sly sense of humor about the world into which he was born in Malawi, and this was a super story to read.

William (as the author is named) grows up in a rural village in Malawi, a place that is small enough that there is no reliable electricity (should you be able to afford it), no efficient lighting, hard to access water, and little schooling. There is a small village center where bartering can take place, but apart from that, there is little for an ambitious and smart young man to do.

Apart from these challenges, the area where he grows up is faced with ongoing famine (due to poor rain and non-sustainable agricultural practices), corrupt government officials, little public health and little access to ongoing education. Infant mortality is high, and babies are named by their families to reflect the parents’ fears:  “Simkhalitsa (“I’m dying away”), Malazani (“Finish me off”) or perhaps Phelanuni (“Kill me quick”).  All this combined with a widely held belief in spirits, spells and witchdoctors made it a challenging environment to learn new and different things.

What’s a teenager to do?

malawi_turbineWilliam does go to school regularly, but when the drought and the famine arrive, his family’s crops fail and their income goes down enough to pull him out of school for long periods of time. Severe famine goes on with fatal results throughout the region, and there seems to be nothing they can do but wait for rain. The government at that time refuse to acknowledge the hunger plight, so there is little outside help – any outside agencies who try to help find their resources snatched by corrupt officials up and down the chain.

With no school, he (and a couple of friends) start fiddling around with radios, an important source of information for the villagers, and with no electricity, radios became vital to hear updated weather reports and other info. Most of the electronics in the village are old and starting to fail, so William and his cohort start taking radios apart and then putting them back together in working order. Business grows and soon they are the village radio menders.

At the same time, William has some spare time when he is not working in the field, and wanting to learn more about electronics, he visits his village’s three-shelf library and reads what’s there. He can only read during the day though as electricity is sporadic at best (and so no lights at night), but what he learns opens the door for his creativity. What if he could build something that would give his family and the village regular electricity? What about getting regular access to water to save the village women having to trek two hours each way and carrying heavy buckets back to their homes?

Over time, William realizes that the answer is to build a small wind turbine. But how? He has no tools, no money, and no ready-made parts. People prefer to believe in spirits and witchcraft more than science, and there’s not even a word for wind turbine in the Malawian dialect he speaks, so he calls it “magesti a mphego” (electric wind).

williamkamkwambaHowever, he does have access to a scrapyard, and as he learns more and more about physics and how energy could be manufactured, William explores the discarded scrap for pieces that could be useful: a broken shock absorber, an old tractor fan, a spinning bicycle wheel and its frame… As for tools, he has to create those himself as well: he melts an old bicycle spoke over flames to hammer it into a screwdriver. It was incredible to me that in the midst of this environment, he had the ingenuity, the will and the rudimentary knowledge to follow this path.

As one speaker said at an African-based TED conference:

“Africans bend what little they have to their will… where the world sees trash, Africa recycles. Where the world sees junk, Africa sees rebirth…”

And finally, in the end, William succeeds in building his working wind turbine. And he doesn’t stop there: he goes on to experiment with biofuel (goat poo boiling in his mother’s best cooking pot), water-well pumping. And all this without access to internet, regular school, reliable light or electricity, and one big book from the library. If William succeeded with just his basic tools, imagine what he (and other similar kids) could achieve if they had access to more sophisticated educational resources…

As William notes towards the end of the book:

“I went to sleep dreaming of Malawi, and all things made possible when your dreams are powered by your heart.”

An amazing and inspirational read. If you’re struggling with a problem, perhaps you could read this and get a whole new perspective on your situation. If William achieved this in a small rural village in Malawi, what could you do with what you have where you are?

(There are also YA and elem school versions of this story which is cool, I think. It’s a story worth sharing.)

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