The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind
William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer, 2009
A windmill means more than just power, it means freedom.
William Kamkwamba was born in Malawi, a country where magic ruled and modern science was mystery. It was also a land withered by drought and hunger, and a place where hope and opportunity were hard to find. But William had read about windmills in a book called Using Energy, and he dreamed of building one that would bring electricity and water to his village and change his life and the lives of those around him. His neighbors may have mocked him and called him misala-crazy—but William was determined to show them what a little grit and ingenuity could do.
Enchanted by the workings of electricity as a boy, William had a goal to study science in Malawi's top boarding schools. But in 2002, his country was stricken with a famine that left his family's farm devastated and his parents destitute. Unable to pay the eighty-dollar-a-year tuition for his education, William was forced to drop out and help his family forage for food as thousands across the country starved and died.
Yet William refused to let go of his dreams. With nothing more than a fistful of cornmeal in his stomach, a small pile of once—forgotten science textbooks, and an armory of curiosity and determination, he embarked on a daring plan to bring his family a set of luxuries that only two percent of Malawians could afford and what the West considers a necessity— electricity and running water.
Using scrap metal, tractor parts, and bicycle halves, William forged a crude yet operable windmill, an unlikely contraption and small miracle that eventually powered four lights, complete with homemade switches and a circuit breaker made from nails and wire. A second machine turned a water pump that could battle the drought and famine that loomed with every season.
Soon, news of William's magetsi a mphepo—his "electric wind"—spread beyond the borders of his home and he became an inspiration around the world. Here is the remarkable story about human inventiveness and its power to overcome crippling adversity. The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind will inspire anyone who doubts the power of one individual's ability to change his community and better the lives of those around him. (From the publisher.)
• Birth—August 5, 1987
• Where—Malawi, Africa
• Currently—a student in Johannesburg, South Africa
William Kamkwamba is a student at African Leadership Academy, a pan-African high school in Johannesburg, South Africa. A 2007 TED Global Fellow, Kamkwamba has been profiled in the Wall Street Journal and his inventions displayed at Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry. He's often invited to tell his story, and in 2008, he delivered an address at the World Economic Forum on Africa. (From the publisher.)
More (on William Kamkwamba)
William Kamkwamba is a Malawian secondary school student and inventor. He gained fame in his country when, in 2001, he built a windmill, to power a few electrical appliances in his family's house in Masitala, using blue gum trees, bicycle parts, and materials collected in a local scrapyard.
Since then, he has built a solar-powered water pump that supplies the first drinking water in his village, and two other windmills (the tallest standing at 39 feet) and is planning two more, including one in Lilongwe. After leaving school due to his family inability to afford the tuition, he took up self-education by going to his village's library. There, he found the book Using Energy and in it discovered a picture and explanation of windmills.
His story, told in The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, was written with journalist Bryan Mealer and published in 2009. Kamkwamba took part in the first event celebrating his particular type of ingenuity, called Maker Faire Africa, in Ghana in August 2009.
When the Daily Times newspaper in Blantyre wrote a story on Kamkwamba's windmills in November 2006, the story circulated through the blogosphere, and TED conference director Emeka Okafor invited Kamkwamba to speak at TED Global 2007 in Arusha, Tanzania, as a guest. His speech moved the audience, and several venture capitalists at the conference pledged to help finance his secondary education. His story was covered by Sarah Childress for the Wall Street Journal. He became a student at African Bible College Christian Academy in Lilongwe, but is now on a scholarship at the African Leadership Academy in Johannesburg, South Africa.
Among other appearances, Kamkwamba was interviewed on The Daily Show on October 7, 2009 and by social news website Reddit. (From Wikipedia.)
Bryan Mealer is the author of All Things Must Fight to Live: Stories of War and Deliverance in Congo, which chronicled his experience covering the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Mealer is a former Associated Press staff correspondent and his work has appeared in several magazines, including Harper's and Esquire. (From the publisher.)
(Starred review.) American readers will have their imaginations challenged by 14-year-old Kamkwamba's description of life in Malawi, a famine-stricken, land-locked nation in southern Africa: math is taught in school with the aid of bottle tops ("three Coca-Cola plus ten Carlsberg equal thirteen"), people are slaughtered by enemy warriors "disguised... as green grass" and a ferocious black rhino; and everyday trading is "replaced by the business of survival" after famine hits the country. After starving for five months on his family's small farm, the corn harvest slowly brings Kamkwamba back to life. Witnessing his family's struggle, Kamkwamba's supercharged curiosity leads him to pursue the improbable dream of using "electric wind"(they have no word for windmills) to harness energy for the farm. Kamkwamba's efforts were of course derided; salvaging a motley collection of materials, from his father's broken bike to his mother's clothes line, he was often greeted to the tune of "Ah, look, the madman has come with his garbage." This exquisite tale strips life down to its barest essentials, and once there finds reason for hopes and dreams, and is especially resonant for Americans given the economy and increasingly heated debates over health care and energy policy.
Discarded motor parts, PVC pipe, and an old bicycle wheel may be junk to most people, but in the inspired hands of William Kamkwamba, they are instruments of opportunity. Growing up amid famine and poverty in rural Malawi, wind was one of the few abundant resources available, and the inventive fourteen-year-old saw its energy as a way to power his dreams. "With a windmill, we'd finally release ourselves from the troubles of darkness and hunger," he realized. "A windmill meant more than just power, it was freedom." Despite the biting jeers of village skeptics, young William devoted himself to borrowed textbooks and salvage yards in pursuit of a device that could produce an "electric wind." The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind is an inspiring story of an indomitable will that refused to bend to doubt or circumstance. When the world seemed to be against him, William Kamkwamba set out to change it. —Dave Callanan.
William Kamkwamba, the youthful author of this book, was born in Malawi, an African nation best known for its harrowing poverty, its AIDS epidemic, and its long-term food crisis. In 2001, William was just 14 years old when the country was struck by the greatest famine within memory. With his family now too poor to pay his $80-a-year tuition, this eager learner was forced to leave school. Against those staggering odds, he continued to read, learn, and experiment. Inspired by a few old school textbooks, he devised a primitive working windmill, cobbled together from bicycle parts, blue-gum trees, and other makeshift scraps. With his homemade invention, he gave his family and himself electricity and a new start. Inspiring and refreshing as the wind.
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1. Could you imagine living without electricity? What would your life be like? Describe William's life and compare it to American teenagers and even your own.
2. How did the villagers compensate for not having electricity, telephones, or most of the modern conveniences we take for granted?
3. What is the role of magic in the story? What about education? Contrast the two. Is there room for both in a culture? What about education and religion? How do the two impact each other? How did William's religion influence his outlook?
4. What did electricity and the creation of the windmill mean for William, his family, and his village? What might his accomplishment mean for the world?
5. What motivates people like William to attempt the unthinkable? How would you describe him to someone who's never heard of his achievement?
6. Compare William to his father and to his mother. How are they alike? How did his parents shape William's outlook?
7. Imagine what a handful of Williams with some encouragement and financial backing from government and private sources might accomplish. Offer some ideas.
8. Malawi is an extremely poor nation. What are the causes of this poverty and what exacerbates it? How might these causes and influences be overcome? How has the West—think of organizations like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, run by Americans and Europeans—helped to contribute to nations like Malawi's troubles?
9. William writes of the corruption, greed, nonexistent services, and lack of empathy that turned the drought into a disaster for average people like him and his family. Can you see any similarities with our own culture, both past and present? Think about the American Depression. How did that compare to Malawi's drought?
10. William was desperate to stay in school but could not because of money. Think about American students. Why do you think with all the opportunities for schooling, students are disinterested in learning? In your opinion, what accounts for the differences between William and his American counterparts?
11. Many Americans criticize public schools and some even question the need for them. Others argue that money doesn't matter when it comes to education. How does William's experience address our own debates on the subject? Think about his school, and compare it to American schools. Might William's life be different if he had access to education without having to pay? How so?
12. What lessons did you take away from William's story?
(Questions issued by publisher.)
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