Every now and then, there arrives a book that is designed to knock the sails out of your windpipe. William Kamkwamba’s journey to build a windmill and uplift his community is one such. It is the true story of a poor boy in Malawi.
I bought the book a while ago, and it lay languishing on my tsundoku pile. Maybe, there was a purpose to the book. The book needed to be read at a time when I most wanted to reassure myself on human potential if only we choose to apply it for good.
The only son, among eight children, of a poor Malawian farmer in Wimbe near Kasungu, Malawi, this is a true story of William Kamkwamba.
The book started off slowly talking about tales of magic, witchcraft and sorcery in Africa. As you read about William and his journey, you cannot help getting absorbed into the life around him with good natured understanding. You like his dog, Khambe, and his friends, Geoffrey and Gilbert, who show themselves to be the kind of stalwart friends you wish your children will grow up to be. Kind hearted, supportive, fun and ready to lend a hand, always.
When, famine hits Malawi, William Kamkwamba is forced to drop out of school, it is crushing to read how his father felt and I wish no parent should have to face that in their life.He writes about how his family struggled for months with nothing but a few nsima cakes between them to eat everyday. Everything we tell our children about starving children in Africa is true.
During those long hours of working in the fields to do their best to see if they can fortify themselves against another famine, it is William’s dream to build a windmill that keeps him going. William had seen pictures of a windmill, and given that his little village is always blessed with wind, he wants to build one, so that water and electricity can mitigate another famine. He is called misala (crazy) for haunting the trash piles to find something reusable to build his windmill.
After months, of scouring trash piles and junkyards, using tools that would not pass any safety standards laid out in the West, it is a proud moment indeed when finally he connects his rickety windmill to a tiny light bulb.
The windmill is noticed by a school official who notifies a professor and a blogger. From there to TED Fellow in 2007 is a remarkable journey for a boy who had never set foot outside his little village in Wimbe.
When William is finally called upon to talk at the TED conference, he is justifiably nervous. His English is poor among other things, and to make it easier for him, his host on stage, Chris, prefers to ask him a few questions that he can answer instead:
My heart beat fast like a mganga drum as I climbed the steps to face the audience, which totaled 450: inventors, scientists and doctors who’d stood on that stage in the previous days.
Five years ago, you had an idea”, Chris said, “What was that?”
“I want to made a windmill”. Wrong again. Chris smiled.
“So what did you, how did you realize that?”
I took a deep breath and gave it my best. “After I drop out of school, I went to library…and I get information about windmill…”
Keep going, keep going…”And I try and, I made it.”
The problem with reading a book like The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind on public transport is that it is takes phenomenal effort to keep from tearing up. You can manage a silent tear that just needs to come out, and one that you can unobtrusively wipe away as if some dirt got in there. But if the book goes on to make you want to weep not out of despair or sadness, but out of pride, joy and the eternal good-ness of mankind despite everything, that is hard to do.
Some pictures from the book: The image of his prototypes, his big windmill and one of his parents after he was able to harness the energy generated from the windmill to provide clean drinking water and electricity in his village.
Unfortunately, for every William who is outstanding in perseverance, grit and intelligence, there are thousands of williams who flounder in the stormy tempests of life. Every time I am caressed by the wind during this Thanksgiving break, I will know what to give thanks for. Thanks to William Kamkwamba.
I try, and I made it.
Please watch the TED talks, even if you are unable to get to the book: