At the age of 14, William Kamkwamba realized his vision. A vision that began in the midst of a devastating famine in Malawi that claimed nearly 10,000 lives, it was a vision that changed Kamkwamba’s life forever.Kamkwamba built a windmill. Unable to afford the fees for school, he educated himself at the primary school library and taught himself English and physics by looking at diagrams in a British high school textbook. He eventually built a windmill which generated electricity in his rural village in Malawi.Now at age 22, William is back at school and preparing for college, hopefully at an American university. Recently, William co-wrote a book with former
reporter Bryan Mealer about his incredible achievement. The book is entitled
The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind
had the opportunity to interview William and Bryan about the windmill, industrialization, and Malawi’s future.
TSL: How did you get involved with William Kamkwamba? How did you hear about him? What was the process of writing this book?
Bryan Mealer: I was a reporter in Congo for about four years. Most of that time I spent covering the war in the Congo, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where about five million people have died since 1998. And so I wrote a book about that called
All Things Must Fight to Live
. As I was turning that book in, I see this story about William in
The Wall Street Journal
. William spoke at the 2007 TED Global Conference in Tanzania, and the reporter had seen that presentation online, and he visited [William’s] village and wrote a story about him. It was a really uplifting positive story out of Africa, about an African person taking his own initiative. I was really inspired by this guy. We spent the next following year working on this book together. I lived in his village for about three and half, four months, reporting his life and mainly focusing on this famine that he had to go through. The catalyst of William building this windmill was a really horrendous famine that happened in 2001-2002 that killed 10,000 Malawians, nearly took his own family. That’s when he began working on this windmill, because as a young person, 13 or 14, seeing his family’s experiences and his family nearly starve to death, was really traumatic. That’s what made him create these windmills that pump water and produce electricity: so that his family would never have to go through that terrible time again.
TSL: What is William’s story?
BM: William was forced to drop out of school because in Malawi, you have to pay for high school. Many kids had to drop out of school [because of the famine], so he wasn’t alone in that. But his father was a farmer, his father grew maize and some tobacco for a little bit of money. He looked at his father and thought, “I don’t want to be a farmer my whole life…If I don’t have an education, my life is over essentially. I don’t want to end up like this.” That’s a mind set of a lot of Africans. Education is so cherished, it’s such a privilege in that part of the world. It’s a privilege, and it’s a way out of poverty.He wanted to continue his education in any way he possibly could. There was a library that opened up in his primary school, it was funded by the U.S. government. There were 900 books in this library, mostly textbooks, and a few novels. He started seeing these science books, one of them was a British physics book. He was really fascinated with this, but William couldn’t read English, and this book was really complex and difficult to understand. But the book had really good diagrams and pictures, so he was able to take just the diagrams and pictures and go into the text and find where they were described in those texts and learn the words in English around those pictures.William was always fascinated by these dynamos, and no one could ever tell him how they worked. But in this book, there was a picture of a dynamo—it’s basically an electro-magnetic generator, a coil spinning inside a magnet. So he saw that the dynamo created electricity through this spinning motion. He teaches himself how it works, then he sees another book, and it has windmills on the cover of it. There’s no description of the windmill, there’s no description of how to build one, it just said “windmills produce water.” He remembered the spinning motion of the dynamo, and he put these things together. Because he saw a windmill as a way to pump water so his dad could produce more crops a year, the windmill was a defense against hunger. He couldn’t find the materials to build the water pump at first, so he built the windmill to produce electricity. He did that by going to a local junk yard. Throughout this time, as he’s collecting this garbage, people thought he was crazy because it was during the famine. Instead of helping his father with the food like everybody else was, he had this forward vision of, “I’m not just going to help my family today by finding some food. I’m going to help them in the future.”
TSL: So William, a lot of people in Malawi thought you were kind of crazy for having this idea for the windmill. How were you able to get people more in line with your project?
William Kamwamba: It’s true, people thought that I was going crazy. But I had two friends, they didn’t say I was going crazy—my cousin and my best friend. So for me to convince people to believe me, that time I was real happy. I didn’t have any ways to convince them, but I stopped telling what exactly I was doing. Sometimes I was suggested that I’m playing, I’m making a machine to play with, I’m not exactly building something useful.
TSL: In America and Europe, education is considered a right, and up through high school it’s generally free. Do you feel that’s something Malawi should be striving for, free education through high school, at least?
WK: In Malawi, the primary school up through eighth grade is free, but in high school you have to pay for school fees. So it’s when most of the kids drop out of school because they don’t have money to send them to school. But school itself, it’s not just a building. You also need to find ways of teaching, of getting materials so that you be ready to learn about the environment or how technology is growing up. Because some schools are there, some high schools, but they don’t have any specific teaching materials. So it will be difficult, they will say, “Okay, we have made this school free,” but there is no teaching materials, so it would be useless.
TSL: America is obviously very industrialized, but we have a lot of problems. We have a lot of environmental problems, we’re facing an energy crisis, so looking at the problems America and other industrialized countries are facing, how do you see Malawi facing those problems in the future, as they’re working towards a more industrialized society?
WK: Malawi in the future will be in a better position because nowadays we are working on more renewable energy. For a power plant, we will be moving towards building a more sustainable, renewable system because it’s what every country right now is trying to do. It’s difficult to change things once you have already started doing it. For us in Malawi, we are not going to be replacing things, we are going to be starting things. The things that we will be starting, mostly they will be environmentally friendly.BM: I think what William is trying to say is that they’re skipping steps completely. Most people don’t know this, but cell phones are ubiquitous in Africa. They don’t need land lines anymore. So I think what he’s saying is that, with these projects like renewable energy, it’s not like they’re going to have to replace land-lines. They’re not going to have to replace a coal-based economy like we have here. They’re just going to skip all of that completely. It’s more innovative, it’s more efficient, it’s more environmentally friendly. People can own it, operate it, and sustain it themselves.
TSL: Bryan, you were saying there were lots of similarities between how American children live and how Malawian children live, but one of differences is we go and buy our toys, whereas William, for example, made his toys. Do you think that breeds more innovation?
BM: Absolutely. William didn’t have washers when he was building his windmill. Tell her what you did to make washers.WK: I took Coca Cola bottle caps, so I used the washer, I just flattened them and then drilled a hole in them using a nail, and I wasusing it as a hammer. Sometimes when you don’t have materials to use, it just forces you to think of different ways to do things. You’re more likely to try using the things that you find in your environment.BM: When you have nothing, you have to get really creative. It’s DIY. DIY innovation. It’s a very African thing, a lot of Africans bend their resources to their own will, their scant resources.
TSL: Here, you’re speaking to American college students. What do you think is the most important thing they can take away from your work and apply to their own lives?
WK: I think what they can apply to their lives is that sometimes in life you face some challenges, but you need to go through them. Trust yourself, because during the time that I was doing my work, people were laughing at me, but I was telling myself “I think I can do this,” and at the end, I end up managing doing it. If we can believe that everything is possible, if we can, then it will be possible, no matter what.