Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind

A country in Africa, Malawi is one of those places we hear about only when the news is bad. HIV/AIDS, famine, and corruption top the hit list. Madonna is an advocate for its orphans.

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind is a first-person account of the hard lives behind the headlines, and an inspiring story of one boy who invented a way out. William Kamkwamba is the boy and, with Bryan Mealer, the book’s author.

Here is William the day he realized that his father, a farmer, could no longer afford William’s school tuition:

I loved my father and respected him deeply, but I did not want to end up like him. If I did, my life would never be determined by me, but by rain and the price of fertilizer and seeds....I would grow maize, and if I was lucky, maybe a little tobacco. And years when the crops were good and there was a little extra to sell, perhaps I could buy some medicine and a new pair of shoes. But most of the time, I knew, there would be hardly enough to simply survive.

William had always been interested in how things worked. With the aid of books found in the library, he figured out how radios worked and learned to repair them.

Compact disc players were just getting popular in the trading center, and these fascinated me even more [than radios]. I’d watch people insert this shiny plate into their radios and hear music.

“How did they put the sound on that?” I’d ask.

“Who cares?” most people would answer.

Although the people in the trading center were content to simply enjoy these things without explanation, these questions constantly filled my mind. If solving such mysteries was the job of a scientists, then a scientist is exactly what I wanted to become.

The scientific problem he wanted to solve was how to bring electricity to his house.

Only 2 percent of Malawians have electricity, and this is a huge problem. Having no electricity meant no lights, which meant I could never do anything at night, such as study or finish my radio repairs, much less see the roaches, mice, and spiders that crawled the walls and floors in the dark. Once the sun goes down, and if there’s no moon, everyone stops what they’re doing, brushes their teeth, and just goes to sleep. Not at 10:00pm or even nine o’clock—but seven in the evening! Who goes to bed at seven in the evening? Well, I can tell you, most of Africa.

The book recounts how, using salvaged parts and improvised tools, William taught himself to build a power-generating windmill.

I didn’t have a drill, so I had to make my own. First I heated a long nail in the fire, then drove it through half a maize cob, creating a handle. I placed the nail back on the coals until it became red hot, then used it to bore holes into both sets of plastic blades. I then wired them together. I didn’t have any pliers, so I used two bicycle spokes to bend and tighten the wires on the blades.

He was 14 years old at the time. His family and fellow villagers thought he was crazy, but he proved them wrong. Not only did his windmill generate enough power for lights and radios in his home, it became a charging station for other villagers’ mobile phones. It also attracted global press coverage, which got William back into school, and eventually to Dartmouth College.

Here is the book at Amazon.com (a portion of the proceeds go to William’s Moving Windmills project).

If you’re not up for the book, try this six-minute film about William.

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