A book review by CGA alumnus Francis Asprec.
The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer: 273 pages.
The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind documents the life of William Kamkwamba and his idea of bringing wind energy into his native country, Malawi. William became fascinated with the subject of energy from a young age. He applied his ingenuity and creativity of constructing a windmill through the use of scrap metal, parts of an old bicycle, and other items that were available. In constructing this windmill, he brought not only a new source of energy, but also a new source of inspiration for the country. This book looks at the remarkable life of this young prodigy and how he defied odds and surmounted various obstacles.
The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind starts off by discussing the early life of William and his family. He grew in a rural area of Malawi, where farming served as the main source of income for his family. Growing up, William became fascinated with the concept of electricity when he discovered a bicycle dynamo, which is similar to that of a turbine. He spent his time trying to figure out the correlation of the light bulb switching on and pedaling on the dynamo. After understanding the correlation between the two, William and his friend Geoffrey would use the dynamo and test it on the radio. The first experiment using the dynamo on the radio was unsuccessful. However, Geoffrey would tell William to attach the wires from the dyamo into the socket of the radio labeled “AC.” He describes the moment: “when I shoved the wires inside, the radio came to life. We shouted with excitement. As I pedaled the bicycle, I could hear the great Billy Kaunda playing his happy music on Radio Two, and that made Geoffrey start to dance” (p. 75). This experiment gave William both an inspiration and ideas of how to develop energy. He also points out that “only 2 percent of Malawians have electricity and this is a huge problem” (p. 76). Addressing this fact encouraged William to solve an ongoing problem. The book further explains the obstacles that he and his family would encounter.
In 2002, a devastating famine struck Malawi and brought severe effects to the Kamkwamba family. Their crops would be affected. The family would once again face hardships especially in paying for William’s tuition at secondary school. Unable to pay his $80/year tuition, William was forced to drop out of school and help his family during these tough times. Despite the hardships, he never let go of his dreams.
His quest for electricity started by going to a library at Wimbe Primary School. He found a book that would be change his life. The book was called Using Energy. The cover of the book struck his attention in which it featured a long row of windmills. Even though he had no idea what a windmill was, he became fascinated and yearned to learn more. After reading further, he interest for windmills grew. William envisioned the idea of constructing a windmill in his village as a way to improve the current famine situation and overall quality of life in Malawi. He says:
“But most important, a windmill could also rotate a pump for water and irrigation. Having just come out of hunger – and with famine still affecting many parts of the country – the idea of a water pump now seemed incredibly necessary. If we hooked it up to our shallow well at home, a water pump could allow us to harvest twice a year. While the rest of Malawi went hungry during December and January, we’d be hauling in our second crop of maize. It meant no more watering tobacco nursery beds in the dambo, which broke your back and wasted time. A windmill and pump could also provide my family with a year-round garden where my mother could grow things like tomatoes, Irish potatoes, cabbage, mustards, and soybeans, both to eat and sell in the market (p. 159).”
In addition, William points out in the book that:
“No more skipping breakfast; no more dropping out of school. With a windmill, we’d finally release ourselves from the troubles of darkness and hunger. In Malawi, the wind was one of the few consistent things given to us by God, blowing in the treetops day and night. A windmill meant more than just power, it was freedom” (p. 159).
He saw the short and long-term implications of having a windmill. The words “darkness” and “hunger” stick out from this excerpt because it reminds the reader how devastated the people of Malawi were from the famine. William continues to remind the reader that the windmill can change all that. The windmill can provide a better life for its people and community. From there on, William constructed his first windmill.
The rest of the book continues to explore William’s success in constructing a bigger windmill in his village. William and his friends spent countless hours developing a bigger windmill with the similar parts they used from the first one. His vision would become a reality. When people in his village saw the light bulb shine brightly, a gazing reaction would occur. After years of enduring hardship and making sacrifices to help his family, William Kamkwamba accomplished an impossible feat. He became a hero not only to his country, but also to Africa and the world.
William would make appearances for interviews at various media outlets and as a guest speaker at various conferences throughout the world. He continued to promote his inspirational story to others especially in keeping in mind the importance of clean energy. William also managed to find a way to return to Malawi and utilize his educational opportunities to go back to school.
William closes this book with an inspirational quote from Dr. Martin Luther King: “If you can’t fly, run; if you can’t run, walk; if you can’t walk, crawl.” He encourages people to continue to move forward and continue to dream, even if the journey is arduous. This book blends the concepts of hope, inspiration, ingenuity, and of course, electricity!