William Kamkwamba is a bright young man in Malawi. Despite a difficult life helping to run a farm and not having the opportunity to continue his schooling, he determined to figure out how to create electricity for his rural neighborhood.
The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind (co-written with Bryan Mealer) is his memoir of his childhood and teenage years in Malawi. When he was 13 or 14, he studied textbooks (which were in English, a language he was not proficient in) and figured out how to create a windmill to power his home. No longer was his family to go to sleep by 7 p.m. for lack of light.
I need to stop saying I dislike memoirs, because I didn’t dislike this at all. It was not perfect – more about that later – but I certainly enjoyed a peak in to a different way of life in a continent and country I’m not very familiar with. While I do remember, as a child, people saying to me “Eat your supper! There are people starving in Ethiopia!” I was unfamiliar with the nation-wide Malawian droughts and famines in the late 1990s. Had I even heard of Malawi? Kamkwamaba is a decade younger than I am, so I was surprised when I realized his village, with its lack of electricity, was operating in the mid-2000s; many people in the town had mobile phones, but no way to charge them.
Also, Kamkwamba was a precocious child, and I was inspired by his ability to figure out electricity when he decided he needed it. He knew he was getting behind in school, so he was able to study on his own to catch up (thanks to a public library). He was not necessarily a genius – when he was in school, he got average grades, and he did struggle with certain subjects – but his ability to apply himself to one question, that of electricity, was impressive. He kept going when things didn’t work out, and he was able to find success, due to the support of his family and the resources he scavenged.
Contrary to the title and subtitle (which was “Creating currents of electricity and hope), the book did not focus on the creation of the windmill. Kamkwamba details his childhood, especially a very difficult famine year when people were dying of starvation all around him. His personal study and the beginning of the windmill project didn’t arise until more than halfway through the book. Then, the book seemed to me to be a rush of electronics talk (which I admit in my ignorance I didn’t fully grasp) and subtle bragging about all the places he was taken and scientific celebrities that sponsored him in his project.
I do hope no one misunderstands: I’m incredibly impressed with Kamkwamba’s project, especially with his ability to do it in the midst of a country that has no infrastructure. Reading his blog (which hasn’t be updated in years) and browsing through his Wikipedia page gives me further insight into how far he has come in helping his country. However, I found the telling of his story (i.e., this book, which was published in 2009) fell flat as soon as the windmill was established. True, Kamkwamba lit his own home with lightbulbs. He could charge the mobile phones of the entire village. But how does one home in one small village “create currents of hope”? I felt his story was not finished yet, and telling his story may have best waited until his project seemed less selfish. For 200 pages, I’d been an intimate guest in a rural community in Africa. Suddenly, he’s touring New York City in a helicopter: what about Malawi?
I am certainly this young man will go far. As I mentioned, he’s obviously still working on projects for Malawi; maybe the book needed to be written in order for those projects to see the light of day. I’ll be interested to see where he does go. The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, while not perfect, was inspiring in its grasp of just what one person can do in his community with a bit of self-determination and the ability to think critically. I’m glad I read it.