Inheriting the Wind

Review Science and Tech

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind
William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer
William Morrow, 2009, 270 pp.

“I would do what every Malawian was suppose to do, what was written by God and in the constitution: 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…” These were the thoughts of William Kamkwamba upon realizing his family no longer had the money to send him to school, likely condemning him to a meager life of subsistence farming on the southern African plains like his father and grandfather before him.

To overcome his depression over the end of his academic career, William, the author and protagonist of The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, began devouring the books at his village’s small library. Stumbling across a basic textbook on electricity gave William an idea: build a windmill that will drive a generator to provide electricity for his family, allowing them to not only irrigate their fields, but to also enjoy the luxury of electric lights. As William wryly notes, having no electricity meant no electric lights, which meant life largely came to a halt once the sun went down: “Everyone stops what they’re doing…and just goes to sleep,” William explains early in the book. “Not at 10:00 p.m., or even nine o’clock—but seven in the evening!” Even at the dawn of the 21st century, only a mere two percent of the homes in Malawi, a sliver of a country nestled between Zambia, Tanzania and Mozambique, are linked to the national electric grid; those few that are endure frequent blackouts from the country’s unreliable utility companies. Malawi today remains one of the world’s least-developed nations; while it has been spared the wars and military conflicts of some of its neighbors (Malawi even served as a refuge for people fleeing the 1994 genocide in Rwanda), corruption and a lack of natural resources have stifled economic progress. Many of the nation’s 15 million people, including the Kamkwamba family, still rely on subsistence farming for their livelihoods. 

But the ability to irrigate their fields would change all of that for the Kamkwambas, freeing them from dependence on the seasonal rains and allowing them to grow a surplus of crops to sell at the village market—the Wimbe Trading Center. The local bazaar of William’s village plays a vital role in both the story and the local economy; those who have the ability to sell goods at the market have a notably better standard of living than those who cannot. Soon, William was digging through a junkyard looking for the pieces that would become his “electric wind” as he called his creation, since there was no word in the local language for “windmill.” Of course, one hindrance for William was that he had no idea how to actually build a windmill; he had only seen illustrations of them, along with descriptions of basic electrical circuits, in his library’s textbooks. But some bicycles in his village had small headlights powered by dynamos that were driven by the turning of the bicycle’s tire. William simply reasoned that a bigger wheel, driven by the wind, could turn a large enough dynamo to power his family’s entire compound. William’s neighbors thought he was crazy, his family even doubted what he was doing. He candidly admits that without the blessing of his father—likely indulging William out of guilt for not being able to pay his tuition—and the support of a childhood friend, the windmill would probably never have been built.

William’s eventual creation is reminiscent of the complex, cobbled-together contraptions of cartoonist Rube Goldberg; the way that he re-purposes his odd assortment of cast-off parts is fascinating, and at turns mindboggling. If The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind were just about a young man and his windmill, it would be an inspiring short story. But it is the richness of the storytelling and the level of detail that William and his co-author Bryan Mealer, an Associated Press correspondent who has written extensively on southern Africa, share about life in modern-day Malawi that truly set this book apart. The eponymous windmill doesn’t even make its appearance until about two-thirds of the way through the book! Before that we are treated to a rich mosaic of rural life in a southern African country (sadly only known to most Americans as the place where Madonna once adopted a child), as well as a moving coming-of-age tale told through the eyes of William.

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind is, in some ways, reminiscent of Chinua Achebe’s seminal novel Things Fall Apart (1958), especially in its description of the pace and mores of traditional African life. Despite the decades that separate the publication of the two works and the century that stands between their settings, in The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind we see a modern Malawi, where life is still ruled by the fickleness of the annual rains, the tribal chieftain is the font of local culture, the government is more often a hindrance than a help, and the forces of magic are always lurking just below the pastiche of daily life. In fact, when a drought begins not long after William completes his windmill, some in his village were ready to accuse him—and it—of witchcraft. William is able to assuage their doubts, in part after he shows them how the windmill could charge their mobile phones.

Much of the drama in The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind comes from the famine that grips Malawi just before William is scheduled to start secondary school. William’s father had been a successful farmer until the rains stopped falling. His family, like all the others in their village, suffered greatly as the maize crops failed; soon they are reduced to eating just one tiny meal a day, barely staving off starvation. Many around him are not so fortunate. William paints us a sorry picture of Malawi in the depths of the famine, where seeing the dead strewn in the street and the near-dead walking in zombie-like states becomes commonplace. The famine sparked a national crisis—at its height, it is estimated that more than one-third of Malawians were malnourished and 500,000 children dropped out of school. The country is still dealing with the effects of the food crisis today.

It should come as no surprise to learn that William’s windmill was a success, not only in its intended purpose of generating power for his family’s compound, but also in helping to lead him to a better life that included not only a resumption of his academic career, but journeys to a technology conference in Africa and later to the United States as well. The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind isn’t the type of book you read in a quest to discover how it will eventually turn out, that much is revealed on the flyleaf. It never sets out to be more than what it is: a simple, inspirational story of a young man overcoming the harsh challenges in his life with a mix of determination, creativity, and dashes of humor. But The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind manages to be uplifting without being saccharine—the scenes where William’s windmill first comes to life and later when his father is interviewed by Malawi’s national radio service are quite moving. At the same time, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind gives us a rich view of the joys and sorrows of pastoral life in modern day Africa in the process.

May 13, 2010

frontispiece and photo: William Kamkwamba and his windmill

Africa, Malawi