Riding the wind out of Africa

Book in Common author William Kamkwamba shares his amazing story

William Kamkwamba’s village initially mocked his idea of building a windmill from scraps. Today, he’s seen as a hero in his homeland and internationally.

William Kamkwamba’s village initially mocked his idea of building a windmill from scraps. Today, he’s seen as a hero in his homeland and internationally.

Photo By kyle delmar

As a child, William Kamkwamba was convinced a battery-operated radio was powered by tiny men inside it.

“I’ve always been very curious and had to understand how everything works,” Kamkwamba, 23, explained in his thick accent to a packed house at Chico State’s Laxson Auditorium last Thursday evening (April 14). He went on to describe opening up the radio and squeezing the transistors to see if the little men would scream.

This burning curiosity and a yearning to aid his destitute village in Malawi, Africa, were what inspired Kamkwamba, who was then 14 years old, to begin building his first homemade windmill. He did so despite being the target of universal ridicule in his community. But the ridicule ended when the teenager succeeded in giving his village access to cheap electricity without the use of batteries, which were extremely expensive and short-lived.

Kamkwamba’s first windmill enabled his home to have electricity for amenities most people take for granted, including the pumping of desperately needed water, as well as powering light bulbs, radios and cell phones. Using his ingenuity, he also stored energy in car batteries for backup power.

His inspiring tale is the subject of the best-selling book The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, by Kamkwamba (pronounced, “kom-kwom-buh”) and co-author Bryan Mealer. It was chosen this academic year as Chico State’s Book in Common, to be read and discussed across disciplines. Previous Books in Common have included the best-selling Three Cups of Tea, by embattled author Greg Mortenson, regarding education in Afghanistan and Pakistan. (See From this Corner, page 5, for more on this.)

Earlier in the day Kamkwamba, now a student at Dartmouth College, also relayed his story to several classes. During one session, he had the pleasure of meeting Koudougou Alfred Koala, a Chico State student who founded Feeding Nations Through Education, an organization that provides funds to buy oxen, plows and agricultural training for families of his native village in Burkina Faso.

The impetus for creating a windmill were a massive drought and a lack of government food reserves—both of which brought starvation to Kamkwamba’s village and nation. Kamkwamba’s family ate only once daily. “We ate a meal made of corn flour every day,” he recalled. “If we had money we would add a little fish or chicken.”

Since only 2 percent of homes had electricity, many families cut down trees to use as firewood for cooking and heating. The resulting deforestation further deteriorated the quality of the soil for growing crops.

During this time, Kamkwamba said, he saw many deaths by starvation as well as children begging and crying in the streets. Poverty prevented him from attending high school; even his dog died of starvation. To keep his mind off all the devastation, the young Kamkwamba visited his village’s tiny library, which consisted of only four bookshelves.

There, he found an English-language textbook that detailed the making of windmills. Kamkwamba could not read English but he understood the contraption could help pump water, which would allow his village to harvest crops two or three times a year, instead of just once. Using the diagrams and pictures, and without any money, he set about building it with discarded scraps he found around town and from the local junkyard. His room soon filled up with the pieces of bicycle tires, plastic pipes, fans and wood posts.

“My neighbors thought I was crazy and said I was smoking too much pot,” he recalled. “Even my mother told me, ‘You won’t find a wife; no woman will marry a crazy man.’ ”

Eventually Kamkwamba triumphed, and he has since helped in the construction of six windmills in his village, with more to follow. A documentary about his accomplishments is in the works.

Kamkwamba is a first-year undeclared major at Dartmouth, but not surprisingly he’s interested in engineering. After graduation his plan is to return to Malawi and use his knowledge to continue solving his country’s many problems.

“One thing I want you to know is that many people want to give up when they face challenges,” he said. “But everything is possible if you trust yourself and work hard.”

His lecture ended with an extended question-and-answer session during which an excited teenage student asked Kamkwamba for advice on building a windmill. The student explained how he and his classmates were inspired by his book and were making one of their own.

“If you put your minds together it will be easy, and the results should be outstanding,” Kamkwamba said.