One of the chief pleasures in writing The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind with William Kamkwamba was knowing that such an inspiring story was coming from a most unlikely place. With the daily news from Africa so traditionally grim, it's no wonder most people have given up on the place. As one of those reporters who delivered that news, I was close to doing the same. Until I met William.
For five years I'd covered Africa's cycle of misery and horror, both as a writer for Harper's and a correspondent for the Associated Press. Mostly I worked in the Democratic Republic of Congo, reporting an insane war that's killed over five million people in the past decade — more than any other conflict since the Second World War. I'd filled dozens of notebooks with accounts of rape, murder, and mutilation, and over the years, heard the same stories repeated in Somalia, Togo, Kenya, and Uganda. After a while they became part of my fabric, so commonplace I could practically finish their sentences for them. I'd grown numb without even knowing. And whenever I did realize this, it bothered me.
Many times the Africans would ask us journalists, "Why do you always report our bad news, and never the good?" In Congo, the fighting was sporadic, yet the sickness and pain it dragged behind was so relentless, we had little time to cover anything else. We often blew these questions off as naïve. "If we didn't cover this mess," we thought, "who would?" Most of us trumpeted the positive stories whenever we found them, but oftentimes, they all got lost in the noise.
So while we journalists were covering the myriad catastrophes in Congo and elsewhere, William was busy working. In 2002, in the wake of one of the worst famines in Malawi's history — one that killed thousands and nearly took his own family — William was forced to drop out of high school because his father could no longer afford his fees. To him, dropping out was almost more devastating than the famine, because he knew that without an education, his life would forever be dictated by the rain and the sun.
"I looked at my father in those dry fields and saw the rest of my life," he said. "And it was a future I could not accept."
He started going to a local library in his old primary school that was funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and began checking out books on science. He couldn't even read English that well, but the pictures and diagrams about electromagnetism, and how engines and motors worked, filled him with wonder and fascination. He was especially interested in the workings of electricity, which only two percent of Malawians had access to (and in most parts of Africa, fewer than 10 percent).
The lessons on electromagnetism and electricity also satisfied a long-held curiosity about bicycle dynamos — those bottle-like contraptions that attached to the wheel and powered the headlamp, used by many people in his district. He learned that dynamos, like other motors, operate by a coil spinning inside a magnet. After months studying these diagrams and matching them to the words in the text, he managed to teach himself basic physics.
A few weeks later, he discovered an eighth-grade science book called Using Energy that featured windmills on the cover. He'd never seen a windmill before. "They were beautiful," he said, "so powerful, the page itself appeared to be in motion." He read that windmills were used to pump water and generate electricity — all by a spinning turbine. "It's just like the dynamo," he thought. It was a revelation. Armed with only these photographs and a crude knowledge of science, he saw the need to build himself a windmill and bring electricity and irrigation to his village. His dream was that his family would never again have to suffer under the weight of drought and famine. And instead of waiting on politicians or Western aid organizations and journalists, William did it on his own. He spent months digging through garbage in a nearby scrapyard looking for rusted tractor fans, shock absorbers, and plastic PVC pipe. He endured countless setbacks, depression, and constant ridicule.
"There goes William, digging in the garbage," his neighbors teased. Even his mother worried, "How is this boy ever going to find a wife?" But after months and months, he did build his windmill. And it worked.
The first powered his family's compound, allowing William and his sisters to study at night. It also did away with the crude kerosene lamps that produced thick, black smoke and caused yearly respiratory infections. A second windmill pumped water for irrigation.
Better still, it wasn't Western reporters who first exposed William's story to the public, but other Africans. William now represents what's being called Africa's new "cheetah generation," a force of energetic young people — many empowered by access to cheap Internet and mobile technology — that are refusing to sit still while their ineffectual governments do nothing. And their numbers are growing.
I first met William in New York City, after he'd received international attention after speaking at the TED Global conference in Arusha, Tanzania. The Wall Street Journal had just put him on the cover, and now he was visiting America for the first time (to see, naturally, the windmills in California). His English was shaky and it made him very shy. But once I traveled to Malawi and stayed in his village, I saw him come alive. Over the course of a year, I lived with his family, shared their meals, and slept in their home. I became close with his mother and father, a kind of bond I'd always found difficult to achieve in places like Congo, where war, trauma, and desperation seemed to tarnish relationships — especially with a white stranger.
Best of all, I watched William continue to push harder. I witnessed his transformation as he returned to high school after spending five years away — like watching someone fill their lungs with oxygen after too long in the deep. We combed the scrapyards and junk piles together, and one afternoon I sat in awe as he turned two nails, wire, and a magnet from a stereo speaker into a complex and functional circuit breaker system. He was like an African MacGyver, and his achievements reaped abundant rewards for his family. With money he made from the book, and through donations from generous well-wishers, he outfitted every house in his village with solar panels and dug a deep well for clean drinking water, then piped it to his father's fields. Over the course of a year, I watched his humble dreams during the famine become reality.
Spending a year with William and writing this book helped remind me of why I fell in love with the continent in the first place. The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind is the kind of against-all-odds tale that resonates with every human being, the kind of story that we all need to hear now and again to remind us of our own potential. We love these stories because within them, we look for ourselves. I'm proud to have finally found that story in Africa.
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Bryan Mealer is the author of All Things Must Fight to Live: Stories of War and Deliverance in Congo and The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope, written with William Kamkwamba. A former Associated Press staff writer based in Kinshasa, Congo, Mealer has reported across the African continent. His work has also appeared in Esquire and Harper's, among other publications. He lives in New York City.
Books mentioned in this post