Electric Wind

Nathan ZhangSeptember 11, 2016PowerMedia

Imagine you’re in the middle of a haircut, when the power goes off. The barber says, “Come back tomorrow.”

This may never happen to us privileged human beings in developed countries, but in Malawi it is a common occurrence.

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer, is an inspirational autobiography about a young man who uses innovative ideas to bring electricity to his family in Malawi, an underdeveloped country in Africa. The book touches upon themes such as corruption and magic versus science. The authors focus on these social phenomena because, at that time, government corruption was prevalent in Malawi, and many Malawians were bound by magic, believing that witches rode in planes in the sky.

The idea for this book was formed when Bryan Mealer saw William Kamkwamba’s story in the Wall Street Journal. He told his publisher that he needed to write a book on William because it was an inspirational story about Africa, quite contrary to his previous book, All Things Must Fight to Live, which was about war in Congo. He spent the next year at Kamkwamba’s village interviewing him and his family so he could piece together what living in Malawi would be like at that time. Over the course of that year, Mealer and Kamkwamba became good friends.

Kamkwamba was born into a poor family who lived in the Masitala village in Malawi. His father was a penniless farmer and his mother raised his many brothers and sisters. In 2001, there was a terrible famine in Malawi. There was no rain, so crops wouldn’t grow, and many people in his village died of hunger. Others came down with illnesses such as malaria, cholera, and kwashiorkor, a dreadful condition caused by a lack of protein in the diet. At the time, the Malawian president, Bakili Muluzi, was extremely unpopular. He refused to acknowledge there was a famine so as to save him the trouble of dealing with the starving people. As Kamkwamba’s father says, “Some men are blind, but this one chooses not to see.”

Corrupt officials sold most of the country’s grain supply overseas. Consequently, when the famine arrived, there was almost no surplus for the starving people to buy. When the government issued fertilizer coupons to help farmers, corrupt officials gave away most of the coupons away to their friends, family, and others who had bribed them.

Kamkwamba barely survived the famine. After reading some science textbooks at a local library, he took it upon himself to build a windmill. He wanted to rotate a water pump for irrigation, so that his family could have two harvests a year. He also wanted to wire his house with electricity, so that he could stay up all night reading and educate himself, since his family had no money to send him to school. With the windmill he could have electric lighting, instead of kerosene lamps that burned his eyes and left him gasping for breath. Most people in Malawi at that time didn’t believe in science and were steeped in traditional magic. When they saw Kamkwamba trying to build a windmill, they called him amisla (madman) because they thought his idea was crazy. Some viewed his windmill as a magical device, while others used it as a scapegoat for their problems.

This autobiography has a superb narration. I find Kamkwamba’s misadventures and exploits interesting, such as hunting birds with a slingshot-like contraption, eating goatskins on Christmas, and scavenging materials for his windmill in a local junkyard. The writing about the famine is particularly powerful. William describes crowds of people walking around, looking for ganyu (day’s labor) for some gaga (corn husks), which would normally be regarded as animal food in Malawi. But during the famine people in the village had to eat anything that they could.

I am also amazed by how effortlessly the authors weave in a picture of the Malawian government at the time. Using paragraphs scattered throughout the book, Kamkwamba explains official corruption and inner governmental workings in depth. This political narrative works smoothly with the rest of the book. It doesn’t spoil the overall narrative, and it gives readers a “big picture” view of Malawi at that time. However, the language of this book is a bit too complicated for younger readers. Near the end of the book it gets very technical, which is something I dislike. This book has parts that are, in my opinion, boring, but most of it is very interesting.

Kamkwamba is an inspirational role model. His story of building a working electric windmill out of PVC pipe and rusted wires in order to power his home and rotate a water pump is uplifting and motivating to me. He never gave up and he overcame many obstacles, such as famine and lack of supplies. For me, Kamkwamba is a great example for young innovative minds to never give up and follow their passions. I gave his book four out of five stars.

Kamkwamba graduated from Dartmouth College and today he helps improve his home district in Malawi.

“Electric wind!” I shouted. “I told you I wasn’t mad!” One by one the crowd began to cheer. They raised their hands in the air, clapping and shouting, “Wachitabwina! Well done!” “We doubted you, but look at you now!”

Nathan Zhang is a 12th grader currently living in Winston Salem, North Carolina. He lived in China for about three years. His hobbies include reading, writing, gaming, computer hardware, and enjoying all kinds of food.