The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind

by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer, 2015

This is the true story of a young boy, William Kamkwamba, who was born in 1987 in a tiny village near Wimbe, Malawi. He is enthralled with science and just wants to go to school and learn about science. He is the only boy with 6 sisters. His Mother and Father are subsistence farmers. They grow Maize, which Malawians eat at every meal in a dish called nsima. When he is an adolescent, a terrible famine comes due to a new (bad) government that did not provide farmers with any fertilizer followed by a drought. It is horrible and painful to read. I’ve never felt so deeply the acute need, and our ability to help and wanting to help someone so badly. All they needed was a little food, a little money for fertilizer, a little help – just like Lazarus under the table of the rich man begging for just a crumb. And here we have so much – excess – everywhere in this country.

Everyone is slowly starving to death in Malawi, including William and his family. His has to watch his beloved doggie, Khamba, slowly starve to death – eventually he has to tie him to a tree and leave him. It’s heartbreaking! Miraculously, they survive, though, because they live long enough (20 more days!) to harvest their maize. William goes on to harness the wind! Even though he desperately wants to go to secondary school and learn about science, his father cannot afford to pay his fees so he is expelled. There is a tiny library in the elementary school near his village. When he is not working in the fields with his father, he studies books he finds in that little library. He learns all about electricity and decides to build his own windmill. He scavenges used parts from a junk yard near the school that expelled him. The school kids mock and jeer at him and call him crazy. He needs his Father’s broken bicycle to make a part of the windmill and his Father is very reluctant to give it to him but William convinces him to do so. His friend, Gilbert, helps him when no one else believes in him. He provides the money for some items that William just can’t scavenge – the dynamo, some copper wire, etc. And lo and behold, William builds his windmill. He provides lights for his home and word gets around. Soon, a professor, Dr. Hartford Mchazime, visits and interviews William. He is impressed with his genius and has him apply to present at a TED conference. William is selected and his world changes as a result. He is able to tell his story, learn, and raise funds to make an even better windmill, then more windmills and help his village. He now runs a nonprofit called Moving Windmills Project. He rebuilt the schools in his area. He dug a borehole for water for his whole village. His father can now grow two crops per year and the storehouse will never be empty again.

Beautiful book, miraculous story!

Favorite quotes:

“My father had no place for magic in his life. To me, this made him seem even stronger. As a devout Presbyterian, he believed that God – not juju – was his best protection.”

“Usually before supper, my cousins gathered in the courtyard and played soccer. Since we had no money for a real ball, we made our own using plastic shopping bags (that we called jumbos) wadded together and tied with rope. They didn’t have the same kind of bounce as a real soccer ball, but they still allowed us to lay. All across Africa, children use the same jumbo balls.”

“Why does ESCOM turn off the power? Part of the reason is deforestation, which is a real problem in Malawi and other parts of the world. Thanks to the tobacco and maize estates, most of the lush green forests that once covered the country back in Grandpa’s youth are gone. The rest is being cut down and used as firewood.

“You see, since we don’t have electricity, most Malawians (including my family) rely on fires for everything from cooking to heating bath water. The problem is that now the firewood is running low. It’s so bad that sometimes my sisters have to walk several miles just to find a handful of wood to cook our breakfast. And if you’ve ever built a campfire, you know that a handful of wood doesn’t last very long.

Without trees and forests covering the land, simple storms can turn into flash floods. Whenever it rains heavily, the water rushes through our farms and carries away the important soil and minerals that help plants to grow. The soil–pus a lot of plastic bags and other garbage–washes into the Shire River, where ESCOM produces all of Malawi’s electricity from turbines. The turbines get clogged with mud and garbage and have to be turned off and cleaned–which causes power cuts across the country. And every time ESCOM issues power cuts, they also lose money. This means they must raise prices to get their money back, making the cost of electricity higher and higher. So with no crops because of floods, and no electricity because of clogged rivers and high prices, people continue to cut down trees for firewood. It’s like that.”

From page 63 in Chapter 4, The Uncertain Life of an African Farmer: “As I said, nsima is so important to our diets that whenever we go without it, we feel like a fish out of water. For instance, let’s say that someone from America invites a Malawian to dinner and serves plates of juicy steak and mashed potatoes, followed by great slices of chocolate cake for dessert. If there’s no nsima, the Malawian will probably go home and tell his brothers and sisters, “There was no food there, only steak and mashed potatoes. I hope I can sleep tonight.”

On page 66, he describes the life-cycle of the subsistence farmer in Malawi: planting in November, rains coming in December along with a spoonful of fertilizer for each plant, belt-tightening until May – harvest time – when the harvest was put in bags in a storage room – hopefully enough maize to last the year.

“In December 2000, everything went terribly wrong. Our first problem was the fertilizer. For years and years, the Malawian government made sure the price of fertilizer and seed was low enough so every family could afford a crop. But our new resident, a businessman named Bakili Muluzi, didn’t believe the government’s job was to help farmers. So that year, the price of fertilizer was so expensive that most families–ours included– couldn’t afford to buy it. That meant when the rains came and the seedlings pushed their way through the soil, we had nothing to give them.

“Sorry, guys,” I said as I stood in the field. “You’re on your own this year.”

“For those farmers who were able to afford fertilizer, it hardly mattered anyway. Because as soon as the seedlings showed their tiny faces, the country began to flood. Heavy rains fell for days and days, washing away houses and livestock, along with the fertilizer and many of the seedlings themselves. Our district survived without much damage, except that after the rains finally stopped, they never came back. Malawi entered a drought….

“There was no celebration that harvest. We managed to fill only five bags of maize, which occupied only a corner of the storage room…”

Malawi begins to starve. There are three very painful chapters of what he went through. When school starts, he sees a map of Africa and his country, Malawi: “On the map, the land was green and the lake appeared like a blue jewel. It was hard to guess that eleven million people lived in that tiny space, and at that very moment, nearly all of us were slowly starving.”

“That week, I realized I’d been wrong: The hunger was just as painful at school as it was at home. All day my stomach growled and gave my brain no peace and soon it was too difficult to pay attention. At first, my classmates and I were eager to raise our hands and answer one of Mister Tembo’s questions. A few of us even competed to be the first one called…

“But after two weeks, a silence fell over the room each morning and never lifted. Faces became thinner. And since we had no soap or lotions at home, our skin gradually turned dry and gray, as if dusted in ash. During recess, a few of my friends simply walked off campus to search for food and never returned.

“None of this mattered anyway. On the first day of February, W. M. Phiri made the following announcement at assembly:

“The administration is aware of the problems across the country, which we all face. But many of you still haven’t paid your school fees for this term. Starting tomorrow, the free period is over.”

“My worst fear had come true. I knew my father hadn’t paid my fees, but who was I kidding? We were eating one meal per day. We couldn’t afford to buy a bar of soap, much less pay twelve hundred kwacha for my school….”

In Chapter 7, A Time of Dying: “The following week, the gaga, finally ran out in the trading center. People began living on pumpkin leaves, and when that was gone, they sifted through the garbage for banana peels and old conrncobs. Along our road, they dug up tree roots and ate grass, anything to fill their stomachs.

“As starvation set in, their bodies began to change. Some people became so thin, they looked like walking skeletons. Others came down with kwashiorkor, a condition caused by the lack of protein. Instead of shriveling like everyone else, their arms, legs, and bellies swelled with fluid and became fat. It was another of the famine’s cruel jokes. The reality was that they were dying.

“Every day the starving people stopped by our house and begged my father for help. They saw we had iron sheets on one part of our house and thought we were rich, even though they were fastened by stones. Some of the men said they’d walked thirty miles.

“If you have one bisuit, please, I can work,” they begged, their bare feet so swollen, they couldn’t wear sandals. “We’re now six days without eating. If you have just a small plate of nsima?”

“I have nothing,” my father insisted, “I’m barely feeding my own family.”

“Just give us porridge,” they demanded.

“I said no.”

A few men were too weak to continue and slept in our yard all night. The ground and wood were too wet for fires. And when the rains came in the darkness, they curled up under our porch and shivered. By morning, they were gone.

“A few nights later, we were sitting outside having our meal when a man approached from the road. He was covered in mud and so thin, it was hard to understand how he was even alive. His teeth protruded from his shriveled mouth and his hair was falling out. Without saying hello, he sat down beside us. Then, to my horror, he reached his dirty hand into our bowl and ripped off a giant piece of nsima. We sat there in shock, saying nothing as he closed his eyes and chewed. He swallowed deep and satisfyingly, and when the mouthful was safely in his stomach, he turned to my father.

“Do you have more?”

“I’m sorry,” my father said.

“Okay then,” the man replied, stood up, and walked away.

“The crowds continued to pour in from the bush. More than ever, they converged in the trading center like herds of crazed animals driven together by fire. Women with gaunt, ashen faces sat alone, pleading with God. But they did it quietly and without tears. Anguish was expressed mostly in silence since few had the energy to cry.”…

“The people on the roads weren’t the only ones wasting away. One night in early February, I sat down to eat my small portion of nsima and noticed Khamba standing in the open door. His head hung low and his eyes dropped, and by the lantern light, I could count each rib pressing beneath his skin. The walk across the courtyard had exhaused him.

“Like so many others in Wimbe, my dog was starving to death.

“His last big meal had been the Christmas goat skin, which had given him strength and even added a little weight. But since then, I’d managed to feed him only five times–just a small handful of nsima, and little more. I had nothing to give him tonight.”

He describes the mercy killing of his beloved doggie and it is so painful and sad and heartbreaking.

Finally, they have survived until the dowe of the maize was ready to eat. “I don’t think this dowe is ready,” my father said, snatching one off the fire. He pulled off the silk and took his first bite. Within seconds, the blood of life seemed to rush back into his face. He knew we would live.

“It’s ready, he said, and smiled.”

…”My God, to have a stomach filled with warm food was one of the greatest pleasures in life. Geoffrey and his mother started coming over and enjoying meals of pumpkin and dowe with us. Soon the swelling in Geoffrey’s legs went away and he was smiling like his old self.

“For Geoffrey and me, March was like one big celebration. Each morning before work, we made a fire in the fields and ate a big breakfast of roasted maize and pumpkins. I remembered a parable that Jesus told to the disciples, the one about the sower of seeds. The seeds planted along the road get stepped on and damaged, those planted in rocky soil can’t take root, and the ones planted in the thorns get tangled in the barbs. But the seeds planted on fertile soil live and prosper.

“Mister Geoffrey, we’re like those seeds planted on fertile soil, not on the roadside, stepped on by everyone walking past.”

“No, no, not us.”

“That’s right. We lived. We survived.”

In Chapter Nine, The Library: “Then I remembered that a small library had opened the previous year in Wimbe Primary. It was started by a group called the Malawi Teacher Training Authority, and all the books were donated by the American government. Perhaps reading would keep my brain from getting mushy.”

In that little library, he discovers a book on the bottom shelf behind a dictionary, an American textbook called Using Energy. This book changed his life. He discovers windmills.

My God, I thought. We could harvest two times per year.

“While the rest of Malawi went hungry during December and January, we’d be picking our second crop of maize. The pump could also allow my mother a year-round garden to grow things like potatoes, mustard greens, and soy beans–both to eat and sell at the market.

“I began to get excited. “No more skipping breakfast, Gilbert. No more dropping out of school!”

“With a windmill, we’d finally release ourselves from the troubles of darkness and hunger. A windmill meant more than just power. It was freedom.

“Gilbert, I’m going to build a windmill.”

In Chapter 13, The Restless Inventor: “It was around then I started noticing the ghosts. Not real ghosts, but boys who’d dropped out of school and now loitered in the trading center without purpose. I’d see them outside the dry-goods store in their bare feet and grimy clothes, waiting for small jobs so they could spend all night in the barrooms.

“In Malawi, we say these people are “grooving” through life, just living off ganyu with no plans for the future. I started worrying that soon I’d become like them. I worried that one day the windmill would no longer excite me, or it would become too difficult to maintain, and the maize rows or boozing dens would slowly swallow me up. It was easy to lose hold of your dreams.

“I battled this darkness by trying to keep a positive mindset. Every week I returned to the library just to continue learning and stay inspired. I read all the novels and spelling books and practiced my English. And I continued checking out Explaining Physics, Using Energy, and Integrated Science and researching other ways to help my family.”

…”In 2006, when I was eighteen years old, another famine struck Malawi.

“That year, thanks to a change in government, my family had been able to buy a few bags of fertilizer. At first, the rains came like they normally do. We planted our seeds and waited for them to show their faces, then added a spoonful of fertilizer and a lot of prayer.”

The people in his village blame his windmill for causing the drought. He tries to explain to them that there is drought all over Malawi but they cling to their fears and blame him. “Luckily, not long after that, the government stepped in and released tons of maize on the market. A few months later, some aid agencies arrived and offered more assistance. No one starved or died. A catastrophe had been avoided, but still, it underlined the kind of backwardness in our people that really frustrates me.”

When Dr. Mchazime discovers the windmill and visits William and learns all about him, good things start happening for William and all of Malawi. At the TED conference, William is telling his story and the audience applauds. “Not only were they clapping, but they were standing and cheering. And when I finally returned to my seat, I noticed that several were even crying.

“After all the years of trouble–the famine and fear for my family, dropping out of school, Khamba’s death, and the teasing I received trying to develop my idea–I was finally being recognized. For the first time in my life, I felt I was surrounded by people who understood what I did. A huge weight seemed to leave my chest and fall to the assembly hall floor. I could finally relax. I was now among colleagues…”

“When I first met Tom, he asked what I hoped to obtain someday in my life. I told him I had two goals: to remain in school and to build a bigger windmill to irrigate my family’s crops, so we’d never go hungry again.

“Basically, this was every Malawians’ wish…”

Here’s how he helped his family:

“Eventually, the money from my donors at TED allowed me to help my family in many other ways. I installed iron sheets on our compound to replace the grass roofs. I bought mattresses so my sisters didn’t have to sleep on the dirt floor, plus covered water buckets to protect our drinking supply from pests; I bought better blankets to keep us warm at night in winter; malaria pills and mosquito nets for the rainy season; and I arranged to send everyone in my family to the doctor and dentist.

“And for once, I finally managed to repay Gilbert for all the help he’d given me. Several years before, Gilbert’s father had died, and he’d had to drop out of school for lack of money. So with my donations, I put Gilbert back in school, along with Geoffrey and several other cousins who’d dropped out during the famine. I even paid the neighbors’ kids’ tuition.

“And after years of dreaming about it, I was finally able to drill a borehole for a deep well, which gave my family clean drinking water. My mother said this saved her two hours each day carrying water from the public well. Using a solar-powered pump, I filled two giant tanks and piped water to my father’s field.”

“Irrigation allowed us to plant a second maize crop. The storage room would never be empty again. The spigot from the borehole was also free for all the women in Wimbe to use. It’s the only running water for miles around, and each day, dozens of women come to my home to fill their buckets with clean, cool water without having to pump and pump.”

“My family couldn’t have imagined that the little windmill I built during the famine would change their lives in every way, and they saw this change as a gift from heaven. Whenever I came home on weekends, my parents had a new nickname. They called me Noah-like the main in the Bible who built the ark, saving his family from God’s flood.

“Everyone laughed at Noah, but look what happened,” my mother said.

“My father agreed. “You’ve put us on the map. Now the world knows we’re here.”

He also rebuilt the schools in his area with funds raised through his non-profit, Moving Windmills Project along with, an American organization. The two schools in his area: Wimbe Primary and Kachokolo Secondary are no longer “terrible.” They have rebuilt the schools (local men made all the bricks and the rest of the building materials came from within Malawi). LED lights, solar panels, and 10,000 books in the library thanks to the Pearson Foundation, “allowing kids and their parents to stay late and study into the night.”

Thank you, William, for your courage and your love, your faith and your hard work. You are an incredible young man, an inspiration to the world, and may God bless you and yours forever!