In the early 2000’s, a devastating drought hit Malawi, which led to widespread famine in 2002. This situation was exacerbated by a government many felt were slow to act, slowing aid to those hard hit in the rural communities. The suffering was great, as the poor (and not so poor) saw what little they had in lifetime savings eaten up by the famine’s voracious appetite, as food prices skyrocketed.
In a small populated area known as Masitala, just north of Kasungu, there lived a young boy, William Kamkwamba. Full of energy and imagination, he was fascinated by all the things around him. His young exploits were of the kind the young, unfettered mind embarks on when it still knows few limits in life.
Then the famine came.
Secondary school in Malawi is not provided free of charge. In order to attend, one’s family must pay the school’s tuition. As the cost of food rose and William’s families stored food supplies dwindled, it became necessary for William to withdraw from school. There was no money to keep him there. Even among the growing trials, William’s mother gave birth to another healthy baby girl they named Tiyamike, which means “Thank God”.
Near his home there was a small library. Though the few books it held were not sorted by any system, alphabetical or subject-wise, it was a place of fascination for William. One day, scanning through the titles, as one had to do without an orderly shelving method, William discovered an American textbook entitled Using Energy.
On the cover were windmills.
The closest thing to windmills familiar to William were the pinwheels he and his friends sometimes made. But, those were toys. As he started to read, however, an idea began to find root and grow, unlike the starving crops around him. Windmills provide power, something very scarce in Malawi’s underdeveloped infrastructure. The cover picture showed windmills, which meant someone had built them. If someone else had been able to build one, so could he. He just had to figure out how. At this point he was only fourteen.
Thus began a project of learning and scrounging. The book, while it contained diagrams, made reference to many words and concepts William did not understand. The diagrams contained strange symbols with little or no explanation. Material had to be found for little or no cost–the famine was raging on, taking a heavy toll on the population. The need for metal parts meant spending hours sorting through the scrapyard and abandoned garage of a nearby tobacco plantation. Being near his old school, meant he was seen and teased by the children still able to attend. Some people thought him crazy, but he understood their disbelief, as he put it:
Before I discovered the miracles of science, magic ruled the world.
Slowly, the parts were being found and assembled, and eventually it was ready.
Erecting a tower using the wood of the blue gum tree, he and his friend Geoffrey were able to get his windmill, built on an old bicycle frame , mounted. This process caused a stir in the surrounding area, and people stopped by to watch. There is no word for “windmill” in the local language, so when asked what he was making, he replied, “magetsi a mphepo“, electric wind.
When all was ready, he pulled the release and the blades started to spin. His little light bulb flickered, flashed and burst to life. He had made light.
From there, things started to grow. William managed to obtain some wire. He wired his home so they now had light indoors and could listen to the radio. Villagers wanted to charge their mobile phones, which required him to build a step-up transformer. Adding a storage battery allowed him to expand the number of electrical devices supported by his home electrical system, though a near-catastrophe led him to create a makeshift circuit breaker system. It also meant continuous power at night. Obviously, this marvel started to bring in reporters, one who even remarked they had it better than those in the city: there were no blackouts and they didn’t have to pay the power company.
All of it was built from scrounged parts and scraps.
The journey, however, was still just beginning.
Before I discovered the wonders of science, I was just a simple farmer in a country of poor farmers.
- never been on an airplane
- never slept in a hotel
- never seen a laptop
- never heard of the Internet
He was nervous. He expected to be laughed at for his halting, or as he put it, silly English. But, what he met was amazement, appreciation and applause. He had, despite all of the problems and trials, done something great.
In 2009, he returned to the TEDGlobal stage to once again recount his story, now in much stronger English, and to encourage people to trust themselves, believe and never give up.
His story in his own words is recorded in the book, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind.