“Magetsi a mphepo,” he whispered. I will build electric wind.
I live a life of comfort in my upper middle class American home. I don’t worry about things like famines or poor sanitation. When I’m hungry I go to the store to buy whatever I want from the thousands of options. I eat, sleep, and live in my home – with running water and electricity. Every room is heated in the winter and cooled in the summer.
This opulent lifestyle isn’t available to everyone though. Not here in America and not in many other countries around the world. It’s good for us to learn of others’ struggles so that we may appreciate our blessings and so that we may also be called to share our fortunes with others.
And so, let me introduce you to William Kamkwamba of Malawi.
Who is William Kamkwamba?
William’s story is one of survival and perseverance. In December 2000 a devastating famine began in Malawi. Even from afar, reading about the famine in a book, I am heart-broken by the conditions they faced. I recently read a first-person account of conditions in Ireland during the Potato Famine and found many similarities in William’s tale. The saddest part of both famines was the callous treatment of the poor by the rich. In both cases, the well-off people were not suffering. They had enough to survive while also sharing with others (which they did not do). They had to ability to make small sacrifices to save lives but didn’t. It’s just awful.
To give you a taste, here are a few chapter titles from William’s book:
- The Uncertain Life of an African Farmer
- Malawi Begins to Starve
- A Time of Dying
2000 was a pivotal year for William. At the young of age of 13, he faced famine in his country. This was also the year that he discovered the magic that can be found in a library.
It’s no secret that I love libraries and all they can do for us. Literacy and access to books are essential to life. Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Anan said,
“Literacy is a bridge from misery to hope. It is a tool for daily life in modern society. It is a bulwark against poverty, and a building block of development, an essential complement to investments in roads, dams, clinics and factories.
Literacy is a platform for democratization, and a vehicle for the promotion of cultural and national identity. Especially for girls and women, it is an agent of family health and nutrition. For everyone, everywhere, literacy is, along with education in general, a basic human right.
Literacy is, finally, the road to human progress and the means through which every man, woman and child can realize his or her full potential. These aspirations merit our strongest possible support.”
Schools and Libraries are Essential
Do you take school for granted? William’s family couldn’t afford to send him to school during the famine but he was still able to use the library. The Malawi Teacher Training Authority had opened a library the year before, full of books donated by the American government. There were books from all over the world written about English, history, science, and even novels.
On his first visit to the library William spent hours sitting on the floor, flipping through the books, and soaking in the pictures.
“For the first time in my life, I experienced what if felt like to escape without going anywhere.”
Initially William checked out the same books that his classmates were using so that he could keep up with the learning, always hopeful for a change of circumstance that would lead him back to the classroom. It was difficult because his English wasn’t great and it took a long time to sound out words and look them up in a dictionary. His friend would come after school each day to talk about what they had covered in lessons.
The Two Most Important Books
William had always been curious about the world and how things worked. Library books such as Integrated Science and Explaining Physics showed him how it all worked. One unfamiliar word at a time – voltage, resistor, diode – he learned English and science, with the help of his friend and the librarian. William had a natural propensity for the science he was learning, and he soaked it up like a sponge.
“Even if the words and phrases sometimes confused me, the drawings were clear in my mind…Right away, I understood this language clearly, as if my brain had known it all along.”
Then, one fateful day, William finds an American textbook called Using Energy which changes his life. The cover photo was of windmills. Reading inside, he discovers that windmills convert energy and make electricity. They also pump water- a precious resource in Malawi. Getting more water to the fields would increase their harvest.
“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.”
And so begins William’s quest.
Building a Windmill
Using scavenged materials from the junkyard and working to buy other materials from the trading center, William finally finishes building his windmill. Once it is working, he continues to make modifications to improve the lighting in his house, finding a battery to store power for non-windy days, building a transformer so they can charge cell phones from the windmill, etc. William’s mind is always going, thinking and solving problems. His dream is to be able to bring light and water to villages all across Malawi.
The Future is Bright
In November 2006, life changes again for William. A visiting education inspection team sees the windmill and asks about it. They learn of William’s work and tell the boss, Dr. Hartford Mchazime.
A few days later, Dr. Mchazime visits William himself. He is impressed and wants the whole world to see what he has accomplished. A series of interviews is arranged and word is spreading.
“This is the problem with our system. We’re losing talent like this all the time as a result of poverty. And when we do send them back to school, it’s not a good education. I’m bringing you here because I want the world to see what this boy has done, and I want them to help.” -Dr. Mchazime
In December 2006, Dr. Mchazime visits William again and together they fill out an application for William to speak at a TED global conference. In June, William is on an airplane, flying for the first time. At the conference he discovers the internet and many other technological wonders. But for him, the best part of the conference was the people he met.
“The most amazing thing about TED…was the other Africans who stood on stage and shared their visions of how to make our continent a better place.”
During William’s presentation on stage, he was very nervous and tongue-tied. Someone asked him about his idea and how he made it happen.
“After I drop out from school, I went to library, and I get information about windmill. And I try, and I made it.”
A writer at that TED conference, Erik Hersman, said,
“Where the world sees trash, Africa recycles. Where the world sees junk, Africa sees rebirth.”
Since this first TED conference, William has spoken at a second TED event. He was accepted with a scholarship to attend the African Leadership Academy in Johannesburg, South Africa and eventually came to America to study at Dartmouth University. He co-wrote a memoir, and has been featured in a documentay and a film. He currently spends his time in both the United States and Malawi, speaking and working with Moving Windmills.
Bringing Hope Into the Future
Inspired by William’s work, the Moving Windmills Project was founded in 2008 to pursue rural economic development and education projects in Malawi. The motto of Moving Windmills is “African solutions to African problems” and they work with local leaders to find solutions for issues of food, clothing, shelter, sanitation, health, education, clean water, and community building.
Want to Learn More About William’s Story?
Check out this trailer for the documentary film, William and the Windmill
Even Hollywood recognized how great this story is – check out the trailer for the Netflix feature film, William and the Windmill
But wait, there’s more…
Would you rather sing about William? Here’s a song that accompanies the book Extraordinary People by Michael Hearst which includes a chapter about William and his windmills.
Sharing is Caring
Share it on Facebook, pin it on pinterest, tweet it on twitter – I’m not picky! Just share this great story with someone today!!!
And one last interesting tidbit to reward those of you who read all the way to the bottom… William’s native language doesn’t have a word for windmill so he called it electric wind.
Plan a visit to the largest windmill museum in the world – The American Windmill Museum
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