Blurbs written about this book may be legally required to use some form of the word ‘inspirational’ somewhere in their text. To be fair, ‘inspirational’ does sum it up well, in both the positive and negative connotations of the word. That’s also part of why I picked the book in the first place. In the course of trying to read a book from every country, it’s easy to get focused on the darker chapters of any given country’s history. I was ready to read something more, well, inspirational.
The Boy who Harnessed the Wind is a memoir by William Kamkwama (co-written with Bryan Mealer) who while growing up in a Malawi village figured out how to build a wind-power generator to provide his family with electricity and irrigation. He had dropped out of school because his family couldn’t afford to pay the school fees, but he found old physics textbooks in the school library and used the diagrams to build a windmill and a (somewhat hazardous) electrical system for his house.
The thing I enjoyed most about this book was how clearly it reflected the mind of an engineer. (Unfortunately, the book doesn’t say much about the co-writing process, so I don’t know what the roles of the two authors were.) The book narrated step-by-step the building process that William went through and all of the creative solutions that he came up with to find or make the supplies he needed with very little money. He uses the same pragmatic narration when talking about other topics too. Early on he writes, “By the end of this story, you won’t believe how much you know about corn.”
Corn plays a prominent role because it is a staple food in Malawi and a bad harvest (plus political malfeasance) caused a famine that affected William’s family and the rest of the country. Going through that famine that inspired him to find a way to enable his family to irrigate their land. The matter-of-fact style of the book might seem ill-suited to discussion of a famine, but it really taught me a lot about what the day-to-day experience of it might be like, how the family adapted by gradually cutting back on the amount of meals they ate and by adding less preferable foods their diet. I hadn’t really appreciated the fact that as a subsistence farmer, you are able to see the shortage coming long in advance. You have food now, but you know it isn’t enough to last until the next harvest and there isn’t much you can do about it but wait and hope.
I was a bit surprised that the book didn’t have much discussion of the usefulness of the generator to his family. Did the wind-powered irrigation help avoid future food shortages? The focus is more on the attention William began to get, first within Malawi and then more widely when he was invited to give a presentation at a TED conference in Tanzania. I just found the video here:
It’s not a polished performance of course, but it is amazing to actually see the scene described in the book. To see him at the moment he has first flown on an airplane, first seen the internet and is now telling people from around the world about his windmill. A group of Malawians had already donated funds to allow William to go back to school and after the TED conference, others helped him further. Now he’s an undergraduate at Dartmouth College.