Tuesday, June 22, 2010
The next in my inadvertent detour through nonfiction this summer is William Kamkwamba's memoir The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. This is the simply-told story of a boy from Malawi, the son of a maize farmer whose ambitions for attending secondary school were dashed when drought and famine first nearly destroyed the area, with many literally starving to death, then devastated the family's financial situation. Forced to drop out of school when his family couldn't come up with the requisite fees, William's curiosity led him to the small community library, where he read voraciously, occasionally asking the teacher who worked there for definitions of words he didn't know. He was particularly interested in science and began, with the help of his two best friends Gilbert and Geoffrey, to build a windmill from materials he found at the local garbage dump or scavenged.
The project first provided light to his own home, changing the family's life in much the way Edison's light bulb must have changed those in his world--extending reasonable waking hours past sunset. He learned too that he could charge cell phones for neighbors, and eventually set his eyes on powering a well that would allow his family to grow a second crop each year.
Although the project was first observed warily by his neighbors--some fearing he might be invoking witchcraft--it finally gained him international attention and an opportunity to travel and eventually to get what he had wanted most all along--an excellent education.
Someone who heard Kamkwamba speak after his book's success said the young man had one poignant question: Where was this Google when I was building my windmill?