Sunday, December 31, 2017

Malawi: The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer

I found this book listed on a website suggesting the most iconic book set in 150 countries round the world. While not all the books listed on the website are written by authors from the countries in question (the English novelist Graham Greene has listings for both Haiti and Monaco, Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea is the title chosen for Cuba and, strangely, the listing for Barbados is Nigerian author Chris Abani's novel Song for Night set in West Africa), there were some useful suggestions of books I had not come across before.

William Kamkwamba is a young Malawian brought up in the village of Wimbe near the capital of Lilongwe where his father was a farmer. When famine hit the village, he had to drop out of high school as there was no money to pay his school fees. At a loose end for something to occupy his time and his mind, he resorted to a small library of donated American books in the local primary school. The science books fascinated him, and from them he was inspired to build a windmill to bring electricity to his family's small house so that they could have electric light (and not have to go to bed at seven in the evening). His windmill was built mainly from junk salvaged from various places including an abandoned tobacco estate nearby. From time to time, when a part needed to be purchased, he managed to pick up odd jobs for cash, or was helped out by his slightly less poverty-stricken friend Gilbert, the chief's son.

William not only succeeded in building his windmill, he attracted outside attention, and was invited to speak at a TED conference. Donor help enabled him to go back to school, and to realise his dream of building a bigger windmill to pump water so that his family could grow two crops a year instead of one, and of bringing wind-powered electricity to his whole village.

The book is written in the first person - theoretically by William. But he describes at various times his poor English, and no matter how much it has improved, no doubt his non-Malawian coauthor played a big part in the writing of the book. So on this basis, it perhaps does not quite qualify as written by a Malawian writer - still, I am going to count it as such.

What I found particularly inspiring about the book is that William's dream in no way involved emigrating to America, as so many African books seem to focus on. Instead, he clearly loves his home, and wanted only to make the lives of his family and village better - and the improvements that enabled this were by no means huge and expensive. Sometimes small things, coupled with intelligence, persistence and determination can make a huge difference.

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind was published by Harper Collins in 2009.

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