A Boy, a Textbook, and his Drought-Stricken Country

Photo by Paul Schnaittacher
Photo by Paul Schnaittacher

Currently a senior at Dartmouth College in Hanover, NH, William Kamkwamba, the co-author of The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope, took time between his final exams to speak at Williston Northampton as the fourth annual speaker in the Sara Wattles Perry ’77 lecture series.

Mr. Kamkwamba is a native of Malawi, a small African country bordered by Mozambique, Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe, where electricity and running water are a luxury enjoyed by only two percent of the population. Mr. Kamkwamba’s family members make their living as farmers in a rural part of the country. As chronicled in The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, in 2001, a record drought led Mr. Kamkwamba to drop out of school and, using textbooks as his guide, build an electricity-generating windmill out of scrap metal.

Watch Mr. Kamkwamba’s TEDTalk about building the windmill.

While at Williston, Mr. Kamkwamba spoke to ninth grade World Civilizations students about his determination to build a windmill, the ridicule he suffered from his community, and some of the current projects he is working on in Malawi.

When asked of which he was most proud—that the windmill is functional or that he completed his goal—Mr. Kamkwamba said it was more satisfying to have accomplished his goal.

Mr. Kamkwamba’s efforts were misunderstood and the object of ridicule in his community. “My mom was so angry with me,” said Mr. Kamkwamba, “She said, ‘You are not going to find a wife, no one wants to marry a crazy man.’”

Mr. Kamkwamba referenced a native proverb that, when translated, means, “use the stick the children play with to kill the snake.” He emphasized the importance of listening to children; sometimes they have the answer, he said.

In fact, since building the windmill, Mr. Kamkwamba says he has witnessed change in his community. Rather than hoping and waiting for others to come and solve their problems, people are trying out new ideas, he remarked.

Photo by Paul Schnaittacher
Photo by Paul Schnaittacher

During his summer vacations from Dartmouth, Mr. Kamkwamba has returned to Malawi and made further technological improvements to his former school and community. To date, he has installed solar panels on the school’s roof, which charge a small number of laptops for student use, and is in the process of fashioning a bio-gas generator which will allow women to cook without having to travel long distances to collect firewood.

“I want to make people’s lives easier through education and energy” so that they can pursue other endeavors, he said.

Mr. Kamkwamba remembers being awestruck by the skyscrapers the first time he visited New York City. It was not the height of the buildings, but the age that impressed him most. “Every nation is built from nothing,” he said. He hopes Malawi will one day overcome its current economic hurdles and become a nation capable of constructing something that will stand for just as long.

Watch a slideshow from Mr. Kamkwamba’s speech here.

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