William Kamkwamba, the Malawian school drop-out who built a windmill, continues inspiring humanity
MALAWI’S windmill inventor and author William Kamkwamba continues being an inspiration to the world at large, as his story remains in relevant to today’s daily struggles with sustainable energy.
Hunger pushes Kamkwamba out of school
Known throughout the world as “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind”, Kamkwamba was 14 years old in 2002 with a goal to study science in the capital Lilongwe’s top boarding schools. But that same year, famine hit his village, leaving his family’s farm devastated and his parents destitute.
Unable to meet the US$80/year tuition for his education, Kamkwamba was forced to drop out and help his family forage for food doing menial work and vending in the village streets. But the curious William never stopped going to the nearby library, where he read mainly science books and journals.
“I knew that my parents would be able to save enough and that I would eventually be able to go back to school,” Kamkwamba said seventeen years later, in 2019. “So I borrowed notes from classmates and started going to the library to not fall behind.”
Back at the village library, William was soon to have his Eureka! moment when he happened upon an article in a book called Using Energy that detailed how windmills are built and how they generate power for household uses.
The windmills featured in the science book were too complicated and expensive for his village, and Kamkwamba set out to change science to suit his village circumstances instead of forcing a poor village to adopt complicated machinery.
Kamkwamba’s windmill saves a village
With a little more than a fistful of maizemeal food in his stomach, William went about gathering scrap metal, tractor parts, and bicycle halves to forge his own crude but functioning windmill.
It was a pure act of genius that changed William’s life for good and brought the world’s focus onto his remote Kasungu village, 127 km north-west of Lilongwe. However, the ingenuity was completely lost to his colleagues in the village at the time, as they ridiculed his invention, insulted his intelligence and mocked the ground he walked on.
Still, Kamkwamba wouldn’t give up just yet. The more his rudimentary invention looked set to fail, the more he flipped through piles of dog-eared and long-forgotten science textbooks, with an armory of curiosity and determination.
Even his own parents might have laughed off their teenage son’s daring plan to bring them electricity and running water. But Kamkwamba was always gifted with the inquisitive mind of a scientist.
“I remember my mother telling me, ‘You are never going to find a wife if you keep hanging around the junkyard; no one wants to marry a crazy man,’” Kamkwamba recalls.
Later in his life, he told the 2019 Mandela Washington Fellowship Summit that as a child, he would marvel at the radio in his home, puzzled by the sounds it emitted.
“I thought there were tiny people inside the radio and eventually took it apart but couldn’t find them,” Kamkwamba joked.
It was more of a small miracle that eventually William powered four lights in the home, complete with homemade switches and a circuit breaker made from nails and wire. Determined even further, he built a second wind-driven machine that powered water into his home.
And so began the great story of how a poor, out-of-school Malawian boy defeated the drought and famine that loomed with in his village by harnessing the wind.
Overnight, Kamkwamba becomes global icon
In no time, news of William’s magetsi a mphepo (wind-driven electricity) spread beyond the village to Lilongwe, where journalists pounced on the story and gave it wings to roam all over the world. And William became a global sensation, sought for interviews by leading publications in London, New York, Paris, Beijing and elsewhere.
The funds that had eluded him leading to his dropping out of school soon became available from well-wishers, and William grabbed with both hands the opportunity to enrich his mind.
Kamkwamba has since become an alumnus of the African Leadership Academy, a pan-African high school in Johannesburg, South Africa. He is also 2007 TED Global Fellow, and has been profiled in the Wall Street Journal with his inventions displayed at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry.
Today, Kamkwamba is often invited to tell his story, and in 2008, he delivered an address at the World Economic Forum on Africa. His TED Talk attracted over 3,1 million views.
His book, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, is a nonfiction account of how he built the wind turbine to save his village from famine. The book was co-authored with Bryan Mealer and became a New York Times bestseller.
The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind was adapted into a feature film by Netflix in 2019, directed by and starring Chiwetel Ejifor, with Maxwell Simba starring as William.
You can buy the book here. You can also visit the author’s website here.
Kamkwamba’s is a remarkable story about human inventiveness and its power to overcome crippling adversity. The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind will inspire anyone who doubts the power of one individual’s ability to change his community and better the lives of those around him.
‘Young people shouldn’t doubt themselves’ – Kamkwamba
The Malawian inventor is now a public speaker with schools and other institutions in the US and elsewhere seeking his appearances for speeches.
This week, on Monday 5 June 2022, Kamkwamba visited Randolph Middle School in Charlotte, U.S., to dedicate a windmill he personally constructed for kids at the school.
A young reader’s version of Kamkwamba’s book is a part of the curriculum at Randolph, and all sixth graders read it in their language arts class.
“I think it helps young people know that they can have challenges, but they’re still going to be able to achieve so many good things in life,” he said. “(I want it to show) that they shouldn’t be doubting themselves,” Kamkwamba told media after signing autographs for dozens of pupils at Randolph school.
The fame the invention brought completely changed Kamkwamba’s life, as he moved to the U.S. to study at Dartmouth College where read his bachelor’s degree in 2014.
He then moved to San Francisco shortly after graduating, and is believed to be living there while running multiple sustainable energy projects and charitable activities back home in Malawi.
Kamkwamba reflects on his journey
Kamkwamba in 2009 founded the Moving Windmills Project foundation, which is helping out schools, pupils and households in the Kasungu district, particularly the village he grew up in, Wimbe.
Kamkwamba runs the charity with his wife, Olivia Scott Kamkwamba.
Reflecting on his awe-inspiring journey so far in life, Kamkwamba advises leaders to never shut down ideas coming from even the people who might appear not so much educated. Every human being has something ingrained in them which may benefit the next person and, by extension, a whole community or even humanity at large.
“You have to open up to people, to stay connected,” William says. “You might learn something from someone in Kenya or in Zimbabwe. It’s only when you listen to others that you are able to learn from them.”
“An inspiring leader helps others to improve their own communities,” William says.
Recently, Kamkwamba has been designing a solar panel for the same school he had to withdraw from as a teenager. The humbling experience, for William, was another opportunity to “learn from others how to lead.”
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