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The Story Behind The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind

William Kamkwamba looks deer-in-the-headlights scared. On the TED stage in Arusha, Tanzania, he stands in front of the crowd, his shoulders stiff as the collar of his new white shirt. Unusually for a TED conference, Chris Anderson, the renowned curator, shares the stage to coach him through his story. Chris tugs the words one at a time from William, who answers each question economically, then falls silent, which forces Chris to scramble to come up with the next one. William will later say about this day “My English lost”.

William is just nineteen and, for the the lack of school fees, he has not attended classes since he was fourteen years old. Still, he has traveled from Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi, on his first plane, to become the youngest ever TED fellow. To date, 877,000 people have viewed his Arusha talk.

This is the story that William Kamkwamba didn’t tell that day. It’s a story about how language almost got between William and his windmill. If you listen very closely to his next TED Talk, two years later, you can hear him refer to it, fleetingly. You’d only hear it if you were one of those people who thinks about languages a lot. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me begin at the beginning.

William’s Journey

William’s journey to that stage in Arusha, and from there to the world, started at the height of the 2001-2002 Malawi famine, known locally as “the swelling” because starving people would swell up just before they died. Some years earlier, William’s father had lost his business following his elder brother’s sudden death. William’s parents became farmers of maize, or chimanga, like so many others living in a region so fertile it was known as the “breadbasket of Malawi”.

language, chichewa, William KamkwambaBut 2001 was not a good year to be a farmer. That year the rains didn’t come as they should have, and the harvests were catastrophic. Seventy percent of the population was facing starvation. One day, William saw his father round up their prized goats and lead them away. Because so many other families were also selling their livestock at that time, the goats fetched disappointingly little. William went to the storage room to count their stocks of food. With a growling in the pit of his stomach, he realized that, even with the sale of their goats, there would not be enough food to carry him, his parents and six sisters through the four long months of the “hungry season” before their next crop of maize, with its tender dowe cobs, would be mature enough to eat.

The day his mother milled their last pail of grain, the Kamkwamba family started rationing themselves to just one meal, at night: seven mouthfuls of nsima meal. Once their stocks dwindled to one-half pail of milled grain, his parents took a gamble. Faced with imminent starvation, they sold all their food.

His parents hadn’t finished primary school; they could not read that well and, like most Malawians, spoke no English. But they knew something about business. His mother made cakes with the last of their nsima and sold them from a stall in front of the Iponga Barber Shop. People who couldn’t afford a bag of flour bought her cakes so they could at least have something in their stomachs. The profit from this gamble kept William and his family alive. But there was no getting away from the constant hunger, not even at school: with no money for shoes, books or school fees, William, who months earlier had been so excited to take his place at high school, was now forced to drop out.

All around him, the famine worsened. By the time the family was down to three mouthfuls of nsima per day, they had become living skeletons. William had cut a rope to keep his pants up, but now that no longer sufficed. His father weighed himself on the maize scale obsessively. Their collar bones and ribs were visible. All the farmers and their families were slowly starving to death. People were eating chaff, the maize husks, or even the pesticide-soaked seeds for next season. Some of their neighbors stripped the tin off their houses to sell for as little as a cup of flour. There was misery everywhere, but William noted that people did not have the energy to cry.

Every day William checked the fields to see if their maize was no longer so green it would make them sick to eat it. Months after the famine began, when so many had died and his family could barely hold on any longer, William finally found a cob that was ready. He started to pinch the others and found fourteen more that were firm enough to eat. He raced back to the house with the cobs in his arms. His family crowded around him in the tiny kitchen as he cooked them in the embers, grabbing them out of the fire after they were done on only one side. When his father bit into one of the cooked cobs of dowe, it was as if William could see the life returning to his face. He knew then that they would survive.

The Wimbe Primary School Library

During the worst of the famine, schools had closed when the children became too weak to attend, but with the first harvest after the drought, the countryside slowly came to life and the schools reopened. However, with his father unable to raise the $80 in school fees, William was forced to stay home as the lucky ones resumed their places. But he was determined to keep learning. One day he visited his old primary school because it had recently acquired a library.

William's booksThe library in the Wimbe Primary School was in a small room near the school office. William expected children’s books but instead was delighted to find science textbooks, donated by the American government. Unfortunately, they were in English while he, like the majority of Malawians, spoke Chichewa. His English was limited to what he had learned at school from the age of 10. Still, he could tell that those three floor-to-ceiling shelves of textbooks could resolve many mysteries for him. A year earlier he had developed some skill repairing radios. Now, as he pored over a book called Explaining Physics, he learned, by following the pictures and diagrams, how electricity worked. It was a revelation.

Without electricity, William’s family, like all their neighbors, went to bed every night as soon as the sun set. There was no light for them to study, work, or read. And they were not the only ones. Only seven percent of Malawians have access to electricity.

What most people who hear William’s story don’t realize is that in order to do something as simple as read the books about electricity in the Wimbe Primary School library, William faced an extra hurdle: he had to first teach himself English. Chichewa is the national language of Malawi, but there are relatively few books available in that language.

To read these books in English, William put himself on a crash course, lying in his yard on a hammock he made by tying maize sacks together. At first he could only tease out the meaning by understanding a word here and there. Then he would use the pictures and the figures. As soon as he found a figure that interested him, he would look for a reference to that figure in the text and then try to decipher the words around it. When he couldn’t find the words in the dictionary, he would write them on a sheet for Mrs. Sikelo, the English and Social Studies teacher who served as librarian. Slowly, as his English skills grew, the books yielded their secrets to him.

One day, when Mrs. Sikelo was away, William was forced to look up the English words for himself. He was just pulling out the English-Chichewa dictionary from the bottom shelf when he spied an American textbook that had been shoved down there. It was called Using Energy. The windmills on the cover caught his eye. He’d never seen a windmill before. That book would transform his life, his family, and his entire village.

Using Energy described how to build a windmill to generate electricity. Electricity meant water pumps for drinking water and irrigation for their dry fields and lights so he and his family didn’t have to go to bed at sundown or use kerosene lamps that burned their eyes and made them cough. William set to work right away.

William and the Windmill

Across from the school where William was no longer a student, there was a scrapyard of rusted farm machinery. With an idea taking shape in his mind, William started digging out parts from the skeletons of the old vehicles. He had started during the holidays, but once school started, his former classmates looked on from the school windows and mocked him as he feverishly dug for parts. Humiliated, he went on, even when his own mother saw the growing pile of scrap parts in his bedroom and began to fear – out loud – that her son had gone crazy.

William_Kamkwambas_old_windmillAs he labored on in his treasure trove, William found a tractor fan, ball bearings and a shock absorber. The tractor fan would hold the windmill’s blades, but what would he use to construct the blades? He thought PVC pipes could be cut and hammered into the right shape, but where would he get them? He hit upon an inspiration. One day when Chief Wimbe wasn’t looking, he dug out the PVC drainage pipe from beneath his shower stall. Next, after much begging, he succeeded in liberating his father’s broken-down bike. All he needed now was a small motor. But he had no money to buy one. Just as he had run out of hope, he spied a bike dynamo glinting on the wheel of a bike. Once the bike was flagged down, his friend Gilbert, son of Chief Wimbe, dug into his pockets to buy the dynamo right then and there. Now everything was ready for his windmill.

Latticing together blue gum poles, sixteen feet high, he scaled to the top and installed a pulley to crank the finished assembly up to where he was. While he struggled to anchor everything in place, he was high enough that he could be seen as far away as the trading center. Curious people started making their way to the compound, laughing and pointing at him as he teetered there. His parents and sisters stood silently at the edge of the group that had now grown to thirty or so adults, and just as many children. The blades creaked around the tractor fan in slow motion, too slow. He waited. Nothing. Then suddenly a gust of wind caught the blades, almost knocking him off the rickety tower. As the PVC blades started turning faster and faster, the crowd below went quiet. He attached a wire to the lightbulb he held, and hoped he wouldn’t be disappointed. As the light flickered on, the villagers below let out a cheer, led by his amazed family.

The first windmill William built generated enough electricity to power four lightbulbs in the house and two radios. Once he fashioned a wall plug, his neighbors started lining up in front of his house to charge their mobile phones. He couldn’t get rid of them because he didn’t charge them while the merchants in the trading center would. As the lineups grew, news spread about the boy who built a windmill. Journalists and bloggers heard the story, and in 2007, William Kamkwamba found himself on the stage at a TED conference.

William, Today

Afterwards, with the help of some sponsors, William built a second windmill that added bright lighting, and a deep water well to the family compound which meant irrigation for their crops and a market garden for his mother with spinach, carrots, tomatoes, and potatoes. He also made sure that every one of his neighbors had electricity as well.

Later Mrs Sikelo, the librarian, would still be musing, “You have built a windmill using the knowledge from this book?”

william kamkwamba at tedAfter his first TED Talk, with the help of some sponsors, at 19 William was able to go back to high school. Today he is studying at Dartmouth College in the U.S..

William is the subject of the documentary film William and the Windmill, which won the Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary Feature at the 2013 South By Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas.

In 2013 Time Magazine named William one of the “30 People Under 30 Changing The World.”

Life has changed for William, his neighbors and his family. They will never again suffer a famine as they did in 2002.

Why aren’t there more Williams and more windmills? I keep coming back to this one thought: despite the fact that 60 percent of Malawians speak Chichewa, William had to learn English before he could access the knowledge in the books in the Wimbe Primary School library and build something spectacular.

I wonder what potential would be unleashed if we all had access to the same knowledge, regardless of where we lived or what language we spoke. There is a solution, I believe.

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