Monday, November 18, 2019

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

Source of book: Borrowed from my son (who is a serious tinkerer too).

This was this month’s selection for our “Literary Lush” book club. One of the things I enjoy about this club is that I end up reading interesting books that I never would have discovered on my own. The club has usually read along with the “One Book, One Bakersfield” project sponsored by our local library. Some years, this has been a bit boring - one theory is that books have been selected partly on the basis of which authors were willing to come out and speak at an event. This one, however, was not. I was unable to attend the event, but did read the book and discuss it at our club meeting. 

I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from this book. I was familiar with the rough outline of the story, but was worried it might fall into either the “isn’t Africa backward” genre or the “see, everyone can succeed if they just try” category. But this book didn’t go either of those directions. Rather, despite the use of a ghost writer (more or less), it really did tell a fascinating story - William Kamkwamba’s story. 

Kamkwamba came to fame after he built his own windmill generator – at age 14 - to bring electricity to his home. But that isn’t all that there is to the story. In fact, in some ways, it is just an incident in the broader arc. 

William starts the story with his earliest memories. He grew up in Malawi, the son of subsistence farmers. His parents had an interesting courtship story, which he tells in the first chapter. From there, they worked hard to survive and build a decent life. 

Disaster struck, however, in the form of a terrible drought and famine. This section of the book was horrifying and difficult to read. The descriptions of hunger and hopelessness, of people dying in the road, of children who starved to death and never returned to school, are the things of nightmares. It is almost surprising that William even survived it. 

There are certainly some things to understand about how the drought played out. First, it is a reminder of how fragile human existence can be. We forget that in modern first-world nations. We have the infrastructure to transport food, and the wealth to purchase it. For those who have neither, starvation is a real risk. Second, there is a contrast between the first drought (the bad one) and the second - and the difference was in the response of the government. In the first, a corrupt system denied the famine existed, sold food to other countries so the leaders could pocket the proceeds, and brutally punished those who complained. A change in leadership made a difference for the second drought. By proactively directing resources to the most vulnerable areas, a famine was avoided. It seems weird to have to say this, but humans are at their strongest when they look out for the weakest. A society or nation is only as strong as its most vulnerable point. Malawi lost tremendous ground during the first drought because of its failure to ensure that the victims of the famine survived. It literally took years - a decade even - for the communities affected to bounce back. And the promising lives lost were gone forever. 

The toll wasn’t just from deaths. The financial cost was enormous, as families sold everything they had, including seed corn, to avoid starvation. The resources of the whole community were devastated and took years to rebuild. 

Likewise, the cost to the children was incalculable. In the case of William, his chance at an education was lost for years. Honestly, had he not been “discovered” by someone with a global platform, he likely would never have finished his education. This was true for thousands of others who were not fortunate enough to get publicity. They just quietly were relegated to subsistence farming, with no chance at social mobility. 

This was another distressing reality brought to light in the book. Without the public infrastructure to provide a free public education, most children do not finish school. The entire country then suffers from a lack of educated leaders and innovators, and cannot advance. The cycle then feeds on itself. 

I was struck by some similarities to the effects of educational segregation here in the United States, as described in White Rage by Carol Anderson. (I read that concurrently with this book.) The United States lags other first world countries in education, in significant part because of its obsession with maintaining racial hierarchies and refusal to fund and support minority students. (Take a look at, say, Alabama, if you want to see true third-world education and poverty.) The US continues to shoot itself in the foot, too. As higher education costs have soared, many (most?) of my parents’ generation - who got free or very affordable college themselves - keep blaming my kids’ generation for student debt. The refusal to actually invest in education (and cull the exploding numbers of administrators) will increasingly lead to an under-educated population. And the US will fall further and further behind. (Also, keeping educated immigrants out - as in Stephen Miller’s push to severely cut back H-2B visas - will further cause educated and innovative immigrants to look elsewhere.) Hatred and xenophobia and racism hurt everyone. 

If I were to give my immediate impressions of the book, I would start with the compelling story of William’s life. Even if he had never come to unexpected fame, his story would be a good one. He is clearly an intelligent young man, with an ability to find solutions on a shoestring. How many more Williams are there in Malawi? In Africa? In America? How many of them will never have the chance to get an education, to survive childhood, or have access to the resources to make a better world? It is something worth considering. William Kawkwamba is above average, but not a once-in-a-lifetime genius. He’s someone who should, in all justice, have the chance to use his talents. And there are millions like him. We as a society and as a human race should be focused on ensuring that all of us have that chance. 

I rather enjoyed reading this one, and also the discussion we had regarding it. It is my understanding that there is a kids version too, which leaves out some of the more disturbing stuff, like William’s mom nearly dying of malaria and the dead bodies in the road. We have the full version, and I think it is fine for most kids, honestly. Kids don’t need to be protected from death and illness - they sure wouldn’t have been able to avoid it in an earlier era. I could see it making a good starting point for discussing a bunch of issues - from the importance of investment in the public sector, to the mechanics of making a generator. 


  1. Have you watched the TED Talk where William talked about his windmill?

    There is (was?) also a movie on Netflix about this as well.

    Both worth watching!

  2. I haven't read this book, but I first heard of William when I watched his TED Talk. If you haven't seen his TED Talks (there are several), I recommend them.

    There is also a Netflix movie about him based on the book.