Harper Perennial, 2010 (Reprint)
Genre: Non-Fiction, Memoir
My Rating: 4.5 stars
William Kamkwamba was born and raised in Malawi, Africa. Although living in the 21st century, his village of Wimbe lacks electricity and running water (a luxury that only 2% of Malawians enjoy). In his village, water comes from a well. Food comes from the crops you grow. William’s family was lucky enough to have a small tobacco farm, which provided a small income to support the family and allow William’s sister Annie to attend secondary school.
Although technology is present in the form of radios, trucks and mobile phones, Malawi is a country still ruled by magic–with witch doctors practicing their art, wizards casting spells, and people practicing rituals to protect them from bad luck. This is a country where everyone goes to bed at 7:00 p.m. when it gets dark. (The only alternative would be to use a kerosene lantern, which are often smelly, smoky and expensive.)
Yet William’s childhood is filled with friends–including Gilbert (the local chief’s son) and Geoffrey (his cousin)–and adventures. Together, the friends hunt for birds, play soccer, listen to their favorite songs on the radio, and attend primary school (which was as primitive as you might expect–lacking ample desks, books, walls for the latrine, and a water-tight roof). Life also includes working in the fields and tending the crops.
Life is fairly good, but William’s hopes and dreams are pinned on gaining admittance to a secondary school that will give him the education he so badly desires. In Malawi, an education is one of few ways to escape village life and the hardships of eking a living from the land. William had already tapped into his inner scientist by taking radios apart to learn how they worked. This exploration jump-starts William’s interest in all things mechanical. From radios, he turned his attention to bicycle dynamos–small lights powered by the pedaling of the bicycle. Fascinated with understanding how the dynamo works (and interested in expanding on the principles it uses), William begins educating himself as he waits for secondary school to begin.
Then disaster strikes. Late rains are followed by flooding and drought–stunting the growth of crops over all the country. What follows is a famine that grips the country–leading to widespread starvation and panic. With a corrupt and inept government, the Malawi people face a disaster of epic proportions. With nothing to eat, all thoughts of school are forgotten as William and his family simply struggle to survive. As William and his countrymen struggle to survive until the next round of crops can grow (imagine starving to death while being surrounded by green crops that are just not yet ready to eat!), William vows to find a way to ensure that his family will never go hungry again–realizing that an irrigation system would ensure that his family would always have crops to rely on for food.
Of course, such a system would require electricity. Even amidst all the hardship of the famine, William never loses sight of the idea of the bicycle dynamo and his belief that the concepts of the dynamo can help solve his problems. When the famine ends and life gets back to “normal,” William is heartbroken to realize that his family cannot afford the fees to send him to secondary school. So William decides to educate himself.
Visiting the village library (where he becomes a fixture), William struggles through books on physics and science. (Just imagine independently reading a book on physics in a language that isn’t your native language and figuring out these difficult concepts for yourself. I’m a native English speaker who graduated from college and I still have only the flimsiest grasp of physics!) The turning point comes when William finds an American textbook called Using Energy, which changes his life. The book produces a Eureka!moment for William–he realizes that a windmill could harness the power of the ever-present Malawi wind to power the bicycle dynamo, thereby providing him with electricity, which can give him lights and, most importantly, a pump for water and irrigation. As William says:
Standing there looking at this book, I decided I would build my own windmill. I’ve never built anything like it before, but I knew if windmills existed on the cover of that book, it meant another person had built them. After looking at it that way, I felt confident I could build one too.
William then embarks on his quest to build a windmill–entirely from scratch–using pieces he salvages from the village scrapyard. At first, his quest is mocked–with his fellow villagers calling him a madman. But his father believes in him, and Gilbert and Geoffrey come through at key moments to keep his dream alive. After hours of scavenging and building and experimenting, William builds his windmill and climbs to the top to see if it can truly light up the bicycle dynamo. Surrounded by curious villagers, family and friends, William ascends the tower and–holding his breath–the bulb flickers to life in his hand.
I’m sure you’re wondering why I chose to tell you so much about William’s story (although I don’t even start to cover what happens after that first flicker of light) rather than giving you a brief synopsis. The reason is that I want you to appreciate William’s story and what he was up against so that–even if you choose not to read this book–you’ll get a sense of how inspiring and amazing William’s story is.
It is a story that needs to be told, and I want to spread the word about William and what he accomplished in any way I can. Many books hype “an inspirational true story,” and I usually skip these types of books as they often tend to have a religious theme. (Not that there is anything wrong with them; it just isn’t what I want to read about.) But The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind has a message that speaks to everyone and needs to be heard. As the book jacket so eloquently puts it: “The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind is a remarkable true story about human inventiveness and its power to overcome crippling adversity. It will inspire anyone who doubts the power of one individual’s ability to change his community and better the lives of those around him.”
I feel strongly that this book should be read by every high school student, and I sincerely wish all adults would read the book too. It is a stirring reminder–in these cynical and pessimistic times–of the power of the human spirit and how imagination, inventiveness and persistence can make a tremendous difference. For anyone who questions an individual’s ability to bring about positive change, this book will silence those doubts.
I don’t think I’ve come across a story quite as inspiring as William’s for quite some time. It filled me with admiration, and I plan to save this book for my son to read when he gets older. More than anyone else, I think young people can take to heart the message of this book, internalize it, and use it to chart their own positive path in the world.
The book itself is simply written and tells William’s story without frills. Although filled with humor and an endearing humbleness, the book doesn’t tell so much as show (including a number of black and white photographs and drawings that make the story come alive). After all, William’s story doesn’t need to embellished. His account of the famine is wrenching, but he never comes across as self-pitying. His account of his own remarkable achievements are matter-of-fact, and his subsequent successes are recounted with wide-eyed wonder.
This was an amazing story simply told, and I think the book captures William’s personality and ingenuity. After reading the book, I think most readers will be inspired to find a way to support William and his work. Luckily, you can by learning about and contributing to the Moving Windmills Project, which was inspired by William’s story. My Final RecommendationI encourage everyone to read this book. This inspiring true story of one boy’s belief in himself and his ability to pursue his dreams despite obstacles that would have stopped most of us in our tracks makes for an uplifting and gripping read that will restore your faith in the human spirit, imagination and power of invention.
The Whys and Wheres
I actually received two copies of this book. (I guess the universe really felt I needed to read it!) I received my first copy from a giveaway sponsored by Valerie over at Life Is A Patchwork Quilt, who listed it as one of her favorite books. Although I had every intention of reading it after receiving my copy from Valerie, it kept getting pushed aside on the shelves. So when Trish at TLC Book Tours offered me the opportunity to participate in the Book Tour for this book, I jumped at the chance. I then received a review copy from Harper Perennial as part of a TLC Book Tours. Fortunately, this allows me to give one copy away in my August giveaway and one copy to keep and pass along to family members to read. If you would like to visit some of the other stops on the TLC Book Tour,here are the links and the dates of each stop.
- Tuesday, July 27th: Books By Their Cover
- Wednesday, July 28th: Chick With Books
- Thursday, July 29th: Book Club Classics!
- Tuesday, August 3rd: The Zen Leaf
- Thursday, August 5th: Eclectic/Eccentric
- Tuesday, August 10th: Heart 2 Heart
- Wednesday, August 11th: Nonsuch Book
- Thursday, August 12th: Worducopia
- Monday, August 16th: Rundpinne
- Tuesday, August 17th: Sophisticated Dorkiness
- Wednesday, August 18th: Tales of a Capricious Reader
- Thursday, August 19th: I’m Booking It
- Tuesday, August 24th: Age 30+…A Lifetime of Books
- Wednesday, August 25th: Bookfoolery and Babble
- Thursday, August 26th: The Road to Here
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