The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hopeby William Kamkwamba, Bryan Mealer
William Kamkwamba was born in Malawi, a country where magic ruled and modern science was mystery. It was also a land withered by drought and hunger. But William had read about windmills, and he dreamed of building one that would bring to his small village a set of luxuries that only 2 percent of Malawians could enjoy: electricity and running water. His
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William Kamkwamba was born in Malawi, a country where magic ruled and modern science was mystery. It was also a land withered by drought and hunger. But William had read about windmills, and he dreamed of building one that would bring to his small village a set of luxuries that only 2 percent of Malawians could enjoy: electricity and running water. His neighbors called him misala—crazy—but William refused to let go of his dreams. With a small pile of once-forgotten science textbooks; some scrap metal, tractor parts, and bicycle halves; and an armory of curiosity and determination, he embarked on a daring plan to forge an unlikely contraption and small miracle that would change the lives around him.
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.
American readers will have their imaginations challenged by 14-year-old Kamkwamba's description of life in Malawi, a famine-stricken, land-locked nation in southern Africa: math is taught in school with the aid of bottle tops ("three Coca-Cola plus ten Carlsberg equal thirteen"), people are slaughtered by enemy warriors "disguised... as green grass" and a ferocious black rhino; and everyday trading is "replaced by the business of survival" after famine hits the country. After starving for five months on his family's small farm, the corn harvest slowly brings Kamkwamba back to life. Witnessing his family's struggle, Kamkwamba's supercharged curiosity leads him to pursue the improbable dream of using "electric wind"(they have no word for windmills) to harness energy for the farm. Kamkwamba's efforts were of course derided; salvaging a motley collection of materials, from his father's broken bike to his mother's clothes line, he was often greeted to the tune of "Ah, look, the madman has come with his garbage." This exquisite tale strips life down to its barest essentials, and once there finds reason for hopes and dreams, and is especially resonant for Americans given the economy and increasingly heated debates over health care and energy policy.
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The Boy Who Harnessed the WindCreating Currents of Electricity and Hope
By William Kamkamba, Bryan Mealer
William Morrow PaperbacksCopyright © 2010 William Kamkamba, Bryan Mealer
All right reserved.
Chapter OneBefore I discovered the miracles of science, magic
ruled the world.
Magic and its many mysteries were a presence that
hovered about constantly, giving me my earliest memory as a
boythe time my father saved me from certain death and
became the hero he is today.
I was six years old, playing in the road, when a group of herd
boys approached, singing and dancing. This was in Masitala village
near the city of Kasungu, where my family lived on a farm. The
herd boys worked for a nearby farmer who kept many cows. They
explained how they'd been tending their herd that morning and
discovered a giant sack in the road. When they opened it up, they found
it filled with bubble gum. Can you imagine such a treasure? I can't
tell you how much I loved bubble gum.
"Should we give some to this boy?" one asked.
I didn't move or breathe. There were dead leaves in my hair.
"Eh, why not?" said another. "Just look at him."
One of the boys reached into the bag and pulled out a handful
of gumballs, one for every color, and dropped them into my hands. I
stuffed them all in my mouth. As the boys left, I felt the sweet juice
roll down my chin and soak my shirt.
The following day, I was playing under the mango tree when a
trader on a bicycle stopped to chat with my father. He said that while
on his way to the market the previous morning, he'd dropped one of
his bags. By the time he'd realized what had happened and circled
back, someone had taken it. The bag was filled with bubble gum, he
said. Some fellow traders had told him about the herd boys passing
out gum in the villages, and this made him very angry. For two days
he'd been riding his bicycle throughout the district looking for the
boys. He then issued a chilling threat.
"I've gone to see the sing'anga, and whoever ate that gum will soon
The sing'anga was the witch doctor.
I'd swallowed the gum long before. Now the sweet, lingering
memory of it soured into poison on my tongue. I began to sweat; my heart
was beating fast. Without anyone seeing, I ran into the blue gum grove
behind my house, leaned against a tree, and tried to make myself clean.
I spit and hocked, shoved my finger into my throat, anything to rid my
body of the curse. I came up dry. A bit of saliva colored the leaves at my
feet, so I covered them with dirt.
But then, as if a dark cloud had passed over the sun, I felt the
great eye of the wizard watching me through the trees. I'd eaten his
juju and now his darkness owned me. That night, the witches would
come for me in my bed. They'd take me aboard their planes and force
me to fight, leaving me for dead along the magic battlefields. And as
my soul drifted alone and forsaken above the clouds, my body would
be cold by morning. A fear of death swept over me like a fever.
I began crying so hard I couldn't move my legs. The tears
ran hot down my face, and as they did, the smell of poison filled
my nose. It was everywhere inside me. I fl ed the forest as fast as
possible , trying to get away from the giant magic eye. I ran all the
way home to where my father sat against the house, plucking a pile
of maize. I wanted to throw my body under his, so he could protect
me from the devil.
"It was me," I said, the tears drowning my words. "I ate the
stolen gum. I don't want to die, Papa. Don't let them take me!"
My father looked at me for a second, then shook his head.
"It was you, eh?" he said, then kind of smiled.
Didn't he realize I was done for?
"Well," he said, and rose from the chair. His knees popped whenever
he stood. My father was a big man. "Don't worry. I'll find this
trader and explain. I'm sure we can work out something."
That afternoon, my
father walked eight kilometers
to a place called
Masaka where the trader
lived. He told the man
what had happened,
about the herd boys coming
by and giving me the
stolen gum. Then without
question, my father
paid the man for his
entire bag, which amounted
to a full week's pay.
That evening after
supper, my life having
been saved, I asked my
father about the curse,
and if he'd truly
believed I was finished. He
straightened his face and
became very serious.
"Oh yes, we were just in time," he said, then started laughing in
that way that made me so happy, his big chest heaving and causing
the wooden chair to squeal. "William, who knows what was in store
Me as a young boy standing with my father in Masitala
village. To me, he was the biggest and strongest man in
My father was strong and feared no magic, but he knew all the
stories. On nights when there was no moon, we'd light a lamp and
gather in our living room. My sisters and I would sit at my father's
feet, and he'd explain the ways of the world, how magic had been
with us from the beginning. In a land of poor farmers, there were too
many troubles for God and man alone. To compensate for this
imbalance, he said, magic existed as a third and powerful force. Magic
wasn't something you could see, like a tree, or a woman carrying
water. Instead, it was a force invisible and strong like the wind, or a
spider's web spun across the trail. Magic existed in story, and one of
our favorites was of Chief Mwase and the Battle of Kasungu.
In the early nineteenth century, and even today, the Chewa
people were the rulers of the central plains. We'd fl ed there many
generations before from the highlands of southern Congo during a
time of great war and sickness, and settled where the soil was reddish
black and fertile as the days were long.
During this time, just northwest of our village, a ferocious black
rhino began wreaking terror across the land. He was bigger than a
three-ton lorry, with horns the length of my father's arms and points as
sharp as daggers. Back then, the villagers and animals shared the same
watering hole, and the rhino would submerge himself in the shallows
and wait. Those visiting the spring were mostly women and young girls
like my mother and sisters. As they dipped their pails into the water,
the rhino would attack, stabbing and stomping them with its mighty
hooves, until there was nothing left but bloody rags. Over a period of
months, the feared black rhino had killed over a hundred people.
One afternoon, a young girl from the royal Chewa family was
stomped to death at the spring. When the chief heard about this, he
became very angry and decided to act. He gathered his elders and
warriors to make a plan.
"This thing is a real menace," the chief said. "How can we get
rid of it?"
There were many ideas, but none seemed to impress the chief.
Finally one of his assistants stood up.
"I know this man in Lilongwe," he said. "He's not a chief, but he
owns one of the azungu's guns, and he's very good at magic. I'm certain
his magical calculations are strong enough to defeat this black rhino."
This man was Mwase Chiphaudzu, whose magic was so superior
he was renowned across the kingdom. Mwase was a magic hunter.
His very name meant "killer grass" because he was able to disguise himself as
a cluster of reeds in the fields, allowing him to ambush his prey. The chief's
people traveled a hundred kilometers to Lilongwe and
summoned Mwase, who agreed to assist his brothers in Kasungu .
One morning, Mwase arrived at the watering hole well before the
sun. He stood in the tall grass near the shores and sprinkled magic
water over his body and rifle. Both of them vanished, becoming only
music in the breeze. Minutes later, the black rhino thundered over
the hill and made his way toward the spring. As he plunged his heavy
body into the shallows, Mwase crept behind him and put a bullet
into his skull. The rhino crumpled dead.
The celebrations began immediately. For three days, villagers
from across the district feasted on the meat of the terrible beast that
had taken so many lives. During the height of the festivities, the chief
took Mwase to the top of the highest hill and looked down where the
Chewa ruled. This hill was Mwala wa Nyenje, meaning "The Rock
of the Edible Flies," named after the cliffs at its summit and the fat
delicious flies that lived in its trees.
Standing atop the Rock of the Edible Flies, the chief pointed
down to a giant swath of green earth and turned to Mwase.
"Because you killed that horrible and most feared beast, I have a
prize for you," he said. "I hereby grant you power over this side of the
mountain and all that's visible from its peak. Go get your people and
make this your home. This is now your rule."
So Mwase returned to Lilongwe and got his family, and before
long, he'd established a thriving empire. His farmland produced
abundant maize and vegetables that fed the entire region. His people
were strong, and his warriors were powerful and feared.
But around this time, a great chaos erupted in the Zulu kingdom
of South Africa. The army of the Zulu king, Shaka, began a
bloody campaign to conquer the land surrounding his kingdom, and
this path of terror and destruction caused millions to flee. One such
group was the Ngoni.
The Ngoni people marched north for many months and finally
stopped in Chewa territory, where the soil was moist and fertile.
But because they were constantly on the move, hunger visited them
often. When this happened, they would travel farther north and ask
for help from Chief Mwase, who always assisted them with maize
and goats. One day, after accepting another of Mwase's handouts,
the Ngoni chiefs sat down and said, "How can we always have this
kind of food?"
Someone replied, "Eliminate the Chewa."
The Ngoni were led by Chief Nawambe, whose plan was to
capture the Rock of the Edible Flies and all the land visible from
its peak. However, the Ngoni did not know how magical Chief
One morning, the Ngoni came up the mountain dressed in
animal skins, holding massive shields in one hand and spears
in the other. But of course, Chief Mwase's warriors had spotted
them from miles away. By the time the Ngoni reached the hill,
the Chewa warriors had disguised themselves as green grass and
slayed the intruders with knives and spears. The last man to die
was Chief Nawambe. For this reason, the mountain was changed
from the Rock of the Edible Flies to Nguru ya Nawambe, which
means simply "The Deadly Defeat of Nawambe." This same hill
now casts a long shadow over the city of Kasungu, just near my
These stories had been passed down from generation to
generation, with my father having learned them from my grandpa. My
father's father was so old he couldn't remember when he was born. His
skin was so dry and wrinkled, his feet looked like they were chiseled from
stone. His overcoat and trousers seemed older than he was, the way they
were patched and hung on his body like the bark of an ancient tree. He rolled
fat cigars from maize husks and field tobacco, and his eyes were red from
kachaso, a maize liquor so strong it left weaker men blind.
Grandpa visited us once or twice a month. Whenever he emerged
from the edge of the trees in his long coat and hat, a trail of smoke rising
from his lips, it was as if the forest itself had taken legs and walked.
The stories Grandpa told were from a different time and place.
When he was youngbefore the government maize and tobacco
estates arrived and cleared most of our treesthe forests were so
dense a traveler could lose his sense of time and direction in them.
Here the invisible world hovered closer to the ground, mixing with
the darkness in the groves. The forest was home to many wild beasts,
such as antelope, elephant, and wildebeest, as well as hyenas, lions,
and leopards, adding even more to the danger.
Excerpted from The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkamba, Bryan Mealer Copyright © 2010 by William Kamkamba, Bryan Mealer. Excerpted by permission of William Morrow Paperbacks. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Meet the Author
William Kamkwamba was a 2007 TED Global Fellow and a finalist for the Tech Museum Award. He is a student at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire.
Bryan Mealer is the author of All Things Must Fight to Live: Stories of War and Deliverance in Congo. He is a former Associated Press staff correspondent and his work has appeared in several magazines, including Harper's and Esquire. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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Even if you don't usually read nonfiction or memoirs, I still think that you'll love this book for the writing, the story, and because of William Kamkwamba. William tells the story of his childhood in the small agricultural village in Malawi. From the the general bias towards magic and superstition over science, the crippling impact of the drought, and the isolation and difficulties that William, his village, and Malawi, the obstacles that they face are huge and clear. Reading the book, I first thought that my experiences in the "Third World" helped me understand the William's life from the superstition to the the impact of the drought and the opportunistic price gouging during the famine. But that interpretation fails to give enough credit to William and his book. The power of his story and the clarity of the writing surely guarantee that The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind will speak to people regardless of their experience and their home country. I cannot recommend this book more! I look forward to more news from William Kamkwamba and to meeting him during his book tour stop in NYC. Publisher: William Morrow (September 29, 2009), 288 pages. Courtesy of the Harper Collins and the author.
Part a snapshot of Malawian rural life & struggles, part an autobiography tracking the evolution of Mr. Kamkwamba's experiments and self-instruction through his teens, the book is a concise and well fleshed out story of overcoming adversity. The emotional and physical environment is very well conveyed from start to finish, making it easy to imagine being right there with him, every step of the way.
I found this book very enlightening, inspiring, and eye opening. I suggest everyone who has a heart to read ths story. I ended the book with the feeling of pride for William. It is always a good thing when anyone will do whatever it takes to achieve their desires and goals. Its easy for us as Amerians to take advantage of all that we have available to us and not appreciate them. We are spoiled, and we don't take the time to realize how needy others are around the world. This book has made me more appreciative what I have and has inspired me to help others in need. I enjoyed the book so much that I bought a second copy for my 15 year-old son.
This is a powerful story. It is inspiring, enlightening. One boy gave the power of a windmill to his family. But by sharing his story he has sent hope and courage into the world.
As a reader who is more interested in fiction than non-fiction, I was not certain what I would get when I began reading this book. But by the end, I realized I got not only satisfaction, but also a new look on dealing with adversity. The autobiogrpahy tells of how William Kamkwamba, an impoverished boy living in Malawi, Africa, is able to rise out of total poverty to create a windmill that brings electricity to his home town and inspiration to people around the world. The story is an absolute delight to read. It is full of anecdotes about Malawi that are both funny (the stories of witchcraft) and horrifying (the stories of eating sawdust to survive). In addition, the book illustrates Malawi as a whole by weaving the history and condition of the nation into the life of young William. The vivid realities of hunger and HIV are described without the stereotypical portrayal of Africa as the victim continent. However, some readers may be disturbed by the details, so be careful who you give this book too. Readers also may dislike the fact that the book is lacking in descriptions of landscape and setting. I found myself conjuring up the landscapes that I had seen in children's books about lions and elephants. Despite this, the relatively simple language of the book provides clarity to the reader, and results in the autobiography reading more like a novel. As a whole, the book was nearly impossible to put down, and I would recommend it to anyone who likes such novels as Three Cups of Tea, or who wants to both learn and be inspired.
This book was totally absorbing. A tale from Africa without War! The description of life before & during the drought was compelling. I finished this & then set about making teachers at my kids school aware of it. Both the science teacher & world geo were enthralled, would b a g8 bk 4 middle schoolers to read & an excellent one for the whole family to read & discuss. Can't rave about it enough. Look him & the book up on utube - both the Jon Stewart interview & the mini documentary about him are equally inspiring/entertaining.
I had to read this book once William’s story was blogged on every site on the Web. I was fascinated that he brought such improvement to his family with just a single electric bulb. This book really highlights so much of what I take for granted in my comfortable suburban life.
This was a very interesting read. I didn't know what to think about it at the beginning. I know I have said this before, but I don't usually read book like this. I read to escape reality, not read about it. This was so interesting though. While reading this book, I thought to myself over and over "how spoiled am I?". This young man was poor, and wanted to go to school so bad, but had to give it up because his family couldn't pay for it. Again, I thought, "man how lucky! I HATED school". Well, after reading this book, I am ever so grateful for the opportunity that I had to attend school. William was an amazing young man. He worked hard, and did things he had to to make things better for himself and his family. He studied books in the library that he was interested in, and learned things on his own. Sometimes by trial and error, but isn't that how we all learn things? This reference may offend some, but this young man made me think a lot about some people in the scriptures. He built something, and all the while people made fun of him. It wasn't until they saw the result of his windmill, that people started to respect the work William was doing. It made me think of Noah, and Nephi. Why is it so hard for people to accept that others may have more inspiration than others? Anyway, just a thought. I love the story in this book about how his parents met. It is so sweet and so innocent. Then when William meets his wife it's kind of the same thing. It's sweet, and super cute. This young man was such a great example of not giving up. He wanted to learn, he wanted to build, and he wanted to make things better for his people. To me it doesn't seem like all that long ago that this book took place. So, I was just a little blown away, at how different Williams life was compared to mine. While his country was in a famine I was comfortably sitting in my house with plenty of food to eat, and water to drink. It really made me reflect on all the blessing I have. While William, was building his windmill and having so many problems with it, all I could think is "man, this young man should see Palm Springs, CA". Well, in the book he gets invited to Palm Springs, to see the windmill farms. While he was struggling to build ONE, we in America had thousands. It was so eye opening to me on so many levels. This young man went through a lot of hardships in his life, yet he always worked hard, and never gave up. I love William. I think he is the kind of man, that I would like my son to become. He is intelligent, kind, inventive, loving, and a hard worker. All great qualities. I really enjoy reading, and learning from this book. It was enlightening, and so what I needed to read right now. I will have to remember this book, and many others I have read, when I start to feel "down" about what I have and what I don't have. After reading this book, I have absolutely no room to complain. I am blessed beyond measure. I am so thankful for all the good things that happen to William because of his hard work. I am sure even today he is an amazing man. He is the perfect example of "you can do anything, if you put your mind to it"! Source: I purchased this book from Amazon for myself. I am not affiliated with Amazon, and was not compensated for this review. These are my own PERSONAL thoughts on the book.
William Kamkwamba is a clever man that was not swayed by what the neighbors thought. He created a windmill from virtual garbage and changed the opinions of his neighbors. He was no longer crazy but had harnessed magic. This is a wonderful memoir of innovation.
This is one of the most inspirational stories I have ever read. You will not be disappointed!
This remarkable journey of William Kamkwamba will leave readers very inspired and enlightened. I personally loved this book, from when he told us about his family, his dog Khamba, and the hardships he faced, to his great triumphs such as his windmill and the TED confrence. This book is well-written and I'd gladly recommend it to anyone
I enjoyed reading this book and gave a copy to two of my grandchildren. It shows how one young man did amazing things because of his drive for an education and the drive to help his family and village. It, also, shows how lucky we are to live in a free country with so many opportunities, and how others suffer with not even enough food to eat.
It astounds me to have lived such an easy life while this amazing young man was helping his family stay alive. An easy read that will probably be of even greater interest to men. I reommend it to all my friends.
Puts you there. What an incredible journey. Very inspiring story that will keep you reading all night. Passing it onto the kids.
Living in the United States of America provides each and every one of us the opportunity for a quality, free education. While this is something that we may often take for granted, people in countries all around the world to have this opportunity that many of us squander. William Kamkwamba, the son of a farmer, lives in the dirt-poor African country of Malawi. Despite seeming destined for a fate working in the fields, he has an intense and burning passion to learn. When a drought strikes and food and wealth runs low, he is forced to drop out of school, unable to pay the necessary fees. However, with the rest of Malawi deep in hunger and famine, Kamkwamba is able to harness his passion for learning through the local library, poring over books of physics and science. He dreams of a day where he can generate the energy to pump water from the well to the crops. After months of scavenging and learning, he compiles his knowledge into a single quest: the building of a windmill that will save his village from drought. William's motto of "I try, and I made it," is a resonating idea throughout the book and a concept we should all adopt(254). Written with the Kamkwamba's unique tone, THE BOY WHO HARNESSED THE WIND: CREATING CURRENTS OF ELECTRICITY AND HOPE is a fascinating and truthful story of a young adult's curiosity and ingenuity. Readers will be inspired by Kamkwamba's triumph in the face of incredible adversity. Kamkwamba's story made me realize how truly incredible it is to have a chance at a quality education, and how following your dreams can get you to amazing places.
I consider this to be one of the best books I've ever read.