The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Young Readers Edition

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Young Readers Edition

3.5 2
by William Kamkwamba, Bryan Mealer, Elizabeth Zunon

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When fourteen-year-old William Kamkwamba's Malawi village was hit by a drought, everyone's crops began to fail. Without enough money for food, let alone school, William spent his days in the library . . . and figured out how to bring electricity to his village. Persevering against the odds, William built a functioning windmill out of junkyard scraps, and thus

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When fourteen-year-old William Kamkwamba's Malawi village was hit by a drought, everyone's crops began to fail. Without enough money for food, let alone school, William spent his days in the library . . . and figured out how to bring electricity to his village. Persevering against the odds, William built a functioning windmill out of junkyard scraps, and thus became the local hero who harnessed the wind.

Lyrically told and gloriously illustrated, this story will inspire many as it shows how - even in the worst of times - a great idea and a lot of hard work can still rock the world.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Zunon’s (My Hands Sing the Blues) oil paint and cut-paper collages amplify the entwined themes of science and magic in this adaptation of the authors’ 2009 adult book. Kamkwamba was born in Malawi in 1987, and when he was 14, drought was ravaging his country. Forced to leave school to save money, Kamkwamba studied science books at the library, learning about windmills—and their potential. “He closed his eyes and saw a windmill outside his home, pulling electricity from the breeze and bringing light to the dark valley.” Gathering materials from the junkyard, he assembles a windmill that creates “electric wind” and even lights a light bulb. Tradition and “tales of magic” combine with the promise of technology in this inspiring story of curiosity and ingenuity. Zunon’s artwork combines naturalistic and more whimsical elements; the African sun beats down on Zunon’s villagers, ribbony “ghost dancers” encircle Kamkwamba’s bed while he sleeps, and blue cut-paper swirls sweep toward the windmill. While the narrative simplifies Kamkwamba’s creative process, an afterword provides additional detail for readers who share his mechanical inclinations. Ages 6–8. Agent: ICM. Illustrator’s agent: Painted Words. (Jan.)
Wall Street Journal
"This book will appeal to adults eager to impart an uplifting Third World human-interest story, but it is also sure to resonate with children who will simply love the curiosity, resilience and resourcefulness of this doughty African youth."
The Boston Globe
"A powerful, gorgeously illustrated children's picture book."
"This picture book in accessible free verse will draw kids who love to construct their own engineering gadgets."
From the Publisher
"[An] inspiring story of curiosity and ingenuity." — Publishers Weekly

"This book will appeal to adults eager to impart an uplifting Third World human-interest story, but it is also sure to resonate with children who will simply love the curiosity, resilience and resourcefulness of this doughty African youth." — Wall Street Journal

"A powerful, gorgeously illustrated children's picture book." — The Boston Globe

"This is a dynamic portrait of a young person whose connection to the land, concern for his community, and drive to solve problems offer an inspiring model." — School Library Journal

"Zunon illustrates handsomely, with contrasting cut-paper-collage details and broad, sere landscapes painted in visibly textured oils." — Kirkus

"This picture book in accessible free verse will draw kids who love to construct their own engineering gadgets." — Booklist

Cooperative Children’s Book Center’s 2013 Best-of-the-year list. — CCBC

Children's Literature - Ken Marantz and Sylvia Marantz
In his village in Malawi, young William is a dreamer. When drought brings hunger and no money for school, William goes to the library, where he learns that windmills can produce electricity and pump water. Determined to build one, he collects discarded pieces of junk here and there, while people call him crazy. Amazingly, the machine he puts together produces enough electricity to light a bulb. With other, more sophisticated windmills, the people find they can pump enough water to irrigate their dry fields and stave off hunger. Cut paper and oil paints depict the Malawi landscape and population. The cut papers in particular define the clothes, the growing maize, and the machine parts. The curves of the papers used to represent the winds from the large fan blades are particularly attractive. Large pages and imaginative page design effectively visualize this simple, uplifting tale. A note adds factual background information. Reviewer: Ken Marantz and Sylvia Marantz
School Library Journal
K-Gr 3—Based on the best seller of the same title, this picture-book biography chronicles Kamkwamba's teen years in a Malawian village. As he tills the soil, his mind teems with a mix of mechanical questions and the magical stories relayed by his elders. When a drought destroys the crops, his education fund dries up as well. Kamkwamba seeks refuge in the American-built library, where, dictionary in hand, he decodes the function of a windmill that has captured his interest. Despite the murmurings of incredulous villagers, the young man assembles junkyard scraps to build "electric wind." The third-person descriptions and dialogue are flavored with African phrases. Zunon's compositions, rendered in cut paper and oils, create a variety of moods. Colorfully garbed ghost dancers populate the boy's dreams, while crumpled tan rice paper, arranged to depict a high horizon line just beneath a blazing sun, forms a parched landscape, overwhelming in scale. Swirls of patterned blue and green paper portray the wind that propels the blades of his creation. While an extensive author's note explains that it took several years to achieve the ability to irrigate, the lack of clear visuals to show how wind becomes electricity (and ultimately pumps water) may frustrate young children. That caveat aside, this is a dynamic portrait of a young person whose connection to the land, concern for his community, and drive to solve problems offer an inspiring model. It would pair well with one of the recent titles about Wangari Maathai.—Wendy Lukehart, Washington DC Public Library
Kirkus Reviews
The true story of a Malawian teenager who leveraged need and library research into a windmill constructed from found materials. Forced by drought and famine to drop out of school, William dreams of "building things and taking them apart." Inspired by science books in an American-built library near his village, his dreams turn to creating "electric wind." Despite the doubts of others he begins--assembling discarded bicycle parts and other junk into a rickety tower, triumphantly powering an electric light and going on to dream of windmill-driven wells to water the land. Kamkwamba tells this version (another, for adult readers, was published with the same title in 2009) of his tale of inspiration meeting perspiration in terse, stately third person: "He closed his eyes and saw a windmill outside his home, pulling electricity from the breeze and bringing light to the dark valley." Zunon illustrates it handsomely, with contrasting cut-paper-collage details arranged on brown figures, and broad, sere landscapes painted in visibly textured oils. A plainspoken but inspiring tale of homespun ingenuity. (afterword) (Picture book/biography. 7-9)
VOYA, February 2015 (Vol. 37, No. 6) - Morgan Brickey
By Malawian standards, Kamkwamba is a normal teen—he loves to hunt with his dog and help his father with the annual maize harvest. He lives in a tiny village with his family, and while life is not luxurious, he never goes without. That all changes when a famine ravages Malawi. William’s family and the majority of his countrymen begin to starve. He survives but is unable to afford school and begins to visit the local library. In the library, he finds a book about electrical systems and creating power. He realizes that he can create power by making a windmill using objects in the village dump. As he begins construction on the windmill, his fellow villagers start to doubt his sanity, but William perseveres. His windmill works and begins to power larger and larger objects. Soon his family’s home has full electricity and William sets up a small business charging cell phones. William goes far with his creation; from his little village in Malawi, he travels to a TED conference in Johannesburg and then to America. The story of Kamkwamba was originally published as adult nonfiction in 2010. This is a version of that title tailored specifically for a young adult audience. This version abbreviates background information about the African interior country of Malawi and truncates long passages regarding the science behind electricity. While this book is easier to read, a young reader edition of the original book was not necessary; the 2010 edition of the book is appropriate for teen readers. The tale remains inspirational and should be read by teens, but librarians can continue to recommend the original. Reviewer: Morgan Brickey; Ages 12 to 18.

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Product Details

Penguin Young Readers Group
Publication date:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
9.30(w) x 11.10(h) x 0.60(d)
910L (what's this?)
Age Range:
6 - 9 Years

Read an Excerpt


The machine was ready. After so many months of preparation, the work was finally complete: The motor and blades were bolted and secured, the chain was taut and heavy with grease, and the tower stood steady on its legs. The muscles in my back and arms had grown as hard as green fruit from all the pulling and lifting. And although I’d barely slept the night before, I’d never felt so awake. My invention was complete. It appeared exactly as I’d seen it in my dreams.

News of my work had spread far and wide, and now people began to arrive. The traders in the market had watched it rise from a distance and they’d closed up their shops, while the truck drivers left their vehicles on the road. They’d crossed the valley toward my home, and now they gathered under the machine, looking up in wonder. I recognized their faces. These same men had teased me from the beginning, and still they whispered, even laughed.

Let them, I thought. It was time.

I pulled myself onto the tower’s first rung and began to climb. The soft wood groaned under my weight as I reached the top, where I stood level with my creation. Its steel bones were welded and bent, and its plastic arms were blackened from fire.

I admired its other pieces: the bottle-cap washers, rusted tractor parts, and the old bicycle frame. Each one told its own story of discovery. Each piece had been lost and then found in a time of fear and hunger and pain. Together now, we were all being reborn.

In one hand I clutched a small reed that held a tiny lightbulb. I now connected it to a pair of wires that dangled from the machine, then prepared for the final step. Down below, the crowd cackled like hens.

“Quiet, everyone,” someone said. “Let’s see how crazy this boy really is.”

Just then a strong gust of wind whistled through the rungs and pushed me into the tower. Reaching over, I unlocked the machine’s spinning wheel and watched it begin to turn. Slowly at first, then faster and faster, until the whole tower rocked back and forth. My knees turned to jelly, but I held on.

I pleaded in silence: Don’t let me down.

Then I gripped the reed and wires and waited for the miracle of electricity. Finally, it came, a tiny flicker in my palm, and then a magnificent glow. The crowd gasped, and the children pushed for a better look.

“It’s true!” someone said.

“Yes,” said another. “The boy has done it. He has made electric wind!”


My name is William Kamkwamba, and to understand the story I’m about to tell, you must first understand the country that raised me. Malawi is a tiny nation in southeastern Africa. On a map, it appears like a flatworm burrowing its way through Zambia, Mozambique, and Tanzania, looking for a little room. Malawi is often called “The Warm Heart of Africa,” which says nothing about its location, but everything about the people who call it home. The Kamkwambas hail from the center of the country, from a tiny village called Masitala, located on the outskirts of the town of Wimbe.

You might be wondering what an African village looks like. Well, ours consists of about ten houses, each one made of mud bricks and painted white. For most of my life, our roofs were made from long grasses that we picked near the swamps, or dambos in our Chichewa language. The grasses kept us cool in the hot months, but during the cold nights of winter, the frost crept into our bones and we slept under an extra pile of blankets.

Every house in Masitala belongs to my large extended family of aunts and uncles and cousins. In our house, there was me, my mother and father, and my six sisters, along with some goats and guinea fowl, and a few chickens.

When people hear I’m the only boy among six girls, they often say, “Eh, bambo”—which is like saying “Hey, man”—“so sorry for you!” And it’s true. The downside to having only sisters is that I often got bullied in school since I had no older brothers to protect me. And my sisters were always messing with my things—especially my tools and inventions—giving me no privacy.

Whenever I asked my parents, “Why do we have so many girls in the first place?” I always got the same answer: “Because the baby store was all out of boys.” But as you’ll see in this story, my sisters are actually pretty great. And when you live on a farm, you need all of the help you can get.

My family grew maize, which is another word for white corn. In our language, we lovingly referred to it as chimanga. And growing chimanga required all hands. Every planting season, my sisters and I would wake up before dawn to hoe the weeds, dig our careful rows, then push the seeds gently into the soft soil. When it came time to harvest, we were busy again.

Most families in Malawi are farmers. We live our entire lives out in the countryside, far away from cities, where we can tend our fields and raise our animals. Where we live, there are no computers or video games, very few televisions, and for most of my life, we didn’t have electricity—just oil lamps that spewed smoke and coated our lungs with soot.

Farmers here have always been poor, and not many can afford an education. Seeing a doctor is also difficult, since most of us don’t own cars. From the time we’re born, we’re given a life with very few options. Because of this poverty and lack of knowledge, Malawians found help wherever we could.

Many of us turned to magic—which is how my story begins.

You see, before I discovered the miracles of science, I believed that magic ruled the world. Not magician magic, like pulling rabbits out of hats or sawing ladies in half, the sort of thing you see on television. It was an invisible kind of magic, one that surrounded us like the air we breathe.

In Malawi, magic came in many forms—the most common being the witch doctor whom we called sing’anga. The wizards were mysterious people. Some appeared in public, usually in the market on Sundays, sitting on blankets spread with bones, spices, and powders that claimed to cure everything from dandruff to cancer. Poor people walked many miles to visit these men, since they didn’t have money for real doctors. This led to problems, especially if a person was truly sick.

Take diarrhea, for example. Diarrhea is a common ailment in the countryside that comes from drinking dirty water, and if left untreated, it can lead to dehydration. Every year, too many children die from something that’s easily cured by a regimen of fluids and simple antibiotics. But without money or faith in modern medicine, the villager takes his chances with the sing’anga’s crude diagnosis:

“Oh, I know what’s wrong,” the wizard says. “You have a snail.”

“A snail?”

“I’m almost positive. We must remove it at once!”

The wizard goes into his bag of roots, powders, and bones, and pulls out a lightbulb.

“Lift up your shirt,” he says.

Without plugging the bulb into anything, he moves it slowly across the person’s stomach, as if to illuminate something only he can detect.

“There it is! Can you see the snail moving?”

“Oh yes, I think I can see it. Yes, there it is!”

The wizard returns to his bag for some magic potion, which he splashes across the belly.

“All better?” he asks.

“Yes, I think the snail is gone. I don’t feel it moving.”

“Good. That will be three thousand kwacha.”

For a little extra money, the sing’anga can cast curses on your enemies—to deliver floods to their fields, hyenas to their chicken house, or terror and tragedy into their homes. This is what happened to me when I was six years old—or at least I thought it did.

I was playing in front of my house when a group of boys walked past carrying a giant sack. They worked for a nearby farmer tending his cows. That morning, as they were moving the herd from one pasture to another, they discovered the sack lying on the road. Looking inside, they saw that it was filled with bubble gum. Can you imagine such a treasure? I can’t begin to tell you how much I loved bubble gum!

Now, as they walked past, one of them spotted me playing in a puddle.

“Should we give some to this boy?” he asked.

I didn’t move or say a word. A bit of mud dripped from my hair.

Eh, why not,” his friend said. “He looks kind of pathetic.”

The boy reached into his bag and produced a rainbow of gumballs—one of every color—and dropped them into my hands. By the time the boys disappeared, I’d shoved every one into my mouth. The sweet juices dribbled down my chin and stained my shirt.

Little did I know, but the bubble gum belonged to a local trader, who stopped by our house the next day. He told my father how the bag had dropped from his bicycle as he was leaving the market. By the time he circled back to look for it, the bag was gone. The people in the next village told him about the herd of boys. Now he wanted revenge.

“I’ve gone to see the sing’anga,” he told my father. “And whoever ate that bubble gum will be sorry.”

Suddenly I was terrified. I’d heard what the sing’anga could do to a person. In addition to delivering death and disease, the wizards controlled armies of witches who could kidnap me during the night and shrink me into a worm! I’d even heard about them turning children into stones, leaving them to suffer an eternity in silence.

Already, I could feel the sing’anga watching me, plotting his evil. With my heart racing, I ran into the forest behind my house to try to escape, but it was no use. I felt the strange warmth of his magic eye shining through the trees. He had me. At any moment, I would emerge from the forest as a beetle, or a trembling mouse to be eaten by the hawks. Knowing my time was short, I hurried home to where my father was plucking a pile of maize and tumbled into his lap.

“It was me!” I shouted, tears running down my cheeks. “I ate the stolen gum. I don’t want to die, Papa. Please don’t let them take me.”

My father looked at me for a second and shook his head. “It was you, eh?” he said, then kind of smiled.

Didn’t he realize I was in trouble?

“Well,” he said, and his knees popped as he rose from his chair. My father was a big man. “Don’t worry, William. I’ll find the trader and explain. I’m sure we can work something out.”

That afternoon, my father walked five miles to the trader’s house and told him what had happened. And even though I’d only eaten a few of the gumballs, he paid the man for the entire bag, which was nearly all the money we possessed. That evening after supper, my life having been saved, I asked my father if he truly believed I was in trouble. He became very serious.

“Oh yes, we were just in time,” he said, then started laughing so hard his chair began to squeak. “William, who knows what was in store for you?

My fear of wizards and magic only grew worse whenever Grandpa told stories. If you saw my grandpa, you might think he was a kind of wizard himself. He was so old that he couldn’t remember the year he’d been born. So cracked and wrinkled that his hands and feet looked as if they were chiseled from stone. And his clothes! Grandpa insisted on wearing the same tattered coat and trousers every day. Whenever he emerged from the forest, puffing on his hand-rolled cigar, you’d think one of the trees had grown legs and started walking.

It was Grandpa who told me the greatest story about magic I’d ever heard. Long ago, before the giant maize and tobacco farms came along and cleared away our great forests, when a person could lose track of the sun inside the trees, the land was rich with antelope, zebra, and wildebeest—also lions, hippos, and leopards. Grandpa was a famous hunter, so good with his bow and arrow that it became his duty to protect his village and provide its meat.

One day while Grandpa was out hunting, he came across a man who’d been killed by a poisonous pit viper. He alerted the nearest village, and soon after, they returned with their witch doctor.

The sing’anga took one look at the dead man, then reached into his bag and tossed some medicines into the trees. Seconds later, the earth began to move as hundreds of vipers slithered out of the shadows and gathered around the corpse, hypnotized by the spell. The wizard then stood on the dead man’s chest and drank a cup of potion, which seemed to flow through his feet and into the lifeless body. Then, to Grandpa’s amazement, the dead man’s fingers began to move and he sat up. Together, he and the wizard inspected the fangs of each snake, looking for the one that had bitten him.

“Believe it,” Grandpa told me. “I saw this with my own eyes.”

I certainly believed it, along with every other story about witches and things unexplained. Whenever I went down the dark trails alone, my imagination spun wild.

What scared me most were the Gule Wamkulu, the magical dancers that lived in the murky shadows of the forest. They sometimes appeared in the daylight, performing in tribal ceremonies when we Chewa boys became men. They were not real people, we were told, but spirits of our dead ancestors sent to roam the earth. Their appearance was ghastly: Each had the face and skin of animals and some walked on stilts to appear taller. Once, I saw one scurry backward up a pole like a spider. And when they danced, it was as if one thousand men were inside their bodies, each moving in the opposite direction.

When the Gule Wamkulu weren’t performing, they traveled the forests and dambos looking for young boys to take back to the graveyards. What happened to you there, I never wanted to know. Whenever I saw one, even at a ceremony, I dropped everything and ran. Once, when I was very young, a magic dancer suddenly appeared in our courtyard. His head was wrapped in a flour sack, but underneath was the long nose of an elephant and a gaping hole for a mouth. My mother and father were in the fields, so my sisters and I ran for the bush, where we watched the dancer snatch our favorite chicken.

Unlike the Gule Wamkulu or sing’anga in the market, most witches and wizards never revealed their identity. In the places where they practiced their magic, mystery abounded like strange weather. In the nearby town of Ntchisi, men with bald heads, standing as tall as trees, walked the roads at night. Ghost trucks traveled back and forth, approaching fast with their headlights flashing and engines revving loud. Yet when the lights finally passed, there was no truck attached. In one of the neighboring villages, I heard about a man who’d been shrunk so small by a wizard that his wife kept him in a Coke bottle.

In addition to casting spells for curses, the sing’anga often battled one another. At night, they piled aboard their planes and prowled the skies, looking for children to kidnap as soldiers. The witch planes could be anything: a wooden bowl, a broom, a simple hat. And each was capable of traveling great distances—Malawi to New York, for example—in a single minute. Children were used as guinea pigs and sent to test the powers of rival wizards. Other nights, they’d visit camps of other witch children for games of mystical soccer, where the balls were human heads stolen from people as they slept.

Lying in bed at night, I would become so frightened thinking about these things that I’d cry out for my father.

“Papa!” I’d shout, summoning him to my door. “I can’t sleep. I’m afraid.”

My father had no place for magic in his life. To me, this made him seem even stronger. As a devout Presbyterian, he believed that God—not juju—was his best protection.

“Respect the wizards,” he would tell me, straightening my bedcovers. “But remember, William, with God on your side, they have no power against you.”

I trusted my father, but as I got older, I began to wonder how his explanation accounted for Chuck Norris, Terminator, and Rambo—who arrived at the Wimbe trading center one summer and caused all kinds of ruckus.

These men appeared in action movies that played in the local “video show”—which was really just a mud hut with benches, a television, and a VCR. At night, wonderful and mysterious things happened there, but since I wasn’t allowed out after dark, I never saw any of them. Instead, I had to hear stories the next morning from friends whose parents weren’t so strict.

“Last night I watched the best of all movies,” said my friend Peter. “Rambo jumped from the top of the mountain and was still firing his gun when he landed at the bottom. Everyone in front of him died and the entire mountain exploded.” He pretended to clutch a machine gun and fire in all directions.

“When will they start showing these films during the day?” I said. “I never get to see anything.”

The night The Terminator came to the video show, it was simply shocking. When Peter found me the next morning, he was still in a state.

“William, I just don’t understand this movie. This man was shot left, right, and center, and yet he still managed to live. I’m telling you, this Terminator must be the greatest wizard ever.”

It sounded fantastic. “Do you think the Americans have such magic?” I asked. “I don’t believe it.”

“This is what I saw,” Peter said. “I’m telling you it’s true.”

Although years would pass before I saw any of these films, they began influencing our games at home. One was a shooting game that I played with my cousin Geoffrey, using toy guns we made from a mpoloni bush. Finding a straight branch, we removed its core, like taking out the insides of a ballpoint pen, and used it as a ramrod to fire paper spitballs.

I was the captain of one team, and Geoffrey was the captain of the other. Along with our cousins, we formed squads and hunted one another between the houses in our village.

“You go left, and I’ll go right!” I instructed my soldiers one afternoon, then crawled on hands and knees through the red dirt. My poor mother was constantly scrubbing our clothes.

Right away I spotted Geoffrey’s trousers from around the corner of the house. Slowly, without spooking the chickens, I snuck up behind for an easy ambush.

Tonga!” I shouted, then jammed the ramrod, sending a shower of slime into his face.

He clutched his heart and fell to the ground. “Eh, mayo ine!” he gasped. “You got me.”

We were a solid gang of three: me, Geoffrey, and our friend Gilbert. Gilbert’s father was the chief of our whole Wimbe district, a man whom everyone called Chief Wimbe, even though his real name was Albert. When Geoffrey and I got bored with playing our games in the courtyard, we often headed to Gilbert’s.

“Let’s see how many chickens we can count,” I said, taking off down the path.

Going over to Gilbert’s house was always fun, since the chief’s work was never finished. As usual, we found a long line of truck drivers, farmers, traders, and market women, all waiting to voice their concerns. As we suspected, many of them carried a chicken under their arm—a gift for their chief.

“I counted ten,” Geoffrey whispered.

Yah,” I said. “Must be lots of problems today.”

The chief’s messenger and bodyguard, Mister Ngwata, stood at the door in his short pants and army boots, dressed as a police officer. It was Mister Ngwata’s job to protect the chief and filter all of his visitors. He was also the chicken collector.

“Come, come,” he said, and motioned us inside.

The chief sat on the sofa in the living room, dressed in a crisp shirt and nice trousers. Chiefs usually dressed like business people, never in feathers and animal skins. That’s in the movies. Another thing about Chief Wimbe was that he loved his cat, which was black and white but had no name. In Malawi, only dogs are given names, I don’t know why.

We found Gilbert in his room singing to the radio. Gilbert had the most beautiful voice and dreamed of becoming a famous singer. My voice sounded like one of the guinea fowl that screeched in our trees as it pooped, but I never let that stop me from singing.

“Gilbert, bo!”




That was our slang we used every time we saw one another. The word bo was short for bonjour, started by some chaps who were learning French in school and wanting to show off. (It means hello in that language.) I don’t know where sharp came from, but it was like saying, “Are you cool?” If we were feeling really good, we went a bit further:






“Let’s go to the trading center,” I said. “I bet there’s a mountain of treasure outside Ofesi.”

Ofesi Boozing Centre was the local bar in Wimbe. Its most popular drink was Shake Shake, a kind of beer made from corn that was sold in cardboard cartons. I wasn’t allowed inside Ofesi, but I’m guessing they didn’t have a garbage can, because every night the men tossed their empty cartons into the road. Gilbert, Geoffrey, and I liked to collect them. After we washed the cartons out with water, they made the perfect toy trucks.

Even though we lived in a small village in Africa, we did many of the same things kids do all over the world; we just used different materials. After talking with friends I met in America, I know this is true. Children everywhere have similar ways of playing with one another. And if you look at it this way, the world isn’t such a big place.

My friends and I loved trucks. It didn’t matter what kind. We loved the four-ton dump trucks that rumbled out of the big farms, kicking up dust. We loved the small pickups that took passengers from Wimbe to Kasungu, the nearest city. We loved them all, and each week, we’d compete to see who could build the best one. I know that in America, you can buy toy trucks already assembled in a store. In Malawi, we built ours from Shake Shake cartons and pieces of wire. To us, they were just as beautiful.

The axles were sections of wire we bought by picking mangoes. And for the wheels, we used bottle caps. Even better were the plastic caps from our mothers’ containers of cooking oil, which lasted much longer. And if we took our fathers’ razor blades, we could cut designs in the wheels to give each truck its own unique treading. That way, the tracks in the dirt told us if the truck belonged to Kamkwamba Toyota, for instance, or to Gilbert Company LTD.

We also built our own monster wagons, called chigiriri, that looked like American go-carts. We made the frames from thick tree branches, careful to find ones with giant knots or a fork that could be used as a seat. We then dug up large tuber roots called kaumbu that looked like mutant sweet potatoes, and shaped them into wheels. The axles were poles carved from a blue-gum tree.

After everything was assembled, we tied it all together with vines and hoped it didn’t fall apart. To make the car move, one person pulled with a long rope while the driver steered with his feet. With two cars side by side, we held derbies through the trading center.

“Let’s race!”

“For sure!”

“Last one to reach the barber shop will go blind!”


After the race, if we had some money in our pockets, we’d stop by Mister Banda’s shop for a cold bottle of Fanta and some Dandy Sweets. Mister Banda ran the Malawian version of a convenience store. On his shelves were packages of margarine and powdered milk, since most people didn’t have refrigerators at home to keep milk cold. He also sold aspirin, cough drops, lotions, bars of Lifebuoy soap, and on the very bottom shelf—Drew’s liver salts. I have no idea what liver salts were used for, but I’m certain they tasted rotten.

Whenever we entered, Mister Banda greeted us in our usual Malawian custom.

Muli bwanji,” he said. How are you?

Ndiri bwino. Kaya inu,” we answered. I’m fine. How ’bout you?

Ndiri bwino. Zikomo.” I’m fine. Thanks for asking.

After that, it was more of the same stuff:

“You boys keeping out of trouble?”


“Helping your mother and father at home?”


“Well, give them my greetings.”

“For sure.”

If we were really hungry, we combined our money and headed to the kanyenya stand, which was like a Malawian fast-food restaurant. It was really just a vat of boiling grease over a fire, but the fried goat meat and potatoes they served were heavenly.

The man tending the fire would grunt and say, “How much?” and we would answer “Five kwacha” or however much money we had. Five kwacha was less than one American dollar. The man then turned around and cut a few chunks of meat from a goat hanging from a rail. He dropped the meat into the boiling oil, followed by a handful of sliced potatoes. When everything floated to the top, he served it on a wooden counter, along with a pile of salt for dipping.

“Your mother is a good cook,” Gilbert told me once. “But not as good as this.”


My parents wanted me home before dark, but that was my favorite time of day anyway. It was when my father and Uncle John—Geoffrey’s father—finished their work in the maize fields and came home for supper. In the kitchen, my older sister Annie helped my mother prepare the food. Since we had no electricity, we still cooked everything over a fire. As Annie fed sticks into the flames, my mother stirred a pot of something delicious, letting the smells escape into the courtyard. Since I was a growing boy, it was hard for me to wait—even if I’d just eaten kanyenya in the trading center. With my stomach growling, I’d stand in the doorway begging.

“Just a few more minutes,” my mother would say. “By the time you wash your hands and face, it will be ready.”

Usually before supper, my cousins gathered in the courtyard and played soccer. Since we had no money for a real ball, we made our own using plastic shopping bags (that we called jumbos) wadded together and tied with rope. They didn’t have the same kind of bounce as a real soccer ball, but they still allowed us to play. All across Africa, children use the same jumbo balls.

If it was the rainy season, when the mangoes were ripe, we filled our pails from the neighbors’ trees and ate them for dessert. We bit into the juicy fruit and let the sweet syrup run down our fingers. If there wasn’t any moonlight for playing soccer, my father gathered all the children—cousins and all—in the living room, lit a kerosene lamp, and told us folktales.

“Be still and hush up,” he would say. “Now, have I told you the story about the leopard and the lion?”

“Tell it again, Papa!”

Sometimes my father forgot the stories and made up new ones as he went along, creating new characters and outrageous endings. And while we loved hearing these tales, the truth was that real life was sometimes difficult to distinguish from fantasy.

During the times of year when we planted and harvested our maize, two jobs that required lots of work, my father and Uncle John hired someone to help them. The most famous of these workers was Mister Phiri, a man of incredible power. In fact, whenever John and my father needed to clear a new field for planting, they didn’t even bother with tractors. Instead they sent Phiri, who yanked entire trees out of the ground as if they were weeds.

Everyone knew that Phiri’s secret was mangolomera, a kind of magic that delivered superhuman strength. Only the strongest wizards in Malawi could give you this potion, which came in a paste made from the bones of leopards and lions. To get the strength, the wizard cut your skin with special razor blades and rubbed the medicine into your blood. Once part of you, it never left. In fact, the magic only became stronger with time. Only the toughest men like Phiri could live with it inside them.

Phiri was so strong that no person or animal could beat him. Once while working in the fields, a deadly black mamba slithered over his foot and prepared to strike. But Phiri wasn’t afraid. He reached down and whipped the mamba with a blade of grass, leaving it paralyzed. Then he grabbed it by the head and tossed it all the way to Mozambique. People said he carried another mamba in his pocket for good luck, and that snake was too afraid to bite him.

By the time I was eight or nine years old, the thought of mangolomera seemed more and more attractive. You see, I was very small, and this led to constant trouble with bullies at school. The worst was named Limbikani, who was tall and muscular and had older brothers at home, which made him even more ruthless.

For some reason, Limbikani liked to pick on me and Gilbert. One day on our way to school, he waited for us on the road and jumped out from a grove of trees.

“Oh look, it’s William and his friend Little Chief Wimbe.”

“Leave us alone,” I shouted, but my voice cracked and gave me away.

Limbikani put his chest in Gilbert’s face.

“Where’s the big chief, monkey boy? Looks like he’s not here to protect you.”

He grabbed the backs of our shirts and dangled us in the air like two sad puppies. Then he stole our lunch. This happened again and again.

Not only did my size leave me defenseless against bullies, it also haunted me on the soccer field. I loved soccer more than anything, and each week I’d glue myself to Radio One for Malawi Super League action. My favorite team was the Nomads, whose star player was Bob “The Savior” Mpinganjira. The Savior got his nickname one Christmas Eve when he saved us from defeat against Big Bullets, and I can’t tell you how much I hated Big Bullets.

Despite my size, I longed to be a player as worthy as my heroes. Whenever all of us boys gathered for practice and drills, I was some kind of star—in my own mind.

Oh, how I would shine—zigzagging between defenders and firing the ball at missile speed.

Then one day I was displaying my various skills when Geoffrey and some others called out to me, “Hey, Kayira, give us the ball!”

Kayira, as in Peter Kayira.

Despite my love for the Nomads, my greatest hero in all the universe was indeed Peter Kayira—the best player for the Flames, our national team—and to me, a man even greater than the president. To be called Kayira was no small thing. I couldn’t stop smiling.

Soon everyone on the practice pitch was calling me Kayira. Even when I went to the trading center, I was greeted with shouts and praise:

“Hey, Kayira, I heard you play like a lion!”

But when it was time to pick the teams for competition, the captains somehow skipped over me. Thinking this was a serious mistake on their part, I pointed it out, only to be told to sit on the bench. How could this be?

Well, I thought, the captains are clever fellows. Perhaps they’re saving me from injury, keeping me as a secret weapon for the finals. This made me feel even more special. But while I sat on the sidelines, the other players ran past me and yelled, “Keep the bench warm, Kayira!” or “Kayira, we’ll be needing you soon . . . as the bolela.” A bolela was a ball fetcher.

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“William Kamkwamba’s achievements with wind energy should serve as a model of what one person, with an inspired idea, can do to tackle the crisis we face. His book tells a moving and exciting story.”—Al Gore, former Vice President and Nobel Laureate

“This is an amazing, inspiring and heartwarming story! It’s about harnessing the power not just of the wind, but of imagination and ingenuity. Those are the most important forces we have for saving our planet. William Kamkwamba is a hero for our age.”—Walter Isaacson, author of Einstein and Benjamin Franklin

“This book is inspirational. What William did took nothing more than initiative and a little learning, yet he changed his village and his life. There’s never been a better time to Do It Yourself, and I love how much we can learn from those who often have no other choice.”—Chris Anderson, editor in chief of Wired and author of Free and The Long Tail

Praise for the Young Readers Edition:

• "This is a fascinating, well-told account that will intrigue curious minds . . . An inspiring, incredible story."—School Library Journal, starred review

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