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.
About the Author
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.
Read an Excerpt
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.
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What People are Saying About This
“Beyond opening the door to a nascent genre of African Innovation literature, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind makes excuses about why Africans can’t change their fates untenable. This potent, powerful, and uplifting message is the heart of William Kamkwamba’s courageous story.”
“William Kamkwamba is an alchemist who turned misfortune into opportunity, opportunity beyond his own. The book is about learning by inventing. William’s genius was to be ingenious.”
“Wonderful! I challenge you to read this story of one young man changing his corner of the world with nothing but intelligence and perseverance and not come away more hopeful about the prospects for a brighter, greener future.”
“A moving, touching, important story. One more reminder of how small the world is and how powerful the human spirit can be.”
“A rare and inspiring story of hope in rural Africa....William represents a new generation of Africans, using ingenuity and invention to overcome life’s challenges. Where so many tilt at windmills, William builds them!”
“ In this book, the spirit, resilience and resourcefulness that are Africa’s greatest strengths shine through.... The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind is a remarkable story about a remarkable young man and his inquisitive and inventive mind.”
“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.”
“I first met William on stage at TED.... His story, told in just a couple of minutes, was both astonishing and exhilarating. This book proves what those few minutes hinted at: a remarkable individual capable of inspiring many to take their future into their own hands.”
“William will challenge everything you have thought about Africa, about young people, and about the power of one person to transform a community. This beautifully written book will open your heart and mind. I was moved by William and his story and believe you all will. Essential, powerful and compelling.”
“A powerful read. This book takes you on a journey to discover pure innovation and the unfolding story of a natural genius. A true vision of struggle and tenacity to make a bold idea become a reality. This should be required reading for anyone who dares to dream.”
“An inspiring tale of an African Cheetahthe new generation of young Africans who won’t sit and wait for corrupt and incompetent governments—or vampire states— to come and do things for them. Here is one who harnessed the wind to generate electricity for his village—on his own.”
“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.”
“One of the best books I’ve ever read.”
“The book abounds with themes that resonate deeply: the idea that with hard work and persistence comes triumph; that optimism is not a mental state but a type of action, that from grief and loss can come success.”
“I was moved first to laughter, and then to tears by William’s explanation of how he turned some PVC pipe, a broken bicycle and some long wooden poles into a machine capable of generating sufficient current to power lights and a radio in his parents’ house.
“This book.... is a testament to the power of a dream and the freedom that comes from accomplishing a sustainable way of life. Read this book, act on its message and pass it on.”