Dreams Grow Despite Droughts

I found the book The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer, illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon, from a display in the children’s department at the library.  It’s where I find a lot of the books I love.  I was enticed by the illustrations.  Zunon captures so much emotion in the faces she paints.  The collages of textured paper of her backgrounds give life and motion to the illustrations, they seem rise from the page.

This is the true story of how William Kamkwamba, a fourteen year old boy built a windmill to give his family electricity.  What’s more remarkable is that he did this on his own after having to drop out of school because of a drought and famine.  

He lives in Malawi, Africa, and his family was down to one meal consisting of one handful of food each day.

William loved school, so he was despondent about having to drop out, and then he remembered his village’s small library.  He checked out and pored over old science textbooks, painstakingly teaching himself English.

He fell in love with the idea of a windmill and decided to build one. 

Ever resourceful, he began to gather materials from the junkyard.  His two friends helped him, but almost everyone in the village thought he’d gone a little crazy.  Even his mother was alarmed.

But William persisted

 and brought forth the electric wind. 

This is a hopeful story and is a window into life in Malawi.  We know so little about Africa here in America.  This is a great introduction to one small village.  It’s also a great book for showing how even the fiercest obstacles to your dreams can be overcome. 

I have to add that the pictures I’ve posted here don’t do the illustrations justice.  Zunon’s work pops from the pages and adds magic to the story.  You can see more of her work at her website by clicking here.  I’m looking forward to seeing her illustrations for Miranda Paul’s One Plastic Bag.

I was so impressed with the story that I wanted to find out how much of it was truly true, so I

got the other book called  The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Currents of Electricity and Hopeby the same authors.  It’s Kamkwamba’s memoir of how he survived the drought and built the windmill.

Kamkwamba gives insight on what it’s like to believe in magic, how it feels to have a village chief, what it means to have a good father, and how hard it is to survive a famine.  

If you ever wondered about the individual lives of people you see on the news stampeding for a bagful of rice or flour, this book takes you there.  The humanity and desperation becomes more real.  The famine forced people to sell things they’d worked for all their lives–from household possessions to the roofs off their houses.

Kamkwamba’s parents kept track of how much they ate and how much they needed for literal barebones survival.  His mother sold small bits of  food that very poor people could afford and with that money she bought enough flour for the family to survive one more day. 

There is corruption and brutality, but through it all, most of the villagers remain civil and try to work at whatever jobs they can.  I was amazed to read of the family’s first corn harvest after the famine, because even though people raided the cornfields, there was enough left to harvest.
Each morning we walked the road that bordered our field and found it littered with green leaves and dowe (ripe corn) gnawed to the pith, as if a battalion had feasted all night.

“Horrible stories of revenge soon began circulating in the trading center….

“Later that night, I asked my father how we should punish those who stole from us.

“’Should we kill them?’ I asked. ‘Perhaps call the police?’

“My father shook his head.

“’We’re not killing anyone,’ he said.  ‘Even if I call the police, those men would only starve to death in jail.  Everybody has the same hunger, son.  We must learn to forgive.’”

William Kamkwamba and his parents and grandparents

The story is compelling and engaging.  It’s a classic tale of triumph over adversity, but with a modern twist.  A respected teacher became interested in Kamkwamba, a radio station did a broadcast about his windmill, a blogger wrote about it, and the next thing Kamkwamba knew, he was giving a TED talk.  

It was touching to read about his first airplane ride and his first impressions of city life.  He’d never used a computer or had the luxury of an indoor bathroom.   The publicity brought in contributions and he was able to build a windmill to power a water pump.  His family could irrigate crops and would not starve again.  He also found himself the happy spokesperson for education in Africa.

His friend Erik Hersman, one of the first people to write about Kamkwamba on his blog Afrigadget, said, “Africans bend what little they have to their will every day.  Using creativity, they overcome Africa’s challenges.  Where the world sees trash, Africa recycles.  Where the world sees junk, Africa sees rebirth.”

This book is a great antidote to what we hear in the “news” about Africa.  It’s warm, human and full of hope.  It’s honest about the problems that plague the continent but very clear that Africans are working hard to solve them, and finding renewable resources in the process.  Kamkwamba graduated from Dartmouth College and is engaged in projects to help Malawi prosper. 

Kamkwamba is a gifted storyteller, though he had help with these books from writer Brian Mealer. In the acknowledgements, Mealer says, “First of all thanks to William for never giving up and for allowing me to help him share his uplifting story with the world.”  Mealer is the author of All Things Must Fight to Live: Stories of War and Deliverance in Congo.  He’s a former Associated Press Staff correspondent and his work has appeared in Harper’s and Esquire.  Mealer thanks his wife, too, in the acknowledgements, who, he says “shared my joy of finally coming home from Africa with some good news to tell.”
I suspect there may be lots of good news in Africa, and in the world, waiting to be told.  I hope that we readers seek it out.

You can keep up with William Kamkwamba on his website.  He has links to his original TED talk and the one he did a year later.  He writes that there will be a feature length documentary about his project soon.  

Keep you light shining.  Thanks for reading my blog.  Your comments are appreciated.

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