The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer.
William Morrow, HarperCollins, New York, 2009. My P.S. edition 2010.
New York Times Bestseller.
Lexile: 960L .
AR Level: 6.4 (worth 15.0 points) .
NOTE: There are three books with this title. This review is of the adult edition. There is also a picture book and a young reader’s edition chapter book.
William Kamkwamba had access to a small library and a scrapyard full of parts, and a dream – to ensure that his family would never starve again. Against all odds and despite ridicule, he built a windmill and brought electricity to his family’s rural Malawian home.
This book surprised me. I knew the basic premise – boy builds windmill with scrap parts to bring change to his village. But I didn’t realize that this was actually the story of Kamkwamba’s life, which starts long before windmills were even a gleam in his eye.
The first chapter is about magic, which is quite surprising if you start reading a book thinking that it’s going to be about bringing electricity to a village. However, this portion of the book is important as it challenges the traditional Malawian method of explaining the world through magic. Rarely does the text explicitly challenge these beliefs, but Kamkwamba is clear throughout the subtext of his writing that he has little patience for those who think he is a wizard or seek supernatural explanations for basic scientific concepts.
Indeed, Kamkwamba cares deeply about education and is happy to explain the science behind his various projects to anyone. He’s worked with the local schools to teach about his windmills and other scientific concepts.
But before the science came the famine. Kamkwamba gives background about his family and his life up to the famine, including some of their previous setbacks that led them to be subsistence-level farmers.
“Maize is just another word for white corn, and by the end of this story, you won’t believe how much you know about corn.” page 38
He was right! There are aspects of this book that will definitely be a culture shock to Western readers, such as the Malawian attitude toward dogs (not pets, but not food either, which surprised me given the desperation brought on by the famine).
A large portion of the book is devoted to the famine and the aftermath of it. Kamkwamba describes in vivid detail his (comparatively privileged yet still horrific) experience of the famine, the suffering he witnessed, and the long-term effects it had on his life, his family, and his country.
One of the major changes is that there is no way he can attend school after the famine – his family can’t afford the fees. He describes the methods he uses to attain learning and it seems like these two changes – the famine showing him how close to starvation his family really is and also preventing him from continuing his education – were the catalyst for greatness.
Prior to this point, he was interested in electronics and science but was a haphazard student. Seeing his hopes and dreams disappear moved him to visit a small open-to-the-public library. The outdated American textbooks there are his way of keeping up an education in the hope he can one day afford to return to school.
As time progresses and his hopes of returning to school dwindle, he finds an ancient book called Using Energy (which, amazingly enough, was written by African-American professor Dr. Mary Atwater) and becomes determined to change his life in the only way it seems he can… by building a windmill to provide water and electricity to his home.
These two items are potentially life-changing. Running water means his family could bring in two crops per year without worrying about drought or starvation. Electricity means music and news from the radio, studying late into the night, and even completing work at a time when the sun is not causing heat exhaustion.
Pursuing this dream propels him to even greater things, as you can guess by the fact that he’s now published a book! It was surprisingly fascinating to read about all the little details of how his life went before the windmill, and the very basic but important ways in which the windmill changed things. I’d specifically recommend the P.S. edition with the follow-up essay which gives further updates on his life (although I do wish we knew more about where his older sister is now – I was curious how her story turned out). In general, this is an intriguing look at life in rural Malawi and African approaches to STEM innovation. Recommended.