I met William Kamkwamba, the author of The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, when I first moved to Los Angeles two years ago. His book, a story about how he taught himself physics as a young boy and was then able to build a windmill and supply electricity to his village in Malawi, had just been published. He was everywhere: The Today Show, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Ellen DeGeneres. And on that night, he was at a book party being thrown in his honor at a home in Beverly Hills.
I was there for work, and it was the kind of very posh party with chandeliers flowering from the ceilings, golden champagne in crystal glasses and a grandiose house with so many rooms that it simply should not be called a home. I met William only briefly, and he was the only person at the party who seemed more uncomfortable than me, smiling stiffly when I told him I’d found Malawi beautiful when I was there. I imagine he must have felt very far from home on that evening.
I left the party after only an hour, a yellow paperback copy of his book tucked in my purse. It was later placed on a bookshelf in my bedroom, under a copy of 2001: A Space Odyssey and a couple of other books I’d been meaning to read. But recently I’ve been thinking a lot about Africa, and its troubling image problem.
There is so much to Africa, but Westerners only ever have a one-dimensional, negative picture of it. Although I have seen a few books by African authors in my local Starbucks or as part of Oprah’s book club, the list is still very short. Much of what we read, view or hear is from a Western perspective. I am tired of hearing only of civil war, corruption and disease. On a continent of 53 countries, there are many more stories to hear, and one of my 2012 resolutions is to seek out those African voices, those African stories. I decided to start with William Kamkwamba and The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind.
This autobiographical tale is about how a curious and bright young Malawian boy who is forced to drop out of school because his family cannot afford to pay his school fees (roughly $12) focused on building his own windmill to create electricity. When he was not assisting on the family farm, he spent all his time reading weathered old science textbooks in the village library, learning “how things work” so that he could later scour the village for junk to use for windmill parts.
He wants to build the windmill so “…then I could have lights. No more kerosene lamps that burned our eyes and sent us gasping for breath. With a windmill, I could stay awake at night reading instead of going to bed at seven with the rest of Malawi.” With only 2% of Malawi enjoying the luxury of electricity, the windmill would make life easier and more productive for his family and his village. And more than that, Kamkwamba longs to be more than a poor Malawian farmer, more than a man who toils to grow just enough maize to feed his family and possibly buy a new pair of shoes each year.
Kamkwamba’s journey is remarkable, showing how perseverance and hard-work can pay off in even the most trying of circumstances. It is the back story, though, that is really powerful: his childhood on a Malawian farm, the strong relationships with his family, his friends and all of the village’s characters (the dog, the chief, the traders). He describes the famine that cascaded over the country in 2002, leaving Malawi quiet because “…everywhere the anguish was silent because no one had the energy to cry.” The prose is simple, but the descriptions of “the starving people” and Kamkwamba’s own three mouthfuls of food each evening made my own stomach curl painfully, though I’ve never known that kind of hunger.
Kamkwamba’s story is one of anguish and inspiration, much like Africa itself. There is the rooster red earth and the thick stars in the sky, the beautiful and overwhelming ties of family, the dizzying triumph of realizing a dream—all amidst the corruption, cholera and poverty about which we so often hear.
I encourage anyone to read this moving story, and just as I did, learn more about Africa from an African perspective.