Learning In the Wind

When William Kamkwamba was fourteen years old, famine came to his corner of Malawi. The famine dragged his family into poverty so desperate that his parents were no longer able to pay his fees for school and he was forced to drop out. This was devastating for William, who has said that when his friend Gilbert would pass his house each day on the way home from school, William would ask him about the day’s lessons.

“I was so envious,” William added. “Sometimes I would ask him for a copy of the notes from what they’d learned.” William added that this gave him the idea to go to the library and check out the books for himself. There he found a book called “Using Energy,” and in it found information about how to build a windmill. William decided to build his own windmill and succeeded by cobbling together parts from a junkyard and other parts that he either found or made, ultimately providing electric light and then a water pump for his family, which enabled them to irrigate their fields and lift themselves out of extreme poverty.

Word of William’s ingenuity got around, and at the age of nineteen he was given the opportunity (along with 100 other promising young people from across Africa) to attend the TEDGlobal conference in Arusha, Tanzania.

At the conference, William met Tom Reilly, the TED Fellows Director, who said that nothing at the entire conference impacted him more than meeting William and hearing him speak.

After what Reilly called “the obligatory safari vacation,” he traveled to William’s village to see William’s amazing windmill invention for himself, and marveled at the other clever inventions William had made out of what seemed like nothing. This was clearly an extremely gifted kid.

“This kid has a chance,” Reilly thought to himself, “to go, to escape from poverty and to make a difference. If he were only exposed to the right educational resources and social support…he could be someone who made an impact on the world.”*

Reilly decided he had a moral obligation to help this young man, and committed to William that for the next seven years, he would be his cheerleader and counsellor and support.

Reilly found a writer to work with William to co-write a memoir, which they called, “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind.” He then got William into an elite pan-African school called the African Leadership Academy (ALA). Although William’s limited formal schooling meant that the school (which was populated mostly with students who’d attended top private schools their whole lives) was very difficult for him, he persevered and ultimately graduated, despite having to take time off for a whirlwind world tour when his book became a bestseller.

All of this opened up the world for William.

He was recruited by Dartmouth, from which he graduated in 2014, and now works to help disadvantaged communities around the world.

William Kamkwamba’s story is so compelling that it drew the attention of Chiwetel Ejiofor. Ejiofor, who has garnered widespread acclaim for his acting for over the past two decades, chose Kamkwamba’s story to make his feature film directing debut. Ejiofor wrote the script, directed, and co-starred in “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind,” an excellent film which is now available to watch on Netflix.

It’s a great story: a brilliant boy facing great adversity rises to the challenge, overcoming adversity to improve not only his own life and the lives of his family, but the wellbeing of communities around the world.

We are certainly happy along with William that his abilities created educational opportunities for him. By all accounts, William is an exceptional young man with a service-oriented mindset handed down to him by his parents—people of strong Christian faith who placed a high value on education and doing what they could to enable their son. As an organization focused on education, it would be easy for us to draw a lesson about education from William’s story. After all, education gave him his start. Education helped William along his way.

But perhaps the key lesson to be drawn from William Kamkwamba’s story is not “the high value of education.” Rather, it is that while William may be an outlier, he is in no way alone.

For outsiders exposed to Malawi and other African countries only through the spectacle-seeking Western news cycle, it can seem a place only of conflict, disease, and violence (an impression one could likewise draw from news coverage of our own countries).

But William Kamkwamba’s story reminds us that Africa is populated with people, many of them transcendently gifted. These people won’t all have a Cinderella story perfect for mass consumption, and they can’t all be plucked from their cities, towns, and villages and flown across the world for a more Western definition of what “success” and “impact” can look like. They can, however, be enabled and empowered. They can be given the tools to continue to reshape their countries, becoming a part of the revitalization happening all over Africa today as local people contribute to the needs of their communities and—by working as hard and as well as William—overcome the negative colonial legacy that has been their inheritance.

And yes (we can’t help ourselves), one of the best and most important tools for this enabling is education and, in particular, learning to read and write in one’s own language. So join us. Perhaps by making a donation to SIL LEAD, or perhaps by getting involved elsewhere.

William Kamkwamba has a wonderful story. What other stories are out there, just waiting for someone (perhaps even you?) to share them?

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*A minor quibble: we would argue that William already had made a difference—a huge difference in the lives of his family and for his local community.