Monday, January 11, 2010

Review: The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind

Author:William Kamkwamba with Bryan Mealer
Format: ARC paperback, 347 pgs
Subject: growing up, famine, science experiments, building windmills
Setting: Malawi Africa 2000-2008
Genre:  memoir
Source: Review copy from Harper Collins

At the age of 12, William Kamkwamba is literally dying of starvation. His country, Malawi, a small land-locked slab of sub-saharan Africa is suffering raging famine exacerbated by totally corrupt and inept rulers.  The Kamkwamba family (parents and 4 children) has been reduced to eating one small meal a day consisting of a small handfull of a grain concoction and sometimes the addition of a pumpkin leaf.  William, the only son, has been forced to drop out of secondary school because his farming family cannot afford the tuition. The erratic rain patterns (too much, then too little) of the past year have meant that their tobacco and maize crops failed.  No food, no money to buy food, no crops to sell to make money, malaria and cholera adding to the mix, and no work for William or his father.  Life could have been very dismal.

But William is a curious and basically happy child.  He returns to the local grade school where the village library is housed.  There he spends his days reading everything he can get his hands on so he won't be too behind if the chance to return to school ever happens.  He finds books that came in a shipment from America, among them Integrated Science and Explaining Physics.  His world expanded, and he immediately realized that if they could have electricity, his father could run a pump that would allow them to manage their water supply and have not only one, but two harvests a year.  His family would not have to spend money on kerosene to have light at night, nor would they have to go to bed when it got dark at 7pm if the kerosene were running low.

Inspired by his reading and by seeing bicycle lights glowing from the energy generated from the dynamos run by pedals, he set about to build a windmill to generate that electricty for his family.  It never occured to him that this was something many would consider impossible.  The story of how he scavenged, begged, borrowed or found enough work to pay for parts and tools, and then built a working windmill is only the beginning of this inspiring story. Once the windmill became reality, and his house was 'wired', his family became the local cell phone charging outlet, and visitors began arriving to see this strange contraption made of a bicycle wheel, a bamboo tower, melted PVC pipes for blades, and hundreds of feet of bare metal wires.  My favorite part was the 'insulated' light switch made from a discarded flip-flop.

The story of his adventures out of his village after he was 'discovered' by scientists and philanthropists is even more endearing.  His first airplane ride, sleeping on a real bed in a hotel, and most of all discovering computers and the internet are joyfully related. Now in his 20's, and a university student, William is determined to bring electricity and education to his entire country.  I can't wait to see him succeed.

This is a book that can be enjoyed by readers from about age 10 through adulthood.  It is an uplifting tale that affirms our belief in human nature.  It would make great extra credit reading for a basic high school physics class.

Many thanks to Harper Collins for the review copy.

Challenge: ARC


  1. Wasn't sure I'd enjoy this book but I did. Great review Tina.

  2. wow, that is not something I would usually read, but it sounds fantastic! I am a sucker for a heartwarming story...

    I will have to put it on my wish list.

  3. Good find. My husband isn't much of a reader but I know he would be fascinated by this book. Will certainly get it for him - me too of course.


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