Every now and then we come across a heartwarming story that also makes us feel like indulgent, do-nothing slackers. William Kamkwamba was born in Malawi (a country that most of us geographically challenged Americans probably know as 'that place where Madonna's adopted kid is from').
He grew up in extreme poverty, living through famine and cholera epidemics, lacking the money to pay even basic school fees. A spark of scientific curiosity led Kamkwamba to the local library, where he began to research dynamos and electromagnetism. (This was despite the fact that the books were in English, a language he didn't speak.)
Then, like any normal adolescent would, he started collecting scraps of garbage in the hopes of jerry-rigging a windmill in his backyard. And guess what? The thing worked
, Kamkwamba became world famous -- maybe you caught him on "The Daily Show
" this week -- and now eco-warrior Al Gore is blurbing his best-selling memoir, "The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind
We spoke with Kamkwamba and his co-writer, Bryan Mealer
, about garbage collecting, perseverance and why reporting on hope is a whole lot more fun than covering war and bloodshed.
Surviving a famine
"The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind" describes Kamkwamba's upbringing in rural Malawi, a country that often valued the influence of "magic" over science. That's not surprising considering how isolated from even the most basic modern technology people there are. Only 2 percent of the population enjoys access to electricity. (As Kamkwamba writes: "Once the sun goes down, and if there's no moon, everyone stops what they're doing, brushes their teeth, and just goes to sleep.") Villagers subsist on farming, and the traditional foodstuff is a simple, corn-based concotion known as nsima
Or they do, that is, until food shortages and famine send Malawi into a full-blown crisis, which is what happened in 2002
. The price of corn skyrocketed, and the country's corrupt president refused even to acknowledge that there was an emergency. Kamkwamba's family survived thanks to luck and resourcefulness.
"That famine was so completely terrible, his family almost didn't make it," says Bryan Mealer, an AP reporter who co-wrote the memoir with Kamkwamba. "His mother actually gave birth to a baby during that time. She would nurse her kid at night, and her hand would shake. They were eating one meal per day, three mouthfuls of food. His dad went blind at one point because he was skipping his meals so the kids could eat. It's such a devastating time. That was the whole impetus and catalyst for the windmill."
Sneaking into school
Kamkwamba -- now 22 years old -- had always been fascinated by simple devices and how they operated. His curiosity was first piqued by the dynamo, a rudimentary device that uses friction generated by a spinning bike wheel to power a lamp. Like many children, radios also intrigued him, and he couldn't resist the urge to take them apart as a youngster -- mainly to determine if there were "people inside the radio" making all that noise.
Kamkwamba's family, like many in his village, was desperately poor, and unable to afford the fees levied by the local school. Rather than playing hooky, Kamkwamba found himself in a unique position: sneaking into
class. He also depended on the local library -- funded by NGOs -- where he discovered English-language physics books. By examining the diagrams and translating important captions, Kamkwamba was able to give himself a crash-course in science.
"When he finally saw these books there was a diagram of a dynamo and how it worked, and he was able to grasp the concept of electromagnetism," Mealer explains. "He sees this other book with a picture of the windmills on the cover. It all came together. He's like, Oh, I can make one of these
. He was 14."
Scouring the scrapyard
Faced with incredibly limited materials, Kamkwamba had to be as inventive as Edison and resourceful as MacGyver. The design for his windmill was cobbled together from a combination of PVC pipe, a tractor fan and bicycle parts.
"Over the next few weeks," he writes, "my scrap pieces kept revealing themselves like a magic puzzle." Kamkwamba's peers and elders watched on with curiosity and, occasionally, disdain. (His own mother's reaction: "Only madmen collect garbage!")
"I was encouraged by the picture which I saw on the [science] book," Kamkwamba explained to Asylum. "I was saying to myself, 'It means that somebody somewhere else built this thing. This thing didn't fall from the sky.' I know that everything has a beginning. When somebody's starting a new thing, there will be some resistance. People will say, 'This [is] not going to work.' The guys who made the airplane -- I also think that maybe when they started, maybe people were also laughing. 'How can you make something fly?'"
Against all odds, Kamkwamba's garbage windmill worked. It powered light bulbs in his family's home and later was able to charge cell phones. The 14-year-old inventor didn't make his creation to attract attention -- he did it to help the people he loved -- but in due time local media caught on. Soon Malawian reporters paid a visit. In 2007 Kamkwamba was invited to speak at the celebrated TED conference
; a Wall Street Journal profile followed.
While his initial goal of using wind to power well pumps -- crucial in rural Africa -- remained elusive, it was Kamkwamba's first modest experiment with his windmill that would catapult him to international fame ... and a foundation, Moving Windmills
, that would help him work toward his dream.
The inventor meets the war reporter
It was that Journal article that attracted the attention of AP reporter Bryan Mealey, who'd spent nearly five years covering a very different face of Africa: the ongoing war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. "I felt like I was chronicling death all the time," he says. "When you're a reporter in Africa a lot of people ask you, 'Why do you always cover bad news?' It was a really good question I never really had an answer for."
Mealey and Kamkwamba spent a year together working on "The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind." The experience seems to have recharged the reporter, after the grueling time spent focused on carnage in the Congo. "I think we fall into this trap, as conflict reporters -- we cover these wars, rapes, massacres, but after a while we begin to see the whole continent through that lens," Mealey explains.
Africans helping Africa
"William's just one guy in Malawi," Mealey mentions to the Web site Afrigadget
, which spotlights D.I.Y. innovation from the continent. "How many guys like him are in South Africa, or Senegal, or Congo, or Sudan? There must be thousands."
"Africans are so resourceless and so innovative," he continued. "People have dignity and they want to preserve their dignity. A man just wants to go to work and support his family. We always talk about [how] we want to save Africa, help Africa. Clearly it's not working in these top-down models -- just throwing money at the continent, throwing a bunch of subsidized grain, mosquito-net drives or whatever the hell we do. If we want to change that place we go in and find guys like William. We don't give him money, maybe we just give him slivers of opportunity. Some kind of leg up. People want to save themselves, and they want to do it themselves. Africans are very resourceful. They've become so resourceful because they've had nothing for so long. That continent is so ripe for innovation and design."
Kamkwamba is continuing his own good work, now under the auspices of the Moving Windmills foundation. One goal is to produce affordable, wind-power-generated machines that can pump well water in rural areas. He's traveled to New York and marveled over the subways and skyscrapers. "Before I came here the highest place I had ever been was on top of my windmill," he says.
From the Web:
The 49 Most Influential Men
Native American Mascots: Honorable or Ignorant?
Beware of Turkeys in the 'Burbs