‘Boy who harnessed the wind' comes to College

by Christy O'Keefe | 10/19/09 10:00pm

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William Kamkwamba spoke on Monday about his experience building a windmill for his Malawian village.
by Dani Wang / The Dartmouth

William Kamkwamba's friends and family thought he was crazy when he scavenged through the junkyard of his Malawian town in search of parts for his homemade windmill. Three months later, when Kamkwamba's completed windmill became the impoverished town's only source of electricity, Kamkwamba became a local hero.

Kamkwamba, a 22 year old self-taught engineer, spoke in Spanos Auditorium on Monday about his book, "The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind," along with Bryan Mealer, his coauthor.

Kamkwamba explained how his parents could barely afford to feed him and his six siblings, let alone send him to school, after Malawi experienced a series of droughts and floods.

"I decided to start going to the library," Kamkwamba said. "What I was hoping was that my parents would find money and be able to send me back to school. When they sent me back to school, I would be in the same place as my friends."

Kamkwamba said he began looking through science and physics books written in English, even though he did not speak the language at the time. He said he became fascinated with a diagram of a windmill and decided to attempt to build one when he realized it could help irrigate his family's farm.

Because he lacked the money to purchase building materials, Kamkwamba scavenged through the local junkyard, looking for parts.

"Lots of people, including my mom, thought I was crazy," Kamkwamba said.

Kamkwamba said he was ecstatic when a wealthy friend bought him a bike-powered generator the last part necessary for his project.

"When the light bulb came on, people started cheering and they said, Yes you did it,'" Kamkwamba said. "I was very happy. I had a light so I could read at night."

Only 2 percent of people in Malawi have electricity, according to the web site for "The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind."

Many people from nearby towns visited the windmill to see it and to use the town's electricity, Kamkwamba said.

Kamkwamba was later invited to speak at TEDGlobal, a conference in Tanzania about technology, entertainment and design, after reporters wrote about his accomplishment.

"The message he put out there really resonated with a lot of people," Mealer said. "People in the audience, who were very moved by his story, felt they did not want him to go back to this situation of poverty. They came up afterwards and said, William what can we do to help you?' And he was very clear, I want to go back to school and I want to continue with my windmills so my family does not have to go hungry again.'"

Following his windmill's success, Kamkwamba created a soccer team to bring his community together every Saturday, Mealer said. The soccer games also offered villagers a chance to sell various goods they produced.

"There are a lot of young people like me who drop out of school, and when they drop out of school, they start doing bad things like smoking and drinking," Kamkwamba said. "In order to keep them busy, I decided to start a soccer team."

In addition to his windmill and soccer team projects, Kamkwamba dug a well and created an irrigation system on his family's property. The system allowed Kamkwamba's family to plant crops two to three times a year, giving them more food, Kamkwamba said.

Kamkwamba said he wrote his book to share his experiences with others.

"I want other people to know what I did in such a bad situation," Kamkwamba said. "There were lots of challenges, and I think it proves that with hard work, anything in life is possible."

Kamkwamba and Mealer came to Dartmouth through the Thayer School of Engineering's Humanitarian Engineering Leadership Program Worldwide, which focuses on "addressing the developmental needs of the third world with solutions that are fully sustainable using local materials with a low environmental impact," according to the program's web site.

Kamkwamba said he plans to apply to the College this fall to pursue an engineering major.