William Kamkwamba '14 speaks to Dickey's Great Issue Scholars

By Madison Pauly | 1/18/12 4:59pm

This Tuesday, William Kamkwamba '14 sat down with the Dickey Center’s Great Issues Scholars to talk about his book — "The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind" — as well as retell his life story and discuss his beliefs and hopes for change in impoverished places, such as his home country of Malawi.

Courtesy Of Tom Rielly

At his talk with the Great Issues Scholars, William said that he is continuing to work on projects for the Masitala Village community, and he hopes to return to Malawi to continue implementing his work and bringing useful technology to the region.

Meaningful change occurs from the grassroots up, he said, explaining that Malawians already have great ideas about how best to solve their own problems. They merely need support and encouragement to develop their own practical solutions to the challenges they face.

William was 14 years old when a severe famine, which eventually killed over 10,000 Malawians, struck his home in Masitala Village in 2001. He had just graduated from the eighth grade and was beginning his studies at Kachokolo Secondary School, but due to the impact of the famine on the income from his family’s farm, he was forced to drop out.


Courtesy Of 5 News

However, he decided to take his education into his own hands with a makeshift library of donated books at his old primary school. His childhood fascination with radios and electrical mechanisms prompted him to peruse the science textbooks he found there time and again.

Even though he spoke only rudimentary English, William used the diagrams to teach himself the principles of electromagnetism and electrical engineering. Inspired by the glossy windmills on the cover of an American textbook called "Using Energy," William conceived of the idea of a windmill that he could use to power his home and bring much needed water to his family’s farm.

Despite ridicule from his school friends and acquaintances around the town, William succeeded in constructing a windmill in his family’s yard using nothing but a broken bicycle and spare parts he found at an old junk yard in his village — a tractor fan blade, an old shock absorber, a car battery and more. The construction could power light bulbs, charge mobile phones and even eventually pump gray water for irrigation.

The windmill quickly drew attention, particularly that of doctor Hartford Mchazime, the deputy director of the Malawian Non-Government Organization, the NGO that funded the library where William studied. News of the invention traveled through a series of articles and blogs, eventually leading to an invitation for William to speak at the TEDGlobal conference in Tanzania.

Propelled by the response to his efforts, William returned to graduate high school, complete an autobiography with the help of journalist Bryan Mealer and finally apply to Dartmouth. He is currently majoring in environmental studies with a minor in engineering.

Later this week, Dial Books will release a young reader’s version of "The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind," coauthored again by Mealer and illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon. Zunon’s illustrations combine portraiture with abstract collage to capture the story’s mood and setting, drawing on Zunon’s childhood experience growing up on the Ivory Coast as well as on photos of Williams home and family, according to Publisher’s Weekly.

Madison Pauly