William Kamkwamba

The first time I heard of William Kamkwamba was when he appeared on the Daily Show back in October 2009, shortly after his book The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind was published. To hear even a brief part of the story about how William had constructed a wind powered turbine in his village in Malawi set me out to buy the book. I remember him pondering during the interview, “where was Google all this time?” To read the entire book, however, set me out to change my perspective on student motivation among some other ideas related to ingenuity.

William had started to develop the wind turbine at age fourteen.  But, more interesting than that were the events that led up to that point in time.  Not every child in Malawi goes to school.  William was one that understood the opportunity he had when his family was able to enroll him in a primary school.   He was a hard worker in school and seems to have appreciated every bit of knowledge that came his way through his formal education experience.

By about the time he finished the eighth grade in 2001-02, severe famine had struck the country.  His family, being agrarian, could no longer support the fees required for William to keep attending school.  The book describes in great detail how William and his family got through those two years, surviving on just a few bites of food, if even that, per day.

The first thing we can learn from William’s story is about motivation. The severe famine that had hit and the hunger pains he literally felt made him wonder about solutions to the problem.  He thought that if he could find a way to irrigate the crops that he could help solve the problem. But, to do that you’d need power to pump the water.  So, William was more motivated to solve a problem than perhaps anyone could possibly be.

When William set out to learn about energy and power he came across several textbooks on related topics. I think many people miss the true genius of William. It wasn’t as if the text materials he read contained a set of plans that explained how he could build a wind turbine from materials laying around a village in a developing country.  What William did was he  applied the sort of ingenuity I wish every one of our children could develop.  He read about the concepts and then set out to find the things that fit his needs…an old bicycle dynamo to serve as the generator…old automobile parts and metal garnered from trips to the scrap yard…some other tools and parts from his father’s farming materials and others from around the house.  From these “unusable,” even in a developing country, items he fashioned a full power generation system complete with a circuit breaker. Imagine the pride and delight he must have felt when the family radio powered up for the first time with electricity from his wind turbine.

Our young people can learn a lot from an individual like William Kamkwamba and the stories he has to tell. I’d say the book is definitely appropriate for a high school level student on up through adults.

You can also learn more about William in his own words from this TED Talk and this short documentary called Moving Windmills.



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