Book Review: The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer


a colorized version of G.P. Murdock's ethnic map of Africa

a colorized version of G.P. Murdock’s ethnic map of Africa

As many readers of this blog know, I have traveled in Africa several times. I was Peace Corps in Malawi in 1992.  Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world. Even though it has been the recipient of much foreign aid (from USAID, the European Community, and even medical personnel from Egypt), the government policy has been to NOT have it trickle down to the populace.  Who knows where it went. Consultants?    When I served in Peace Corps, literacy hovered around 35%.  Only 15% of households had access to radios. The incident of AIDS was 25–90% depending on how close you lived to a paved road.  Malawi is still very much a country of small holders:  small  farmers.  Many have been encouraged to  plant the cash crop of tobacco (hey—the Chinese still smoke like chimneys, as do the Eastern Europeans and Middle Easterners…), but then, due to quality issues, the  government  parastatal buying the tobacco to resell  will only buy a small portion of what small holders were selling…and you can not eat tobacco.

With access to the internet (via mobile phones, originally brought to Malawi by the Malaysians), more people are getting more information. However, in addition to AIDS, malaria is still a huge  problem, as is TB. So many Malawians do NOT live near paved roads that it is difficult to  get  information (so most of what you get is via rumor) or access to health care.  Primary school is free, but often teachers are merely high school graduates themselves, and don’t own any books for the subjects they are teaching.  You have to pay fees to go to high school.

Knowing this,  this is why  Kamkwamba’s story is so remarkable.  This book was written by  one of those kids who didn’t get to go to high school because his family could not afford school fees.  He feared for his future, of course, but  he was a curious kid, and thankfully, there was a free library in his town.  All the books were donated.

Farming is the type of job  where there are weeks of intense work preparing the soil and planting….and then you wait and hope and pray.  Malawi has  always suffered droughts, made worse in recent decades due to deforestation. This  story takes place  just after the turn of the century.  While Malawi was no longer rules by Kamuzu Banda, it turned out that the devil they didn’t know was worse, as Muluzi, the president at the time, was in total denial about  people starving due to crop failure due to the drought.  Kamkwamba does a brilliant job of describing how bad things were at this time.  It’s humbling.

He also describes the culture of the Chewa people very well.  The gist of the story is that he had a lot of time on his hands, as he wasn’t in school, so he borrowed books and taught himself physics.  He  found scrap parts, and built a windmill so his family could have electricity.  He becomes  famous in his village (one reason is that he charges villagers cell phones!),  Malawian journalists write about him, one thing leads to another, and  his education (having been interrupted for five years) is sponsored and he is asked to give a TED talk.  Very happy ending.

This is a marvelous book, available on Amazon (I’ve included a link), and I’d recommend it to anyone who wants to learn about Africa, resilience, perseverance, or who wants to make a difference and help others like Kamkwamba.  When I first became curious about Africa, the classic, “The African Child,” by Camara Laye, was recommended, and that is  a sort of idealized view of African childhood.  This book is better.  It would make a great gift for any child, and be a great addition to any school library.

I’ve included links for the African Library Project and Zambian Children’s Fund.  In the last century, I used to send books via ‘M’ bag, to schools in Malawi.  I sent several tons of books, but the U S Postal Service stopped this as it was too expensive (they had to pay to store containers until they were full). It you send books to  either organization, they  will send them in containers and make sure they are delivered.  I send the books UPS, because I know from experience that the USPS often is rough with boxes and empty boxes have been delivered.  The Africans  really need books on science, business, public health, first aid,  and teachers editions.  They can also use maps.

Who knows how many kids like Kamkwamba there are, who are curious, but don’t have access to books?

 

https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?search=William+Kamkwamba&title=Special%3ASearch&fulltext=1

http://www.amazon.com/The-Boy-Who-Harnessed-Wind/dp/0803740808/ref=pd_sim_14_1/185-7381202-9985626?ie=UTF8&refRID=1JHS80E4ZQ1VAAS6G14J

http://www.africanlibraryproject.org/?gclid=CjwKEAjw9dWuBRDFs9mHv-C9_FkSJADo58iMa3PZxGrRVw6NNZQacpRvHv2_5RGkn2ON0jSGUM_TaxoCBKDw_wcB

http://www.zambianchildrensfund.org/

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