African Dynamo African Dynamo
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Boing Boing on GOOD
How a Malawian teenager harnessed the power of the wind.
William Kamkwamba's parents couldn't afford the $80 yearly tuition for their son's school. The boy sneaked into the classroom anyway, dodging administrators for a few weeks until they caught him. Still emaciated from the recent deadly famine that had killed friends and neighbors, he went back to work on his family's corn and tobacco farm in rural Malawi, Africa.
Using Energy described how windmills could be used to generate electricity. Only two percent of Malawians have electricity, and the service is notoriously unreliable. William decided an electric windmill was something he wanted to make. Illuminating his house and the other houses in his village would mean that people could read at night after work. A windmill to pump water would mean that they could grow two crops a year rather than one, grow vegetable gardens, and not have to spend two hours a day hauling water. "A windmill meant more than just power," he wrote, "it was freedom."
For an educated adult living in a developed nation, designing and building a wind turbine that generates electricity is something to be proud of. For a half-starved, uneducated boy living in a country plagued with drought, famine, poverty, disease, a cruelly corrupt government, crippling superstitions, and low expectations, it's another thing altogether. It's nothing short of monumental.
William scoured trash bins and junkyards for materials he could use to build his windmill. With only a couple of wrenches at his disposal, and unable to afford even nuts and bolts, he collected things that most people would consider garbage-slime-clogged plastic pipes, a broken bicycle, a discarded tractor fan-and assembled them into a wind-powered dynamo. For a soldering iron, he used a stiff piece of wire heated in a fire. A bent bicycle spoke served as a size adapter for his wrenches.
Months later, in front of a crowd of disbelievers who had scoffed at him for behaving strangely, William lashed his machine to the top of a 16-foot tower made from blue gum tree branches. As the blades began turning in the breeze, a car light bulb in William's hand started to glow. In the weeks that followed, William went on to wire his house with four light bulbs and two radios, installing switches made from rubber sandals, and scratch-building a circuit breaker to keep the thatch roof of his house from catching fire.
He begged his parents to send him to school-he had big dreams for modernizing his village and needed to learn more math, physics, and electricity to realize them-but they barely had enough money to feed him and his five sisters.
With so many tales of bloody hopelessness coming out of Africa, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind reads like a novel with a happy ending, even though it's just the beginning for this remarkable young man, now 21 years old. I have no doubt that William-who is rapidly becoming a symbol of promise and possibility for the people of Africa-will be leading the way.
Watch a short documentary about William Kamkwamba here.
Find The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer on Amazon.
Mark Frauenfelder is the editor-in-chief of Make magazine and the founder of Boing Boing. He is currently writing a book on the do-it-yourself movement for Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin.
Photos by Tom Rielly
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