African Dynamo African Dynamo

African Dynamo

by Mark Frauenfelder

September 30, 2009

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.

With no hope of getting the funds to go back to school, William continued his education by teaching himself, borrowing books from the small library at the elementary school in his village. One day, when William was 14, he went to the library searching for an English-Chichewa dictionary to find out what the English word "grapes" meant, and came across a fifth-grade science book called Using Energy. Describing this moment in his autobiography, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind (co-written with Bryan Mealer), William wrote, "The book has since changed my life."

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.

William and his windmill remained a local curiosity for a number of months, until the head of a national teacher's organization saw the windmill and recognized the boy's accomplishment as something extraordinary. A media firestorm ensued, with newspaper articles, blog posts, radio stories, and a presentation at TED Africa in Tanzania (TED stands for Technology Entertainment Design), where William, who didn't  know about laptop computers and had never heard of Google, discovered airplanes, mattresses, hotels, air conditioning, and the mind-boggling concept of having as much food as you wanted whenever you wanted it. Befriended by Tom Rielly, TED's irrepressible and well-connected partnership director, William was taken on a tour of the United States, where he met many high-tech millionaires who were charmed by the instantly likable underdog who never complained about the lousy cards he got dealt in the game of life. They happily contributed to William's plans to electrify, irrigate, and educate his village, as well as pay his tuition at the prestigious African Leadership Academy in Johannesburg.

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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