Lessons from Kamkwamba

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 In 2012 I went to find one of my heroes. He comes from a small village in Malawi called Kasungu.

You might have heard of him, William Kamkwamba, “the boy who harnessed the wind.” His story took flight on a TED Talk in June 2007. I watched on my computer screen, a nervous Kamkwamba ascending the stage where a presenter coaxed this story from him: how, as a 14 year old, he had made a windmill to generate electricity for his home. He said he learned it from a library book.

He made the windmill from old bicycle parts, plastic pipes and wood. He even improved the power output by applying 4 blades instead of 3, and where there was no electricity before, the windmill lit his home and powered two radios.

His humble story and halting speech had people standing in their seats, this at TED for which luminaries craft their speech and prepare for months. Kamkwamba could hardly speak english and he had nailed it. His story became a worldwide sensation. He also became my hero.

A filmmaker friend, Brett Wild, and I were travelling East Africa to document stories like Kamkwamba’s. We wanted to find him but didn’t know how so we reached out on the web and eventually connected with a mentor of his. But we were denied any access to Kamkwamba because he was under contract to a production company filming a documentary about him.

It was sad, but what upset us most that they behaved as if they had some ownership over Kamkwamba. To Wild and I, his story was something to be shared, like it had been on the screens of TED and Youtube. So we decided to go and film him anyway. We had visions of arriving in Kasungu to find a humble Kamkwamba only too happy to be interviewed. He would show us around his village and demonstrate his wonderful invention. We would laugh, we would be awed. We would capture it all and give the other production company a rev.

But by the time we got to Malawi we had broken down 3 times – we were driving a smart car after all. The idea was to prove you didn’t need a gas guzzling 4×4 to travel Africa, but the car had failed on every dirt road we ventured down, and Kasungu could only be reached by dirt. We were also way behind schedule so we stuck to the tar and crept on.

I wasn’t done. I had to meet him. So on another Malawi trip I made a pilgrimage to Kasungu. I arrived there like most people did: on the back of a 10 ton truck that acted as a taxi. I walked through the quiet village and asked a young boy where I could find Kamkwamba. “I am his cousin,” he said, and he lead me into a valley and past a football pitch where we gathered an entourage of kids. And there on a hill on the other side of the valley, I saw 4 windmills.

We reached Kamkwamba’s compound where his mother greeted me. I recognised her from a photo Kamkwamba had shown on the screen at his TED talk. She looked younger than I had imagined. His brother and a couple of younger cousins came by, but there was no William. It turned out he was studying in the ‘States thanks to the help of his sponsors. I was disappointed, but I had been prepared that he might not be there and it turned out spending time with his family was inspiration enough.

His eldest cousin, who taught at a local school, showed me William’s great experiments. Some lay in a pile, others were merrily turning in the wind. He finally showed me Kamkwamba’s room where an alternator buzzed in the corner. I looked around a bit but I realised I might come across as something of a stalker, so I made to leave. “But stay the night,” said his cousin. So I did.

They gave me William’s room where the light shone bright and I could recharge my laptop. After a meal of nshima and beef I flipped the laptop lid and showed the kids images of people I had photographed in Mali and Benin. They ooe’d and aah’d. I showed them photos of kids I had taken in schools right there in Malawi, and they smiled in the glow of the screen. I said to his cousin, it was a pity William had to travel overseas to learn more. He agreed, but added, “Perhaps William is teaching them something about Africa.” That night I read my book by Kamkwamba’s bedroom light.

The next day I stopped by the village cinema while I waited for the taxi truck. At 10 in the morning there were more than 30 boys in this dark room watching a Kung-Fu video dubbed into Chichewa. I wondered what good electricity had brought them. I wished instead that they could watch Kamkwamba on that screen and grasp his most important lesson: that we can learn so much from books.


Screen Africa magazine


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2 Responses to “Lessons from Kamkwamba”

  1. brett Bloody Wild January 15, 2014 9:24 am #

    Yaay for this guy

  2. Roxanne Reid January 14, 2014 8:10 am #

    I read the book a couple of years ago and really enjoyed it. To me the true test of greatness is when you achieve even when circumstances are against you. I’m sure Africa has countless tales like Kamkwamba’s and more of them should be told to inspire and motivate others.

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