How does a 14-year old high school dropout in a small famine-stricken country in south eastern Africa build a windmill? William Kamkwamba tells how he did in The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, a memoir of a young man who wanted to ensure a better life for his family by using ideas inspired by science books and his own innovation to build them.
Kamkwamba’s memoir starts at the beginning, giving a brief history of his parents and grandparents as well as the cultural background of not only his local village but of his native Malawi itself. He then relates the adventures, and misadventures, of his earlier childhood in the relatively stable time before the 2001-02 famine that struck his country. Next comes the hard times of the famine and the struggle his family endured to survive it, but what also forced him to drop out of school. Yet all of this is important in understanding how Kamkwamba was able to construct the windmill that would change his life forever because he explains how not only he, but his family and friends would reuse material to create toys, or hunting traps, or repair other machines.
A little over halfway through the book Kamkwamba begins recounting how he got the idea to build the windmill and his motivation behind it. The ingenuity of his reuse of materials found from junkyards to random materials he could all over his village to engineer his first windmill is fascinating, but given the earlier examples from his childhood the reader understands how Kamkwamba was able to use everything he found for the purpose he wanted. But Kamkwamba does not neglect the contributions of his friends and members of his family that helped and supported him throughout his building, even while some in his village though him a madman.
Only in the last 30 pages of the book describes Kamkwamba experience from local curiosity to giving a presentation at a TED conference to eventually writing this book along with Bryan Mealer. Both Kamkwamba and Mealer knew that the why and how of building the windmill was the central point of this entire book and that while all the fame that Kamkwamba has gained is interesting, it only happened because of the windmill. The book is Kamkwamba’s, but he would be the first to acknowledge that English is his second language and Mealer’s contribution was to ensure that this book was very readable without losing Kamkwamba’s voice.
If I was forced to write a review of this book in ten words or less, I would only needed three: “Just read this”. This book is of a young man who survived trying times that potentially put a limit on his expectations for life and the future, but he found a way to expand not only his own horizons but that of his family and village with an idea and hard work. So just read this book.