How Will You Harness the Wind?

I just finished reading the memoir The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, about a Malawian of my own age who—after surviving famine in the small African village of Wimbe and despite being unable to afford to attend proper school—taught himself how to construct a windmill from discarded materials, simply by reading books from the local library.

Notwithstanding the fact that these books were in a foreign language (English), William Kamkwamba’s ingenuity and curiosity propelled him to spend every waking minute educating himself about the fundamentals of electricity and wind power. His goal was to provide for his family and his village in a way that the government had failed to, to create a better, safer life for them.

Wembe’s livelihood—largely agricultural—was dependent upon the weather, government subsidies, and trade. In 2002, poor weather conditions resulted in a greatly diminished crop yield. A despondent president’s unwillingness to recognize that there was a problem forced the entire region into poverty; many died from hunger and diseases stemming from hunger. Only the merchants thrived, and many took advantage of their fellow villagers’ dire circumstances to extort money and goods in exchange for just a tiny bag of maize.

Following the famine, Kamkwamba constructed his windmill from scrap from a junkyard, with plans to bring irrigation to his family’s land and electricity to his home, thereby minimizing their reliance on factors out of their control, such as presidential whims and unreliable weather conditions.

His windmill eventually attracted the attention of the TED community. Backed by the subsequent funding of those who believed in his cause, he was able to bring electricity and running water to Wembe. To see what this one person was able to achieve under the most unbearable of circumstances is an inspiration to anyone who has ever had the thought, “I don’t know if I can, but I’m going to try.”

I’m reminded of this maxim every day, from those in my own life who have taken strides to teach themselves new skills, also as a means to provide their families with a more satisfying life and to prove to themselves that, with proper motivation, no goal is too difficult to reach.

The fact that William Kamkwamba is the same age as myself is a keen reminder of what some can achieve in a few short years, while others would squander them, even when given every convenience and a free public school education. These same people might feel that their lives are incomplete when what is missing has always been there, beckoning them to take a chance and find happiness. So many others are stuck between wanting to achieve something and not knowing that they can.

In the last sentence of his memoir, Kamkwamba writes, “If you want to make it, all you have to do is try.” Having seen and experienced the power of being self-taught and self-motivated, I can safely say that he’s absolutely right.

Management consultant and brand strategist for small teams. Fan of dark tea, thick books, peace, and unity.

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justin gough
13 years ago

interesting piece of inspirational literature. i agree, unfortunately creating our own destiny escapes most of us in present day america, especially benefitting not just ones self but the community around them. hearing a story like w. kamkwamba’s fuels my daily ambitions to create something from nothing and change the way the world thinks about energy demand solutions and archaic past mentalities. read on sarah and rock on with the good word!