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126 of 128 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An amazing story of determination and hope, September 10, 2009
This review is from: The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind (Paperback)
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After barely surviving a famine in Malawi (sub-Saharan Africa), 14-year-old William Kamkwamba was determined to find a way to make life better for himself and his family. What if he could somehow bring electricity to his village, to pump water for crops in times of drought? Using diagrams in an old forgotten science book called "Using Energy" that he found in a grade school library, he cobbled together a contraption out of scraps and junk that worked to power a few light bulbs -- and changed the life of his village forever. His neighbors, steeped in superstition and with little or no knowledge of science, thought him crazy. But he had a gift for mechanical things, he understood the principles, and he knew he could do it. And he did. Eventually he got a second windmill going, powering a water pump from a deep well, which is now used by all the women in the village. Today every house there has a solar panel and a battery to store electricity, too.

But this is much more than a story about an African boy who built a working windmill. It's a monument to the human spirit. In fact, we don't even get to making the windmill itself until halfway through the book. In the first half, William tells us a lot about his life in Africa, the terrible famine that swept his land, how he and his family survived, and the clues along the way which eventually led to him making the windmill. Even as a little kid, he was taking apart radios to see how they worked -- with no books or training, just trial and error. Then he saw a bicycle light that ran from a mechanical dynamo -- the kind that generates electricity when you pedal. Experimenting with this, he figured out how to get it to power his radio when he turned the bike pedals. When he finally found a picture of a windmill in the "Using Energy" book, it all came together. "In my mind I saw the dynamo," he explains, "saw myself with my neighbor's bicycle those many nights ago, spinning the pedals so I could listen to the radio... The wind would spin the blades of the windmill, rotating the magnets in the dynamo, and then creating current. Attach a wire to the dynamo and you could power anything..." Sounds simple? In principle, yes -- but there is no local Radio Shack in a Malawi village for William to go get the parts. He must make do with what he can scrounge -- and that's the really amazing part of this story.

Step by step, Willam explains what he needed for the windmill, how he adapted things he found in the junkyard, or took odd jobs to get money to buy what he could not make. Some simple tasks took three or four hours because he did not have the right tools and had to improvise. But he kept at it. All in all, he probably put a hundred or more hours into this project. Talk about determination! As I read the story, I could not help thinking how wasteful we are here in America. Over and over, I was astonished at William's creativity in finding uses for things I would have considered useless junk. That gave me serious pause for thought.

One more point: I finished this book the same week as President Obama's "stay in school" pep talk to students in America (Sept 8, 2009). Here in a land where every child can get a free education, we have a 30% dropout rate, even higher in some places. In Malawi where William is growing up, school is only for those who can afford to pay tuition, and he is desperate to study. Because of the famine, his family had lost everything and could no longer afford to send him to school, so he was forced to drop out. Yet he wanted to go so badly, he was sneaking INTO class. Eventually he does get a scholarship, thanks to the publicity generated by his windmill project. Had it not been for that, his genius might have gone to waste, and who knows what future inventions the world would miss? Perhaps this book should be required reading in American schools, so kids here will know just how lucky they are to have such good educational opportunities. I give William's book ten stars!
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Showing 1-8 of 8 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Sep 14, 2009 8:37:50 PM PDT
M. Stewart says:
Excellent point about how in America we can't get kids to stay in school, and look at what William accomplished with the little schooling he did sneak in.

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 15, 2009 6:26:52 AM PDT
Exactly. Any politics aside, Obama is right about education. His father was from Africa (Kenya) and he has traveled there himself, so he is clearly aware of what it is like in countries where only the rich get to learn. Just about every immigrant community in America has excelled precisely because they make their kids stay in school and study. And so many native-born American kids just throw that opportunity away. I think William's story proves that even in a "bad" school with few resources, it is possible to succeed if you buckle down to it.

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 15, 2009 9:56:43 PM PDT
One of the big challenges that faces a Malawian student is that they have to pay for high school. The $75 per year it costs may seem trivial in the US but there it's insurmountable particularly if you are from a family with several secondary-age kids. More than 50% of the population live on less than $1/day, and a rural poor family may earn $200-400 per year total.

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 17, 2009 1:24:11 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Jun 10, 2010 2:28:10 PM PDT
Thank you for posting this info, Thomas. Again, this reinforces what I said about American high school dropouts wasting opportunities that others are literally dying without. Much of the world lives on a level of poverty that makes even the poorest Americans seem rich by comparison. I myself am no millionaire, but I sometimes look around my beat-up old 1920s farmhouse with its 15 acres, reliable electricity and its own well and I think, "There are places where this would be considered a rich man's home." I grow my own vegetables for pleasure and health, but for me it is just a hobby. For William and others like him, subsistence farming is about barely surviving. The ability to pump water and irrigate makes a bigger difference than most of us can even begin to imagine.

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 17, 2009 2:05:19 PM PDT
You could also say that necessity is the mother of invention, and perhaps too many kids in our country don't see education as a necessity. It's too bad we can come up with a public policy that is one founded on necessity (as we did with Science education during the Cold War to outdo Russia) rather than a surfeit of idealistic talk.

Anyway, great review. I'll pick this book up.

Posted on Nov 19, 2009 7:23:47 PM PST
StarSearcher says:
I wonder if it's not time that we made students "pay" for their education. Something that is highly valuable and given away for "free"
is undervalued. Of course, many after they graduate, finds out how valuable education is. But by then it is too late. Perhaps by requiring some fee (which they do in "developed" countries such as Japan and Korea, where I teach now) for secondary schooling we can pay teachers more and raise teaching standards, match perceived value with actual value, and help us not take these things for granted.

This book points out that this young man knows the value of education and how to make it in life.

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 22, 2009 9:37:34 AM PST
Last edited by the author on Nov 22, 2009 9:45:49 AM PST
The problem with that is, if the fee is in money, then you create an illiterate underclass among the very poor -- which was very clearly happening in Kamkwamba's book. I think the real solution in America is to stop the anti-intellectualism that discourages kids from wanting to do well. When you label good students as nerds and geeks who are then ridiculed and ostracized, while elevating athletes to rock star status, what do you expect? When I was growing up in the 1950s, just about everyone belonged to Scouts, 4H, Campfire Girls or some such community org, where we learned good citizenship (and had fun!) Somewhere along the line, these types of service orgs got labled as "too goody-goody" and therefore "bad" to be unless you were a geek.

The reality is, very few kids are ever going to be rock stars (a point also made in the Obama education speech), but everyone needs to be able to read and write and have basic math skills. I am also in favor of some sort of national service (not necessarily military, it could be some type of homefront community service org like Habitat for Humanity) after graduation which would teach teamwork, responsibility, and good citizenship through work experience.

In reply to an earlier post on Oct 11, 2013 4:43:01 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Oct 11, 2013 4:49:41 PM PDT
I agree, Rabbi. The poorer communities have the highest drop-out rates. Any chance kids in these communities have would completely disappear. The divide would widen even more. The problem with students dropping out in this country is complex. Attaching a fee to education could potentially be counter-productive.

One option that has shown promise is growing community gardens in empty lots in inner cities. These have been shown to promote goodwill and lower crime. It is also a great life-skill to know how to grow your own food.
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