William Kamkwamba of Malawi - Everything is possible, when you’re not afraid of trying

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*Everything is possible, when you’re not afraid of trying*

Imagine you were born in Malawi, in a poor family of farmers. Imagine your parents were able to put you in school, despite their meagre resources. Imagine that a prolonged famine, and the ensuing economic crisis, forced you to abandon school. Imagine you decided to ‘continue your education on your own’, in other words to be your own teacher. How far would you be able to go, in this isolated farming community of a country with one the highest illiteracy rates in the world?

Today, I am inspired by William Kamkwamba of Malawi. William was born in the austral African winter of 1987, in a small village about two and a half hours from Lilongwe, Malawi’s capital city. Though his parents were poor farmers raising seven children, they managed to put him in school till he completed his primary education. William was accepted to a secondary school, but a severe drought hit his region very hard, deepening the level of poverty in the community. His parents lost their livelihood as their farm couldn’t produce anything for a while, which meant they could no longer afford the 80 dollars annual tuition fee.

William was forced to drop out of school at age 14 and started doing little odd jobs to make ends meet. Hoping he could one day return to school, the boy decided to continue reading so he wouldn’t lose the knowledge he had already accumulated thus far. Whenever he got a chance, he would go and devour books at the village’s library, reading anything he could get his hands on.

It’s in those days that William discovered electronics and fell in love with that field. He had already taught himself how to repair radios and was making a little money offering his services to his neighbours, but he quickly discovered from his readings that that there was much more to electronics that he had ever known.

The teenager decided to test his newly acquired knowledge and apply it to solve one of his village’s biggest problems: the lack of energy. William created a makeshift wind turbine using a cheap dynamo, some spare parts and scrap. When he saw it was working, he made a bigger one with a broken bicycle, tractor fan blades and blue gum trees. The windmill was hooked to a car battery which allowed William to power four light bulbs in his parents’ house and charge his neighbours’ mobile phones.

He later built a 12-meter-high windmill, so he could better catch the wind above the trees. A third one quickly followed. This one was powered to pump water. It was the first installation to ever supply drinking water in his village and help irrigate crops.

The news of this 14 years old inventor quickly reached other villages and the city, and it wasn’t long before journalists – including journalist from Malawi’s Daily Times – came to inquire about the spinning devices. When TED conference director, Emeka Okafor, read William’s story, he immediately reached out to the young man and invited him to talk at the 2007 TED Global. As a guest speaker, nonetheless!

The rest was history! William’s talk at the TED conference in Arusha, Tanzania, touched the audience so much, to the point many organisations pledged on the spot to help William get back to school and help him complete his education!

It was far from empty promises made in the heat of the moment: seven years after dropping out of school, William was back on the school benches. He completed his secondary school at The African Leadership Academy, in Johannesburg, South Africa, and earned a scholarship to attend university…at Dartmouth College’s Thayer School of Engineering, New Hampshire, in the United States of America.

In 2014, William Kamkwamba of the village of Wimbe in central Malawi, second of the seven children of Trywell and Agnes Kamkwamba, a former secondary school drop-out, a self-taught youth inventor, earned a Bachelor of Arts in Environmental Studies and received The Donatella Meadows Prize for Promoting Sustainability.

The young African inventor and author now works with the WiderNet Project, a US based non-profit organisation dedicated to improving digital education and communications for all communities and individuals around the world.

One of William’s life goals is to pay forward the support he’s received in his life by helping other young people use knowledge and creativity to move ahead in life. To that effect, he has developed a technology curriculum that aims at encouraging people to use the information they’ve learned to make meaningful projects in their own community or to solve problems people are faced with.

The young Malawian’s story was chronicled in a documentary, “William and the Windmill”, which won the Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary Feature at the 2013 South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas. The same year, TIME magazine named Kamkwamba one of the "30 People Under 30 Changing The World”.

His autobiography, “The boy who harnessed the wind”, published in 2009 when he was just 21 years old, is now on the reading list of several renowned institutions of higher learning, including the University of Florida, Auburn University and the University of Michigan’s College of Engineering.

And that’s not all. In 2009, British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor – known for his roles in ‘Amistad’, ‘Half a Yellow Sun’ and ’12 Years a Slave’ – bought the movie rights to William’s autobiography, decided on having the whole world discover about this young man who followed his dreams and saved his village from famine.

Chiwetel was advised by other professionnals “more experienced in working in Africa” to shoot the movie in South-Africa, but he refused. It was his directorial debut and he wanted to make it as authentic as possible. What would a more authentic place be if not where William was born? In 2011, Chiwetel flew to Malawi and met William Kamkwamba’s parents.

The rest was history: the movie was shot in William’s village, Wimbe, right next to the house where he was born. The feature film, which starred Maxwell Simba – a talented 14th years old Kenyan actor – in the role of William, and Chiwetel Ejiofor as William’s father, was a presented in January 2019 at the Sundance film festival.

And that’s not all. In November 2018, Netflix acquired the global rights for the movie and on March 1st 2019, ‘The boy who harnessed the wind’ was released worldwide!

With a couple TED Talks appearance when he was a drop-out teenager, a best seller at age 22, and now a critically acclaimed movie telling his story at 31 years old, you might think that William is now a superstar with an inflated ego?

No. The young man remains humble and committed to help other youth follow their dreams.

« I get a lot of mail from people from people telling I inspired them, and they were able to go back to school and get engineering degrees. It very exciting today that all over the world there are young people trying to use their imagination to be able to solve the problem that they are facing. »

What about his hometown ? Well, in 2009, William used the earnings from his autobiography to create a non-profit, ‘Moving Windmills Project foundation’ through which he helps his native village Wimbe and the district of Kasungu.

“We have been able to build three classroom blocks with two classes each for Wimbe primary school. These new classrooms have solar panel installations that allow the students to study late into the night. We have also introduced a one-laptop-per-child initiative, which enables us to expose these youngsters on how to use computers at an early age.”

Students have access to a digital library stored on the school’s server so it can be accessed even without an internet connection. Who said the digital divide couldn’t be breached?

His advice?

« Don’t be afraid of failure, you never know what you going to lose by not trying. »

Right Your Legacy, William Kamkwamba! Not only did you harness the wind, you harnessed the biggest energy of the world: knowledge, a boundless energy you use to power the minds of tomorrows innovators!

Contributor

Um’Khonde Patrick Habamenshi