The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind

Malawian boy triumphs against odds to survive famine, teach himself physics, and use ingenuity to improve his family’s life.

This week I read another memoir – make that 3 in a row! Had been meaning to read for a while, saw there is now a Netflix movie so I hustled to read this. I was also scoping it out as there is a young adult version that I’d like to get my kids to read.

Disclaimer: This book is set in Malawi and thus I was inclined to love it. I spent two years as Peace Corps volunteer teaching secondary mathematics from 1993-1995. I was posted to Ekwendeni, a small town in the northern region of the country. William Kamkwamba was a small child when I was there and lived in a different region of the country, but I fully related to and enjoyed his depiction of Malawian life.

Right: Me, in front of my house in the teachers’ compound… Below: Student life at school…. Still working on figuring out captions and photos LOL.

His memoir describes the life of a typical Malawian boy (a girl’s life would be very different!) growing up as a subsistence farmer. His family grows just enough maize to feed themselves with little left over to save to plant for the next year. There is one maize crop a year and it must feed the family for the entire year. There are other vegetables grown, and a bit of tobacco, but to a Malawian, maize and nsima (porridge) are life. A drought occurs in 2000 and the maize crops fail across the country. The government does nothing to intervene and people starve and die. Somehow William and his family manage to survive.

Following this horrific ordeal, William decides to do something to improve his family’s situation. As he could not pay for school, William teaches himself about electricity and physics. He decides to build a wind-powered device which will generate electricity and hopefully one day power an irrigation system so that his family won’t have to worry about lack of rains again. His entire village thinks he is misala, or crazy, but he perseveres.

It is a beautifully told story, full of sly humor despite the poverty and circumstances. I loved the description of the schools William attended as I taught in one so very similar. He describes not being able to pay the school fees and then hiding and sneaking into the classroom anyway, until he’s finally caught after 2 weeks. I was NOT a fan of ejecting kids because of lack of payment and happily hid kids in the class if I was able to. I had two Form 2 (or Sophomore) classes each with a zillion kids (ok maybe 150)…. seriously this is one of them:

One of my Form 2 classes, more than 100 kids all on the floor.

By the time the kids get to Form 4 they are styling with desks but still crammed – 200 in this one class.

You will enjoy this book if you happen to have been a Peace Corps Volunteer in Malawi… or if you want to imagine life in another culture…and/or if you are a fan of plucky heroes who overcome great odds to do something really amazing and great.

Author: MEMD

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