It’s 20BooksofSummer time at the moment and I’m thrilled to have finished my second book in my First Two Months of Diversity (a book set in Malawi, written by a Malawian author) – I’ve now started Book 3, Kit de Waal’s “Common People”, too. This was one of the last books I bought physically before the lockdown, on a trip round the local charity shops with a “charity shop voucher” from my friend Sian.

I hope everyone else who is doing 20 Books of Summer/Winter is having fun working through their books!

William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer – “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind”

(07 March 2020)

The chief sat on the sofa, dressed in a crisp shirt and nice trousers. Chiefs usually dressed like businesspeople, never in feathers and hides. That’s in the movies. (p. 26)

We have the story of William’s life through from his early childhood to his entry into and progress through full-time education (by no means a given at any age in his village in Malawi) and although there are very bad times, it’s a story of persistence, self-education and hope.

Growing up the only boy in a farming family, William is expected to help his father with the farm, and all the hard work that involves, growing tobacco as a cash crop and maize as a subsistence crop. His two best friends are his cousin, Geoffrey, and Gilbert, son of the local chief. These three boys help and sustain each other, and are still friends: he thanks them hugely in the acknowledgements and their work is very much a joint effort.

During and then after a long and horrendous famine, described in detail, with analysis of the deforestation and government policies which helped it to happen and didn’t help it to stop, William is excited about going to secondary school to learn about science. He’s already taking radios apart and mending them and trying to learn, but this will be the key to his future. Except there’s no money to pay the school fees. Saved by a library and a kindly librarian, William starts to teach himself about wind power, dynamos and electricity, and (this isn’t spoiler: there’s a picture on the front of the book) builds a windmill.

But it’s not easy. He has to read books in English, so has to learn English to do that. He has to scrabble around for materials, digging around in an old scrapyard for hours to find what he might need, and to work extra jobs to pay for a welder to help him make his machines (I love how the welder comes around to be a firm fan). Just when he’s getting somewhere (one bulb for a light in his room), another famine comes and some local people start accusing him of witchcraft. There’s also the classic narrative of everyone thinking he’s playing silly games, etc., until he demonstrates what he can do.

There’s heartache in the book: the bad times are told plainly and there’s a very sad bit about his dog (but it’s part of the narrative, not gratuitous). But it’s a generally positive book, full of the support of his friends – Gilbert has a bit of money so he buys William a spool of wire he needs – and of strangers who hear about him and bring him into the TED organisation. When he goes to TED, he makes sure he mentions all his fellow-Africans who are working on amazing projects:

The most amazing thing about TED wasn’t the Internet, the gadgets, or even the breakfast buffets with three kinds of meat, plus eggs and pastries and fruits that I dreamed about each night. It was the other Africans who stood onstage each day and shared their stories and vision of how to make our continent a better place for our people. (p. 253)

This is not a story of African pain, famine and aid: it’s a positive story about the power of education and a man with a blazing spirit who has gone so far from his village (but ensures that he supports those in it, still, sharing the water from his parents’ new well with everyone, for example. An inspiring read.

This was book number 2 in my 20 Books of Summer 2021!