Thursday, November 25, 2010

"Book in Common" author: Harnessing the wind, and thankful for libraries


In December 2000 the floods came to Malawi. But that was not the worst of it. The water disappeared and drought set in. The maize crop was stunted. In late January 2002 “the hunger” came to Malawi and starvation with it. William Kamkwamba's parents and sisters (now half a dozen) barely made it through. There was no money to send the teenage William to school; he seemed destined to be a poor farmer for the rest of his life.

That is, except for an insatiable curiosity about mechanical things, and for a nearby library--really just a few shelves. The books about windmills planted an idea. Just a few years later William ( found himself on the international stage, with a Twitter account.

He and co-author Bryan Mealer (a former AP reporter) tell William's extraordinary and heartening story in "The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope" ($14.99 in paperback from Harper Perennial; $9.99 in Amazon Kindle and Barnes and Noble Nook e-book formats; $27.99 unabridged from Harper Audio).

The audio version, ably voiced by actor Chike Johnson, makes William's excitement palpable in discovering how a bicycle "dynamo" works and how "electric wind" might power a house. William is an optimist, even in the midst of famine. Science captures him; traditional magic knows nothing of circuit breakers.

"My parents had raised us to be churchgoing Presbyterians who believed God was the best protection. Once you opened your heart to magic, we were taught, you never knew what else you might let inside. We respected the power of juju, even feared it, but my family always trusted our faith would prevail."

In 2006 some Malawi officials were “inspecting the library at Wimbe Primary when they noticed my windmill.” The story spread, and it eventually came to the attention of the program director of TEDGlobal 2007. TED stands for “Technology, Entertainment and Design,” and its conferences feature “scientists, inventors, and innovators with big ideas.”

William's windmill, cobbled together from scrap pile parts, is one such "big idea." One day, he hopes, it will change the face of Africa.

Kamkwamba is scheduled to speak in Chico this coming April as part of the 2010-2011 "Book in Common" program ( or

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