The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind

William Kamkwamba was born August 5, 1987, in Malawi, a country where magic ruled and modern science was a mystery. At the time, a land suffering from drought and hunger. But William read about windmills and dreamed of building one that would bring to his small village. A set of luxuries that only 2% of Malawians could enjoy: electricity and running water. His neighbors called him “misala”, meaning “crazy,” but William refused to let go of his dreams. With a pile of science textbooks, scrap metal, and an armory of curiosity, he embarked on a daring plan. William forges an unlikely contraption and a small miracle that would change the lives around him for the better.

With a pile of science textbooks, scrap metal, and an armory of curiosity, he embarked on a daring plan.

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind is a remarkable true story about a young STEMist’s inventiveness and his power to overcome crippling adversity. It inspires anyone who doubts the power of creativity and an individual’s ability to change a whole community to better the lives of those around him.

Ironically, Kamkwamba’s story of tremendous engineering achievement begins with him being kicked out of school. Kamkwamba’s parents were unable to pay his $80 annual tuition fee and remain afloat during the deadly Malawi famine of 2002. During the famine, several hundred Malawians died of hunger. No longer bound to the classroom, Kamkwamba stole away from his family’s maize and tobacco fields for a time in his town’s library. There, he checked out the English-language textbook entitled  Using Energy, emblazoned with a windmill on the cover.

A remarkable true story about a young STEMist’s inventiveness and his power to overcome crippling adversity.

Kamkwamba knew what he wanted to do: Bring electricity and water to better his village. But without money for fuel, Kamkwamba didn’t immediately know how to achieve this near-impossible dream. Only 1% of Malawi’s rural population had access to electricity. Despite his shaky grasp of English at the time, Kamkwamba pieced together the information in the wind power textbook and set off to recreate the cover’s image as best he could.

While his friends were in class, Kamkwamba scavenged materials for his windmill from the scrap yard near his former school. To his neighbors watching outside, Kamkwamba appears to be unhinged.  They call him “misala,” or crazy.

They call him “misala,” or crazy.

“When I was making the windmill, all these people were mocking me that I was driven mad, but I had confidence in what I was doing because I knew if it was written in the books then it was true and possible to get it done. When I succeeded they were all impressed.”  Kamkwamba explained to the Malawi Daily Times in 2006.

Kamkwamba’s first windmill was able to power four lights, an achievement on its own.

Kamkwamba’s father struggled to wrap his mind around the concepts that came so naturally to his son. Despite facing skepticism, Kamkwamba ended up constructing a windmill using scrap metal, PVC pipe, and parts from tractors and bicycles. Kamkwamba’s first windmill was able to power four lights, an achievement on its own.

Windmill built by William Kamkwamba in his village in Malawi.  This first windmill powered four lights.
The first windmill built by William Kamkwamba powered four lights.

But it’s the second windmill that still towers today in the village of Wimbe, a testament to one boy’s ingeniousness and can-do spirit. In addition to providing electricity, this tall windmill powers a deep well that set free Wimbe’s farmers reliance purely on the weather.

The second windmill William Kamkwambe built powers electricity and a well.
The newer windmill that still stands today powers electricity and a deep well.

“With a windmill, I could stay awake at night reading my books instead of going to bed at 7 with the rest of Malawi,” Kamkwamba wrote in his 2009 book, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. “With a windmill, we had finally released ourselves from the troubles of darkness and hunger. A windmill or turbine meant more than just power, it was freedom.”

“I had confidence in what I was doing because I knew if it was written in the books then it was true and possible to get it done.”

In 2006, four years after construction, Kamkwamba’s makeshift windmill attracted the attention of local journalists. A feature story in the Malawi Daily Times proclaimed, “School Dropout With a Streak of Genius.” After this accomplishment, Kamkwamba still hadn’t been able to return to school. But thanks to increased media coverage, a government official arranged for Kamkwamba’s education to be paid for through high school. In 2007, Kamkwamba’s story reached a global scale. He was the star of a TED conference hosted in Arusha, Tanzania. There, Kamkwamba met Ted Rielly, the New York-based TED community director who helped him through his college education.

“With a windmill, we had finally released ourselves from the troubles of darkness and hunger. A windmill or turbine meant more than just power, it was freedom.”

2007 Ted Talk

Kamkwamba’s achievements took him away from his 60-family home village of Wimbe. His 2009 book, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, spent weeks on best-seller list and became mandatory reading for incoming freshmen at the University of Florida and the University of Michigan. In 2014, he graduated from Dartmouth University. By the time he was 31, he had a motion picture and a documentary made about him. And, of course, he made Time Magazine’s “30 Under 30” List.

Book covers for The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind
The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind Picture Book and Young Readers Chapter Book

But no matter how far he traveled, Kamkwamba’s goal was always to return to Malawi and better his community. Even while he was in college in New Hampshire, Kamkwamba’s mind was on Malawi. As a 24-year-old engineering student, Kamkwamba was paying for the private school of his four sisters, a cousin, a friend, and some neighbors out of his own pocket. He also founded a soccer team and launched a fundraiser to rebuild the local school. “What I am always thinking about is how I can apply what I am learning here to help my people at home,” Kamkwamba told the Dartmouth Alumni Magazine in 2011 when he was a freshman.

Kamkwamba was paying for the private school of his four sisters, a cousin, a friend, and some neighbors out of his own pocket.

Kamkwamba lives up to his promise. It should come as no surprise to hear that Kamkwamba has continued his philanthropic goals. His nonprofit, Moving Windmills, is devoted to pursuing educational and developmental projects in Malawi.

Moving Windmills: The William Kamkwamba Story
William Kamkwamba’s 2009 Ted Talk

Learn More about windmills and wind energy with “Blowing in the Wind” Groovy Lab in a Box!

Blowing in the Wind Engineering Design ChallengeA Lesson in Wind Energy. You are a groovy mechanical engineer who is inspired by the story of a boy from Malawi. This boy, who, at fourteen years old, battled through extreme poverty to build a series of windmills from scratch. These windmills could generate electricity for his village – a luxury enjoyed by only 2 percent in Malawi. Using only the materials in your Groovy Lab in a Box, can you design and build a windmill which can fetch a pail of grooviness for those in need?

During your ENGINEERING DESIGN PROCESS, you will design and build several different types of groovy windmills. Explore forces and motion, potential and kinetic energy associated with windmills. Investigate various parts of a windmill, how different blade designs affect performance, how energy is transferred from the wind into usable mechanical energy and much, much more.

Join Now! and challenge your STEMists to a monthly Groovy Lab in a Box! Each box is full of everything a child needs to learn about and do hands-on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) investigations and engineering design challenges. Our monthly box activates thinking, questioning, inquiring and original creation as we guide children through scientific inquiry and the engineering design process.

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