The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind tells the story of William Kamkwamba, a young man in central Malawi who improvises a windmill out of bicycle and other scrap yard parts to produce electricity for his family’s home. Its 28 pages of text, with a few lines at upper-primary level on each page are illustrated with oil paint and cut-paper collages of William’s life at home and in the fields, and of his tinkering and construction of the windmill. These appealing collages are laid out simply and powerfully with rich color and delicate detail. Two denser text pages appended to the story describe Kamkwamba’s trajectory more fully, from his parents’ farm and Malawi’s famine to his TED conference speech in 2007 and his engineering studies at Dartmouth College. This illustrated book is a children’s version of the bestselling book of the same title, with its associated blogs, promotional tours, and linked development projects.
At the beginning of the book, young William is shown striding across a green hill above the brown landscapes of his village, then dreaming at night in his room, then working in the field with his family. A drought comes and famine follows, and William must withdraw from school. Then he remembers the library down the road, ‘a gift of the Americans.’ There he finds science books that spark and guide his vision of bringing magetsi a mphepo (electric wind) to the valley that can bring water to the thirsty fields. Tinkering on his own, misunderstood as misala (crazy) by other villagers, he works with young friends to raise the improvised tower with its tractor and bicycle gear. William’s triumph is shown in the beacon of a glowing light bulb he holds high for the approving crowd, and in a final image of green fields to the horizon, with windmills towering above well-watered maize plants and well-fed farmers with full baskets of produce. “Magetsi a mphepo… can feed my country, William thought. And that was the strongest magic of all.”
The book is cast as an inspirational story of a young man who persevered against circumstances to realize his independent vision and his desire to learn, and to contribute to his community and its future. This brings strengths but perhaps also weaknesses, the relative judgement of which can depend on the reader’s taste and perspective. Many readers in the US respond well to this narrative form, and overall, the book strongly and coherently conveys this story, especially in the second half, in which wind, windmills, and light bulbs dominate William’s imagination and the book’s images. Modern technical science is proposed as displacing existing magic and as bringing light and hope. More generally, the book casts self-directed youth-driven technical enterprise and wind-powered electrification – enabled by a pivotal American gift (the library) – as capable of transforming the bare brown land of a poor and hungry community into prosperous green fields of plenty and contentment.
There is merit in this simultaneously individualizing, youth-focused, technophilic, and humanitarian perspective – so familiar to many US audiences – but it also oversimplifies, even distorts, the realities of village life, education, food security, and development in southeastern Africa. Obscured or missing are most of the existing wealth of village relationships, thought, moral judgment, and appropriate technologies; the primary causes of famine beyond the drought (governmental failures in Malawi; international and US-driven politics of trade and food aid); deforestation and population growth; the problems of the region’s schools and educational systems; the real social planning and provision of electrification and the mixed blessings of stratification and social change that come with it; Kamkwamba’s pragmatic and self-directed actual goals and early use of the windmill; and educated Malawians in other towns who first noticed and helped William before TED’s venture capitalists brought him on the world stage. I wonder if any of these could be brought forward more effectively in this relatively stripped-down narrative.
Overall, the book offers a hopeful and engaging narrative with many lovely illustrations. It offers a respectful portrayal of a farming family and villagers in Malawi, with glimpses into their daily lives and work, and of how despite their efforts and solidarity, they are struck with a killing drought and famine. It presents a compelling story of a resourceful and positive young man who perseveres to realize his goals even after losing his place in school to these events and to his own family’s poverty. It sets in simplified relief a few of the tremendous environmental and developmental challenges that shape the lives of many millions in this region of Africa, and suggests the importance of education, technical innovation, and international aid and concern in facing these. For the young reader or listener, the illustrations and text establish from the start a believable and sympathetic personal identification with William and his family; the figure of William can stand in some ways for almost any young person with a family life, things he or she likes to do, and dreams or aspirations of his or her own. The mention of the US gift of the library implicates the American reader as a benevolent party to the story, and as someone whose thought and action can make a difference. The power and potential effect of the book is deepened by the appended two-page description of William’s life trajectory, and by the reality of his person and circumstances, well documented in the bestselling book for US adult and university markets. Therefore, I would on balance highly recommend the book for young readers and listeners, as a first exposure to these issues, and as a seed for future deeper understanding, concern, and involvement with African issues.
Published in Africa Access Review (November 13, 2012)
Copyright 2012 Africa Access
Reviewed by: David Eaton, California State University, Chico