The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind

As part of Climate Generation’s #TeachClimate Network, we read The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer. Krista Hiser, Professor of English at Kapi’olani Community College in Honolulu, HI reviewed the book. Important to note is the interdisciplinary nature of this book. It could be used in an ELA, science, environmental studies, or social studies class.

Just a few pages into this book, I had to stop and find Malawi on a map.

I am embarrassed of how little I know about Africa, my prior literary knowledge coming from the character of Precious Ramotswe, proprietor of the Ladies #1 Detective Agency. I discovered that Malawi is in the same quadrant of Africa as Botswana, where Mme Ramotswe drinks bush tea and Mr. JLB Matekoni fixes engines. The characters and dialogue in The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind evoked, for me, a similar sense of place, and a feeling of respect, discipline, and being-in-the-moment. Mme Ramotswe solves fictional puzzles and minor disputes; William Kamkwamba solves the real-world wicked problems of sustainability.

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind is the story of how a boy built a windmill out of bicycle parts, PVC pipe, Carlsberg bottle caps, and gum-tree poles. How he drilled holes through the PVC using a hot nail embedded in a corncob, taught himself physics and electronics, and eventually became a TEDx scholar and participant in the global clean energy transition. It is, ultimately, a coming of age story about project-based learning, sense of place, science, and self-discovery.

This inspiring story has been published in three versions: a vivid picture book for kids, a young adult version, and a bestselling creative nonfiction full-length book. This teacher’s review is based on the full-length version.

Long before the reader even gets to the part about the windmill, she or he must experience 70-some pages of famine. Just as I’d needed to situate the book on a map, I found myself situating the book in time – what was I doing (and what were my first-year community college students doing?) in 2002, as William and his family stretched nsima and stewed pumpkin leaves into months of meager meals.

There is a scene in the book where the schoolchildren study global geography and find themselves on the map:

“We ran our fingers over our country, and I marveled at how small a place it was compared to the rest of the earth. To think, my whole life and everything in it had taken place inside this little strip. Looking at it on the map — shaded green with roads zigzagging brown, the lake like a sparkling jewel — you’d never guess that eleven million people lived there, and at that very moment, most of them were slowly starving” (p. 131).

The famine lasts a significant portion of the book and a long, thin season of William’s life. He is lucky to survive, though many students including his could not afford the fees for school. Mr. Kamkwamba is an autodidact who taught himself from discarded physics textbooks at a local library.

He describes his learning process like a lightbulb (literally, a switch flipping): “It was as if my brain had long ago made a place for these symbols, and once I discovered them in these books, they snapped right into place.”

As a teacher, what I love about the book is this modeling of learning as discovery, and the essential truth that we have within us all we need to know to solve problems of sustainability.

With Mr. Kamkwamba’s amazing power of description and recollection, and a skilled supporting author in Brian Mealer, the book covers an incredible range of transdisciplinary topics: engineering, politics, ecology, family and culture, religion, health. For example, this passage seems to cover a semester’s worth of watershed management and systems thinking:

“Few people realize this, but cutting down the trees is one of the things that keeps us Malawians poor. Without the trees, the rains turn to floods and wash away the soil and its minerals. The soil – along with loads of garbage – runs into the Shire River, clogging up the dams with silt and trash and shutting down the turbine. Then the power plant has to stop all operations and dredge the river, which in turn causes power cuts. And because this process is so expensive, the power company has to charge extra for electricity, making it even more difficult to afford. So with no crops to sell because of drought and floods, and with no electricity because of clogged rivers and high prices, many people feed their families by cutting down trees for firewood or selling it as charcoal. It’s like that.” (p. 82)

I read this book with the #TeachClimate Book Club because personally, I am trying to balance out the cli-fi and post-apocalyptic novels that can help us visualize solutions but which, too often, reinforce a scary sense of despair. Here’s the thing. The deep suffering of drought and famine, in this book, is what created the space for his creative learning. Through the urgency of actual nearness of death and the contrasting desire to stay up past dark, to pump water, and to dance to music on the radio, it is as if the famine created the drive that stimulated the creativity and passion to create the windmill.

Perhaps we adults of the developed world, even us who are “woke” to the planetary crisis we face and who “wake up” every day to teach it in developmentally appropriate ways from elementary school through college, perhaps we have lost our imagination because we are so afraid of losing the illusion of comfort and security that our “overshoot” lifestyle has allowed us to pretend.

Surviving everything that we most fear is what ignited Williams’ mind and disciplined him to keep learning and keep trying to manifest the vision of a windmill in his mind.

The world discovered William’s windmill in 2007, and he was welcomed into the global dialogue of science, technology, engineering, and math. He studied English, learned to use the Internet, and graduated from Dartmouth College. His is the “hero’s journey” of learning. As he transformed his own life, he brings with him his family (who now has light bulbs and food), his community, country, and this sense that Africa, as a continent and as an attitude, has important contributions to global sustainability.

As blogger Erik Hersman put it, “Africans bend what little they have to their will every day. Using creativity, they overcome Africa’s challenges. Where the world sees trash, Africa recycles. Where the world sees junk, Africa sees rebirth.” (p. 267)

 

Here are some ideas for teaching with this book:

  • Use the picture book version with younger students, then explore electricity and how developed countries take it for granted. As Beth Soholt, of the Clean Grid Alliance described in the #TeachClimate Network meeting: “Teaching kids how energy gets to the light switch helps them think about these issues.”
  • Middle school students reading the young adult version (which has engaging photos in the middle section) can learn about clean energy and specifically wind power in their state. In some areas, utilities resist clean energy. Researching your state’s legislation on renewable energy, particularly any upcoming bills, can inspire students to write letters, speak up, and make their vision of their future known.
  • High school students could work in teams to create art or engineering projects out of scrap items or trash, using creativity and team building and describing how they solved problems and made decisions.
  • College students could read the book in small groups, each focusing on a different aspect of sustainability in the book: social/cultural issues, politics, economics, and ecology. The intersection of these “four pillars” of sustainability in the book and how each interacted with William’s life could illuminate multidisciplinary connections.
  • The book could be discussed over a meal of nsima (or while skipping lunch to experience empathy with real hunger). This could lead to conversation about famine in developing countries and food insecurity in local communities. Food waste can be connected to climate change and reducing food waste as a carbon mitigation strategy.
  • At any level, the book could be discussed in relationship to the 17 Global Goals or Sustainable Development Goals. What matters to you, as a reader? What are you curious about?

 

One question I had about the book was how to teach with the gendered experiences of education represented in the book. Educating girls is the #6 solution in Paul Hawkens’ Drawdown. Could a girl in Malawi have made this windmill?  Why or why not? Perhaps we could try to rewrite the story from the perspective of one of William’s sisters.

But in conclusion, the most important line of the book is from the opening to William Kamkwamba’s 2007 TEDx talk:

“And I try, and I made it.”

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