Sunday, February 16, 2014



The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind

The French woman instructed me to try on the tiniest pair of shorts I had ever seen. After a great deal of effort, somehow, I got the button fastened around my waist. When she saw them, she became excited and showed me the wooden tennis racket that would complete my look for the athletic part of the fashion show. (To recognize the irony of the story, you must recognize my lifelong inability to hit a tennis ball over a net – that is, the net in front of me.) Needless to say, I knew that I needed to cut out everything in my diet that could possibly be considered “fattening” in order to fit comfortably in those shorts: meat, milk in my coffee, cheese, and even my wheat toast and honey in the mornings. My diet consisted of mainly various fruits and vegetables, some rice, and nuts. I cut out sugar – and drank solely water, black coffee, or herbal tea. 

When I read the book on Malawi, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, I found myself disconcerted by its descriptions of famine and hunger. I was forced to think how far removed my westernized life is from the realities of a vast number of the world’s population. Food being a scarce resource is not even a thought that enters my mind – to the point that I was willing to limit my food intake just for aesthetic purposes. While I was “fasting” for my fashion show in Berlin, there were millions of hungry people, who would have done almost anything for just a little extra food to feed their families. 

The power of this particular book is that it shares a voice that I often find missing in my readings on Africa: the voice on an ordinary person – someone who isn’t in academia, isn’t a political leader, and isn’t a wealthy business person. This book is the biography of William Kamkwamba of Malawi (born 1987), and was written with the assistance of Bryan Mealer. In 2007, he gained international attention after becoming a TED fellow for his archaic invention made by hand. (Watch both TED videos - Tanzania in 2007 and Oxford in 2009.)

Malawi is a small landlocked country in southeast Africa that is known for its poverty and lack of development. This is evident in the health of its people: The current life expectancy at birth for the average Malawian is 52 years of age. Over 900,000 Malawians (or 11% of the population) lives with HIV/AIDS: one of the highest infection rates in the world. However, this lack of development is also evident in economic terms: The gross domestic product per capita (or the total output of Malawi divided by the country’s population) is only $800 and 90% of the population works in the agricultural sector. 

When one reads these quotes about the economic situation, often the numbers and figures seem to ameliorate the severe reality of these facts. This is why I enjoyed this book so much, as I had the opportunity to look at the reality through the eyes of a Malawian: “My greatest fear was coming true: I would end up just like him, another poor Malawian farmer laboring in the soil. Thin and dirty, with hands as rough as animal hides and feet that knew no shoes. I loved my father and respected him deeply, but I did not want to end up like him. If I did, my life would never be determined by me, but by rain and the price of fertilizer and seeds.” (page 183)

William was born in a rural village, where (as he noted in the quotation above) his father was a farmer – focusing his growing efforts on maize, as well as tobacco (if he was lucky.) In 2001, William’s entire family fell prey to a widespread famine which affected the country deeply, brought on by a drought the previous year. In order to buy enough food to barely survive, his family indebted themselves and he was forced to withdraw from school. Not only was he unable to concentrate because of his nagging hunger, but also his father was unable to pay his school bills. Even after the famine, his family was still unable to send him to school due to their difficult financial situation. It was then that he began to find solace in a local “library” which consisted of only a few shelves. While reading a physics book, he decided that a solution to his family’s troubles would be the creation of a windmill to power electricity: “Only 2 percent of Malawians have electricity, and this is a huge problem. Having no electricity meant no lights, which meant I could never do anything at night, such as study or finish my radio repairs, much less see in the dark.” (page 81) Even more, having a windmill would mean that his family could pump water and never be forced to deal with the unpredictable rain for their survival. 

For months, as other children went to school, William dug through garbage lots, trying to find scrap metal with which he could create his windmill. This was a huge undertaking. Not only had William never seen a windmill, but he also lived in a society that still viewed modern science as supernatural force. Despite everyone’s predications that he would fail, he succeeded – at the age of 14. His tenacity inspired TED – which in turn provided him exposure and opportunities, such as receiving investment capital, returning to school, and later, studying in the United States. His story is truly an inspirational one about having faith in the unseen and the tenacity of the human spirit to survive hardship.

One of the aspects which interested me the most about this book was the concept of “power” in Africa, as told by an ordinary person. At the beginning of this book, William seemed to believe that his future was decided for him even before he was born, based on the consolidated power and wealth in the hands of a few. He criticizes former President of Malawi from 1994 to 2004, Bakili Muluzi, often calling him a “funny guy” in a tongue-in-cheek manner. In my opinion, he provides a very blunt perspective on the state of affairs in Malawi, including the “big man” syndrome. This political science term has constantly recurred in my readings on Africa, and seems to be ubiquitous throughout the continent, whether it be in a village or a national government. I found these three particular ideas very interesting:
  • Definition of the Big Man Syndrome: “Around this time, President Muluzi was busy traveling the country in his usual fashion, giving out small handouts of money and showing that he was a Big Man. Massive rallies were held for loyal officials, complete with dancers, military parades, and lots of food. Everywhere the president went, he tossed the poor just enough flour or kwacha to make sure they remembered him come election day.” (page 94)
  • Corruption among Government Officials: “These men delivered some terrible news: a few months before, President Muluzi’s people had sold all our surplus grain for profit. Much of it had gone by lorry over the border to Kenya. In addition, millions of kwacha [Malawian currency] were missing, and no one in the government was taking responsibility.” (page 87)
  • Denial of the Real Situation: “The president scoffed at this absurd idea, saying he’d grown up himself in the village where people had often died of other things, such as tuberculosis, cholera, malaria, or diarrhea, but never from lack of food. ‘Nobody has died of hunger,’ he said.” (page 139)
Please feel free to comment on these topics or note something interesting from the book. I look forward to hearing your opinions! 

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