Fighting The Drought, The Story of William Kamkwamba, The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind
When William Kamkwamba first built his famous windmill in Malawi in 2001, he used what he had around him and salvaged the rest from nearby junkyards. His story is a true example of the illustration that if one can start with what they have, where they are — there is no telling what they could achieve if they persist and stick at it.
While everybody in his home village was praying for rain, the 14 year old was working at solutions. William’s family were self-reliant subsistence farmers who lived in the breadbasket of Malawi — an area which produced the most maize in the country. Some farmers, like William’s dad, also grew tobacco plants in order to supplement the sale of the maize. As subsistence farmers, they used some of the harvest for food, some for fodder for their livestock, and the rest as stock at the local market. As long as they had consistent rain and the seasons were the same year-on-year, they could happily grow maize as they had done for centuries.
This year, however, the climate was erratic. There was unusually heavy rainfall followed by no rain at all. “The first showers gave the seedlings confidence to finally push through the soil,” William recounts, “so farmers applied fertilizer and hoped for the best. But the rains that followed were much too heavy, falling day and night for a whole week. Great floods swept across the country, carrying away homes and livestock, along with the seedlings that had just begun to grow. Fortunately there was no flooding in our district, but the rains still washed away the fertilizer and any hopes of high yields. After the floods, the rains simply vanished and a period of drought cursed the land. Each day the sun rose hot in the sky and showed no mercy on the young seedlings that had survived. By February, the stalks were wilted and hunched toward the ground like an old woman sweeping the dirt. A bit of rain in March saved us from total disaster and allowed the stalks to mature, but just barely.” He says. By May, the sun had burned half of the crop.
William’s family harvested what little they could that year — which amounted to only five sacks of grain. In previous years, they would harvest enough grain to fill a large storage room full. This year however, these five sacks had to last until the next harvest which was a year away. With maize being the staple diet in most households in the country, the local government had special measures in place for times of emergency such as these; farmers could go for aid and get rations from provincial storehouses. However, this time the department had sold off all it’s grain stores in order for the government to pay off its debts to other nations. There was nothing left for the farmers.
William’s parents, having exhausted all options, decided that they would do what they could to make these five sacks of grain last the year; by eating only one small meal per day.
William describes the typical evening meal as “a single bowl containing one gray blob that did not even look like food”. Another bowl nearby contained some mustard greens, when the food was passed from one person to the other, the children would pick it apart like a handful of hens. “We didn’t even bother using plates,” he says. “The way I calculated it, each person got seven mouthfuls of food.” As the months passed, William and his family began to slowly starve, along with more than seven million people in the country, which consisted of three-quarters of the population. “We were all losing weight,” he recalls, “and the bones began to show on my chest, the rope I’d used as a belt no longer sufficed.”
Famine struck the region and killed off countless by starvation. William had to drop out of school because his family could no longer afford to send him. But he was determined to learn. Through self education, he continued on with his studies. He borrowed books from his school’s library and set himself to diligent self-learning. On one particular occasion, while looking up books in the science category, he stumbled upon a book on the subject of Energy, particularly ‘Clean Energy’. He devoured the book. In one particular section, it said that windmills could create electricity and pump water from underground wells. This gave William an epiphany: with a windmill, he could solve the problems in the village. They could have enough water year-round and not have to depend on rain; They could also grow tomatoes, potatoes, cabbages, mustards, soy and other greens and sell them off at the market.
The book inspired him so much that it took possession of him immediately. He studied it cover to cover and drew theoretical models in his mind of how it would work mechanically. Once he had decided on what he needed, he looked around him for parts and asked local farmers to borrow him the tools he needed to construct the windmill.
He also probed around junkyards and found an old radio-motor that worked, in another yard he found a bicycle, from which he took it’s frame and used the wheels as a rotor. He also salvaged rusty tractor fan blades, an old shock absorber, gum tree wood, PVC pipes, and bamboo poles from the surrounding areas.
It took him three months to build his first working prototype. Many people in his village thought he was crazy for even trying: how could a spinning fan provide water for a village? And even more absurd was how could it provide electricity? But he pressed on. Once he hoisted it up, and tied it all together, it worked like magic; a phone was brought to charge its battery through it and the phone began charging. When he had earned the confidence of his fellow villagers, they helped him dig a borehole for a deep well. Once constructed, it not only brought water and consistent irrigation to the village but it also brought electricity. When construction was completed, the windmill was pumping two five-thousand liter tanks, giving their crops nourishment and clean drinking water for the people. It spared his mother three hours each morning from carrying water from the public wells to the house.
The villagers were soon lining up at William’s house to charge their phones and word spread of the young man and his invention. “The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind”, they called him.