books poverty technology

Book review: The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind

Back in 2007 when this blog was young, I wrote about William Kamkwamba and his DIY wind turbine as an example of appropriate technology. Since then the story has been published as a biography, and then turned into a rather good movie directed by Chiwetel Ejiofor.

I hadn’t actually read the whole story for myself, but I noticed that there’s a Young Readers edition and I bought it to read to the kids. So this has been our bedtime reading for the last couple of weeks, and they have loved it.

The book tells the story of William Kamkwamba, a child in a village in rural Malawi. His family are farmers, more or less eking out a subsistence lifestyle. There isn’t the money to send him to school beyond primary, his obvious intelligence and desire to learn counting for nothing when there is so little money to go round.

William does have access to a small library though, and in it he finds a book on using energy, with a picture of wind turbines on the front. He immediately grasps the potential for such a machine, and starts to work out how to build one. The book is in English, so he has to start by learning enough of the language to understand what it is describing, looking up the words in a dictionary.

Then he has to find the parts to build a windmill. There’s no money to buy anything, so components are scavenged from a junkyard and improvised. He uses the frame of a bicycle, plastic pipe melted and hammered into turbine blades, washers made from bottle tops, and home-made light switches made from old flip-flops. It’s no spoiler to say he succeeds, despite the scepticism of the locals. There isn’t even a word for windmill in Chichewa, so he calls it ‘electric wind’. It makes him famous, first in the local marketplace, and then across the region through the attention of bloggers and the TED conference, and then the world with the help of journalist Bryan Mealer and a bestselling biography.

It’s a great story, and The Boy who Harnessed the Wind tells it well, with wit and warmth. It’s a distinctively African tale, a large scale version of the homespun ingenuity that was very familiar to me in Madagascar when I was a child. It’s also a powerful eyewitness account of living through a famine, how it affects a childhood, a family and a community. This particular story has a happy ending, but so many don’t. In an era of climate change and the growing threat of food insecurity, it’s useful to bring this to life and understand it better.

Reading it to the children, who are aged 7 and 9, worked well. They were practically bouncing off the walls when the windmill was connected for the first time and William’s light bulb flickers into life. It also gave us an opportunity to talk about all sorts of things – hunger, poverty, education, energy access – big issues that were grounded in the story and its cast of characters. We got to see the world through someone else’s eyes for a couple of weeks, and we have all felt enriched by this extraordinary story.

  • You can pick up The Boy who Harnessed the Wind from Earthbound Books UK or Bookshop (US). The book is also available in the original adult version and a picture book for younger children.
  • Check out Moving Windmills, William Kamkwamba’s charitable foundation.


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