Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Review: The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer

Some people are amazing. They are smart and motivated and they can't help but do great things. When a person like this grows up without the benefits and privileges that so many of us take for granted, it makes their accomplishments that much more inspiring. This is absolutely the case with William Kamkwamba, a Malawian teenager who built a windmill to generate electricity for his family's home. This memoir of his young life so far shows just what an impressive young man he is.

Kamkwamba is the son of a farmer. In good years the farm is productive and provides well for everyone. In lean years, it is much tougher. And in the famine years, the Kamkwamba family is lucky not to starve. Divided into three parts, the first section of the memoir tells of a typical farming life in the small African country of Malawi. This is an extensive part of the book, setting the scene for a readership certainly not familiar with the way of life, the lack of amenities and technology, and the worries in this mostly non-industrialized place. Kamkwamba paints a picture of his family's closeness, his friendships, and the magic that infuses their lives. But he doesn't shy away from the hardships and the want either, including the horrific drought and famine that devastated the country and resulted in many deaths. It was this famine that stole Kamkwamba's chance to go to school from him. If there were no crops, there was no money for school, never mind for school fees.

In the absence of formal schooling, Kamkwamba visits the tiny free library in the village to try and maintain his studies. He is drawn to the old donated American textbooks on physics, energy, and engineering. It is from these books, written in a language not his own, that he comes across the idea of building a windmill to generate electricity. The second section of the memoir deals with his scavenging for pieces that he could cobble together out of discarded junk to create the windmill and bring his dream to fruition. His curiosity, determination, and fierce perseverance shine as he learns from diagrams and through trial and error. This section has some of the most technical pieces of the memoir and the detailed explanation of the mechanics, without pictures, can be a little overwhelming and dry for the non-scientific reader.

The third and final section of the book deals with how his ingenuity finally gets recognized by the wider world. His experiences at conventions and with people around the world and in his own country feels rushed and like an unembellished list after the extensive narrative of the first and second parts. At this point the narration is quick, almost hurried, and short changes the further scientific creations he attempts, both those that succeed and those that fail. But even for its brevity, the final section does show, very abundantly, just how amazing his accomplishments were and are.

The memoir is co-written and it definitely has the feel of a simple, conversational telling, almost as if it is a transcription of interviews. Its balance is a bit off but the hope carried in the telling helps to mitigate that some. It is definitely an inspirational memoir with a touch of "necessity is the mother of invention" to it. If a boy from rural Malawi can simply state, "I try, and I made it!" then surely the possibilities for all of us everywhere are endless.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book to review.

1 comment:

  1. Oh, I loved this book.
    It came out a few years ago, though - is the publisher trying to promote it again?


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