From an early age, William Kamkwamba was fascinated with how things worked.
“I used to think that inside the radio there were tiny people who spoke,” Kamkwamba said.
Kamkwamba later found a radio and pulled it open to see whether there really were tiny people. What he found inside surprised him.
“Are these the people who speak in the radio?,” he asked himself of the different components. “I thought the only way I could tell if they were people would be to twist one of them to see if it screamed.”
Nothing screamed when Kamkwamba twisted the small component and from then on, he spent hours taking apart radios piece by piece.
“That’s how I learned to fix radios,” Kamkwamba said.
Kamkwamba spoke March 21 to students and faculty at Georgia Perimeter’s College’s (GPC) Clarkston campus about his book The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. English Professor Mary Helen Ramming said she read Kamkwamba’s book two years ago when she designed a curriculum for refugee students.
“I knew at that point it was a dream I had to sell to my colleagues, to get him to come to our campus, because I believe his story motivates us all,” Ramming said.
Kamkwamba is currently attending Dartmouth College and plans to major in environmental engineering.
Kamkwamba is from a small farming village in Malawi, Africa. When he was growing up, his parents farmed corn, tobacco and soybeans, each year harvesting enough food to sell and to feed the family until the next rainy season.
“One year, because of a drought, the crops only yielded a quarter amount of what they usually did. As a result a lot of people ran out of food and many of people starved to death,” Kamkwamba said.
Like the rest of the village, Kamkwamba’s family didn’t have enough food to last them through the year. To supplement their income, his parents started a business selling cakes made of corn flour. However, the flour was imported from Tanzania and because of the drought the price tripled when sellers realized it was an in demand commodity.
“We started eating only one time a day—that time was tough for everyone,” Kamkwamba said.
That year Kamkwamba began high school but was forced to drop out after two weeks because his parents couldn’t afford it–only primary school was free in Malawi.
“One day, I looked out at all of the dry fields—it was a future I couldn’t accept,” Kamkwamba said.
Kamkwamba wanted to continue his education, so he began checking out books at the library and copying notes from his friends still in school. When the famine ended, Kamkwamba hoped his parents would send him back to school.
“One day I went to the library and found this book Using Energy by professor Mary Atwater,” Kamkwamba said.
Atwater was a professor at the University of Georgia. “Inside the book it said windmills pump water and generate electricity. I figured, if we built a windmill we could grow food two or three times a year, instead of just one time a year and wait for the rainy season to come.”
Kamkwamba then began to construct a windmill using discarded scraps he found in a junkyard. He built a windmill to generate electricity for his home and the village.
He said many of the villagers thought he had gone crazy and most of them had no idea what a windmill was.
“My mom said to me at one point, ‘No one’s going to want to marry you because you’re crazy,’” Kamkwamba said. “Regardless of what people were saying I didn’t stop and I built my first windmill.
“One day I went to the library and the librarian asked me, ‘Why do you always check out the same book?’ and I told her about the windmill,” Kamkwamba said. The librarian visited him to see the windmill and soon word about his accomplishment spread throughout the country.
Kamkwamba was invited to speak at a technology, energy and design (TED) conference in Tanzania. TED is a nonprofit organization devoted to bringing people together with those interests from around the world.
“After I spoke, people came up to me and asked how they could help. I told them I wanted to continue my education. They helped me go back to school,” Kamkwamba said. When he got back to his village, he constructed a new windmill that pumped water and generated electricity. Kamkwamba said this allowed his family to grow vegetables year-round and become financially stable again.
Since then, Kamkwamba has started a nonprofit organization teaching communities in Mulawi modern farming techniques, in addition to reading and writing. He also built a classroom powered by solar ponds and windmillsat his old high school.
“I built the windmills with the children from the school because I was hoping to share my skills with other people in the area by teaching them,” Kamkwambi said.
Beza Gebremedhine, an Ethiopian student at GPC, said Kamwamba’s book helped her through the cultural shift she experienced when she first arrived in the United States.
“There’s a big difference between how Americans think about food and how we think about food. It’s very inspirational,” Gebremedhine said. “I’m studying pre-med now and this book has inspired me go back to Ethiopia, where there is a huge HIV and AIDS epidemic, and help people with that.”