Today I salute William Kamkwamba of Malawi – and reflect on some of the beliefs we carry about development, education and poverty. There is often a belief that the people to be ‘developed’ (usually poor, lacking formal education, and in rural areas, or slums or townships) do not know what they want, and because of lack of education and poverty are unable to make a difference. There is often a belief that if we do not ‘bring development’ to them, they will not be able to make a difference in their own lives. And a belief that because they do not speak English very well they are not very bright. William Kamkwamba tells a different story.
In 2010 I was going through the Schiphol airport in the Netherlands when my eye landed on this book. The title is what attracted me first because it sounded like a myth or legend – and when I read the back of the book I knew I had to buy it – and what an inspiring read (I must also say it is a slow start – but picks up as you go along).
William Kamkwamba was born in 1987 and grew up in rural Malawi. When he was about 13, he started taking apart old radios, and putting them back together again, with a friend. They later began to fix people’s radios for them, and because there was no electricity they would collect old discarded batteries to power the radios. William was fascinated by how things worked and this led him to discover that the dynamo on a bicycle made electricity to power the light, and he could use it to power a radio (although the pedalling was tiring). This triggered his desire to create electricity for his home and family – a dream he forgot and then re-discovered later. In 2000, the year he finished primary school there were floods and a drought, and crops failed. The villages further away were hit first by the famine and later spread across the country. Food became scarce, and very expensive. His father was a farmer, and like many other farmers in that period he lost all his crops. And his family barely survived the famine.
The following year William learnt that he had passed his primary school exams well enough to go to secondary school. He started school but had to drop out because his parents did not have the money to pay fees. They were trying to recover from the damage of the famine. William was upset about this, but his desire to learn was so strong, he continued to go to the library of a local primary school to read. There he found a book, ‘Using Energy’, which had pictures of windmills on the cover. This reawakened his dream to make electricity, and although he could not read very well, he understood the pictures in the book, and used this to guide his project. In 2002, in spite of all the village thinking he had gone mad, William finished his windmill (using scrap material, and getting favours from people), and it created electricity for his home.
His story, by some strange fate ended up in the national newspapers, and on someone’s blog, and this led to exposure on the TED Africa, and TED Global front. He was later sponsored, and went back to school – in Malawi, then in Johannesburg.
William is now 24 years old, and studying environmental studies with a minor in engineering at Dartmouth College in the USA. He has, through the help of others, made a water pump for his family (and village), so his father can harvest twice a year, regardless of whether the rains come or not. He has started an NGO to support primary school he went to in Wimbe, Malawi, has built two more windmills and has dreams of returning to Malawi to continue his work.
Maybe, when we are engaging in the practice of development we need to LOOK more carefully and LISTEN more closely in order to understand what is really going on, and then SUPPORT those people who, in spite of everything around them, are already making a difference!!!
SOME LINKS FOR INFORMATION ON WILLIAM KAMKWAMBA