When I was 14, I was sulking in malls and reading Harry Potter. When William Kamkwamba was 14, he was constructing the 36-foot windmill in a remote village in Northern Malawi that would eventually bring electric power to his family, and make life possible during a famine. William's makeshift wind turbine brought lights to their home and a water pump that irrigated their tobacco fields.
With The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, out on Netflix on March 1, Kamkwamba's incredible life achievement gets a soaring cinematic treatment. The film was written and directed by Chiwetel Ejiofor; he also stars as William's skeptical-turned-supportive father, Trywell Kamkwamba. An adorable and charismatic Maxwell Simba plays William, the second of Trywell and Agnes Kamkwamba's seven children, and only son.
Ironically, Kamkwamba's story of tremendous engineering achievement begins with him being kicked out of school. Kamkwamba's parents were unable to pay his $80 annual tuition fee and remain afloat during the deadly Malawi famine of 2002, during which several hundred Malawians died of hunger. No longer bound to the classroom, Kamkwamba stole away from his family's maize and tobacco fields for time in his town's library. There, he checked out the English-language textbook, Using Energy, emblazoned with a windmill on the cover.
Kamkwamba knew what he wanted to do: Bring electricity and water to his village. But without money for fuel, Kamkwamba didn't immediately know how to achieve this near-impossible dream — only 1% of Malawi's rural population has access to electricity. Despite his shaky grasp of English at the time, Kamkwamba pieced together the information in the wind power textbook and set off recreating the cover's image as best he could.
While his friends were in class, Kamkwamba scavenged for windmill materials from the scrap yard near his former school. To his neighbors watching outside, Kamkwamba appeared to be unhinged — they called him "misala," or crazy.
“When I was making [the windmill], all these people were mocking me that I was driving mad, but I had confidence in what I was doing because I knew if it was written in the books then it was true and possible. When I succeeded they were impressed,” Kamkwamba explained to the Malawi Daily Times in 2006.
In the movie, even Kamkwamba's father struggles to wrap his mind around the concepts that come so naturally to his son. Despite facing skepticism, Kamkwamba ended up constructing a windmill using scrap metal, PVC pip, and tractor and bicycle parts. Kamkwamba's first windmill was able to power four lights, an achievement on its own.
But it's the second windmill that still towers today in the village of Wimbe, a testament to one boy's ingeniousness and can-do spirit. In addition to providing electricity, this tall windmill powered a deep well that freed Wimbe's farmers from relying entirely on the weather.
"With a windmill, I could stay awake at night reading instead of going to bed at 7 with the rest of Malawi," Kamkwamba wrote in his 2009 book, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. "With a windmill, we'd finally release ourselves from the troubles of darkness and hunger. A windmill meant more than just power, it was freedom."
In 2006, four years after it went up, Kamkwamba's makeshift windmill attracted the attention of local journalists. A feature story in the Malawi Daily Times proclaimed, "School Dropout With a Streak of Genius." After this accomplishment, Kamkwamba still hadn't been able to return to school. But thanks increased media coverage, a government official arranged for Kamkwamba's education to be paid for through high school. In 2007, Kamkwamba's story reached a global scale. He was the the star of a TED conference hosted in Arusha, Tanzania. There, Kamkwamba met Ted Rielly, the New York-based TED community director who helped him through college.
Kamkwamba's achievements have carried him away from his 60-family home village of Wimbe. His 2009 book The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind spent weeks on best-seller list and became mandatory reading for incoming freshmen at the University of Florida and the University of Michigan. In 2014, he graduated from Dartmouth University. By the time he was 31, he had a motion picture and a documentary made about him. And, of course, he made Time Magazine's "30 Under 30" List.
But no matter how far he traveled, Kamkwamba's goal was always to return to Malawi and better his community. Even while he was in college in New Hampshire, Kamkwamba's mind was on Malawi. As a 24-year-old engineering student, Kamkwamba was paying for the private school of four sisters, a cousin, a friend, and some neighbors out of pocket. He also founded a soccer team and launched a fundraiser to rebuild the local school. "What I am always thinking about is how I can apply what I am learning here to help those at home,” Kamkwamba told the Dartmouth Alumni Magazine in 2011, when he was a freshman.
Kamkwamba lived up to his promise. It should come as no surprise to hear that Kamkwamba has continued his philanthropic goals. His nonprofit, Moving Windmills, is devoted to pursuing educational and developmental projects in Malawi.