This book has been reviewed by Focus on the Family’s marriage and parenting magazine.
William Kamkwamba is a young man from Malawi, a small nation in southeastern Africa. In the late 1990s, he and his six sisters live with their parents who are farmers, raising maize in the remote village of Masitala.
Though residing in an impoverished rural area, William’s childhood resembles that of many others. He has three good childhood friends, and together they improvise to create toys — trucks, guns and balls — from old beer cartons, sticks and plastic bags. Because he is small for his size, he has to deal with school bullies. William loves soccer and follows his favorite player and team on the radio, and he acquires a dog, Khamba, who becomes his best friend.
As an adolescent, William begins learning about science, and he and his cousin Geoffrey being taking apart old radios to see how they work. They soon become the expert radio repairmen in their village.
In 2000, William’s family is unable to afford fertilizer for their maize crop. Adding to their problems, the country experiences flooding followed by a prolonged drought. Harvest that year brings in only five bags of maize. William chronicles what happened to his family and village as people around the countryside begin to starve in what became a famine.
Though receiving only a few mouthfuls of Nsima (a kind of porridge made from maize flour) each day, William walks three miles to school until his father could no longer afford to send him. William’s dog also suffers from hunger, and one day William realizes that he must end Khamba’s suffering. He and his cousin take Khamba to the forest where they tie him to a tree and leave him to die. Though most Malawis do not consider dogs as pets, let alone friends, Khamba was a pet and friend for William, and his death is very hard for him. William and his cousin return the next day and bury the dog.
William’s father manages to plant some maize, and though there is no fertilizer, the small crop receives just enough rain to reach maturity. Only then does his family know that they will survive.
With time on his hands, because he was not in school and harvest is two months away, William visits a small library. He finds books on science and physics and becomes intrigued with electrical currents and electromagnets. Through the study of these books, he begins to learn English, discovering words like voltage, diode and resistor, which the lone librarian looks up and translates for him.
One day William finds a book called Using Energy. It has a picture of windmills on the cover, and this book changes William’s life. He gets the idea that if he builds a windmill next to his house, he could generate electricity and pump water. The idea excites William so much that he begins the same day by collecting items to build a small-scale windmill as an experiment.
William’s ingenuity takes the word upcycle to a new level as he repurposes and improvises to achieve his vision. For example, he fashions a hammer from a corncob and a nail, and pliers from two old bicycle spokes. He recognizes his first project as being successful when he and Geoffrey generate enough electricity to power a small radio that broadcasts his favorite musical group, the Black Missionaries.
On the heels of that small success, William starts constructing a large windmill, finding many needed parts in the scrap yard of an old tobacco plantation. With some help from his two best friends, William completes his windmill, and word of his invention spreads. He figures out how to create electric lights for his bedroom, complete with a circuit breaker. He also experiments with creating his own radio station and biogas, a way to convert organic matter, such as animal waste, into cooking fuel.
In 2006, William is 18, and he becomes well known in his region as an inventor. One day, Dr. Mchazime, an official from a teacher-training academy, arrives to meet William and see his windmill. He takes an interest in William and invites a radio journalist to interview him. After that, many more journalists come. Through various other connections, the program director of the TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) Global Conference learns of William’s story, locates him and encourages him to apply. William is accepted to a TED conference in Tanzania.
Dr. Mchazime takes up a collection to help William get back into a better school after his five-year absence and to buy him appropriate clothes to attend TED. Following the TED conference, William, with help from many people, goes on to complete high school. In 2007 he accepts an invitation to travel to the United States, spending time in New York and then Palm Springs, California, where he visits a windmill farm. He decides to further his studies at Dartmouth in New Hampshire and graduates in 2014.
The epilogue details more of William’s many accomplishments and interests. For example, he is able to send his sisters to college as well as his cousin and friend. He buys two trucks for his family to haul their harvest to market. After a planned internship in San Francisco, he anticipates returning to Malawi to further the development of numerous projects to help his people in education, transportation and the farming industry.
William’s father is a Presbyterian who trusts God for his protection. He tells William that the village wizards have no power over him when God is on his side, and he warns William against involvement in magic. Uncle Socrates says that the Lord blessed him with seven children. When William’s mother learns that the government’s emergency supply of maize is gone, she says that only God can help them.
William’s family celebrates Christmas, attending a Nativity play at their church on Christmas Eve, until the famine arrives. Then services are canceled. William and his cousin say they hope God has a plan for them when they both have to drop out of school.
William recalls Jesus’ parable about the sower. William tells Geoffrey that they are like seeds planted in fertile soil because they survived the famine. William expresses his gratitude to everyone who helped him and prays God’s blessing on them. After seeing the many benefits of the windmill, William’s family calls it a gift from heaven. One of their nicknames for William is Noah, who saved his family from a flood.
Before he learns about science, William believes in magic, especially that which stemmed from the witch doctors in his village. William relates several of the wild tales about their fantastic powers, and he seeks out a friend who he thinks has a magic potion that will give him super-human strength to help him deal with bullies. He later realizes that he was cheated out of his money because the magic potion was phony. As he matures, he no longer believes in magic.
William’s father does his best to provide for his family under extenuating circumstances. He encourages them while they are starving to think ahead to the next harvest, though it’s distant. Feeling remorse over not being able to send William to school, he lets him stay home from working the fields and gives him his blessing to work on the windmill. Similarly, William’s mother encourages her children to think about positive things while they are starving. Though her own family is barely surviving, she generously takes half a day’s flour to her nephew and his widowed mother. William’s mother also invites Geoffrey and his mother to eat with them as their crop begins to produce. Grandpa tells frightening stories to William about magic and witch doctors.
Drooling idiot is used once, and there are numerous uses of my with God’s name.
William picks a fight with a bully to test his new magical strength, expecting to pummel the larger boy. Instead, the bully beats him. He goes into some detail about concocting a trap for birds and skewering and cooking them.
Alcohol: Ofesi Boozing Centre is a local bar where the village men go to drink a beer made from corn. William and his friends collect the empty beer cartons to make toy trucks. Some school dropouts are said to work day jobs to get money so they can spend time in boozing dens, and for a time, William worries that he might become one of them because he can’t attend school.
Movie and music references: Rambo, The Terminator, and the Black Missionaries, which is a reggae-style Malawi group
Lying: William’s cousin Charity lies to a friend, who sells fried goat, in order to get the goat skin that is tossed out so that he and William will have something to eat on Christmas Day. Unable to afford school fees, William is desperate to attend, so he sneaks in but is caught after two weeks. Forbidden to take his father’s radio, he does so anyway, without permission, to test a dynamo.
Smoking: Grandfather smokes hand-rolled cigars. Smoking chamba (marijuana) is cited as something a crazy guy does.
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