At age 14, William Kamkwamba built a windmill to power his family’s home in Malawa.
The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind to speak at Avila Lecture Series
By ROBERT TRUSSELL
It sounds like the stuff of dreams: A curious kid with a need to learn stumbles across a science textbook in a small library, builds a windmill with scrap materials to bring electricity to his family home for the first time — and becomes a global celebrity.
That’s the often-told story of William Kamkwamba who this year will be the featured speaker for the Harry S. Truman Distinguished Lecture Series at Avila University.
Kamkwamba, 31, told the story himself in his 2007 best-seller, “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind,” co-written with Bryan Mealer. A movie based on the book is in production, adapted and directed by Chiwetel Ejiofor, the Nigerian-British actor who received an Oscar nomination for “12 Years a Slave.”
Kamkwamba is from Malawi, a land-locked nation nestled among larger countries in southeast Africa. He was raised on a farm but in the wake of a famine he was forced to drop out of school after his parents could no longer pay the tuition. But that didn’t keep him out of the small school library where he came across a book about electricity that inspired him to build his first windmill.
William Kamkwamba will speak at 5:30 p.m. Oct. 24 at the Goppert Theatre on the Avila University campus. The talk will be preceded by a panel discussion on sustainability at 3:30 p.m. and a reception. The event is free but requires registration at https://www.avila.edu/truman.
“In my talk, I’m going to focus on the work that I did,” Kamkwamba said from Chapel Hill, North Carolina. He spends half of each year working with the WiderNet Project at the University of North Carolina.
“When I started, I was just doing my work to solve the problem we were having at home,” he said. “I didn’t think my work would take me somewhere in the future. I’m happy with the way things turned out.”
Word of the boy who used wind power to generate enough electricity for small household appliances got attention. He eventually attracted the interest of venture capitalists and benefactors, some of whom paid for him to attend the African Leadership Academy in South Africa, where he met young people from across the continent. The experience broadened his perspective.
“I had a chance to interact with students from other countries,” he said. “I was exposed to different cultures and just learned what other countries are doing.”
Later he earned a degree in environmental sciences at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. (Before coming to the U.S., he said his perceptions of America were shaped almost entirely by action movies.)
Kamkwamba’s talk will be preceded by a panel discussion on sustainability, a timely topic in light of a recent United Nations report on global warming. The report predicts dire consequences if the increase in the earth’s temperature continues rising at the current rate.
Kamkwamba said he believes sustainability is a reasonable goal if countries can employ a wide range of energy sources.
“I think it’s possible to be achieved,” he said. “It is possible to achieve sustainable goals but it will take everyone taking part in it. If it is just one person doing it, then I think it will be a little difficult to achieve.”
When he goes home to Malawi, where he lives six months of the year, he said he is often approached by young people who are less interested in his celebrity status than his knowledge. They want his input on solving practical problems. His life today is a far cry from his childhood, when he was mocked for pursuing his crazy idea of building a windmill.
“It’s not like anything compared to what I was doing a few years ago,” he said.
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