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The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Persistence, Jury-Rigging, and Ingenuity Against All Odds

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We seldom post about books at Gizmodo, but if this story of a self-taught Malawian boy using junkyard parts to build windmills and bring life-changing electricity to his village doesn't make you misty-eyed, then you must be one cold-hearted bastard.

Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence, and William Kamkwamba has it in spades. At age fourteen, while many of us were sneaking out of classrooms, William was struggling to sneak into them—his family was unable to afford the $80 annual tuition. As is bound to happen to most students, he was caught. But instead of being sent to detention, he was barred from the school. In a show of the driven man he would become, he didn't allow that to hinder him and instead started spending his days in the local library. While there, he encountered a book called Using Energy:

Using Energy described how windmills could be used to generate electricity. Only two percent of Malawians have electricity, and the service is notoriously unreliable. William decided an electric windmill was something he wanted to make. Illuminating his house and the other houses in his village would mean that people could read at night after work. A windmill to pump water would mean that they could grow two crops a year rather than one, grow vegetable gardens, and not have to spend two hours a day hauling water. "A windmill meant more than just power," he wrote, "it was freedom."


This book is what changed his life. And I don't mean that as an exaggeration. It was truly what made a difference in his life. Because of that book, and the potential he saw in its ideas, William began to build:

William scoured trash bins and junkyards for materials he could use to build his windmill. With only a couple of wrenches at his disposal, and unable to afford even nuts and bolts, he collected things that most people would consider garbage-slime-clogged plastic pipes, a broken bicycle, a discarded tractor fan-and assembled them into a wind-powered dynamo. For a soldering iron, he used a stiff piece of wire heated in a fire. A bent bicycle spoke served as a size adapter for his wrenches.


Imagine that. A young boy being so motivated by ideas and the sheer need to build something life-changing that he discovered materials and uses for them which most of us wouldn't even dream of. As Mark Frauenfelder put it:

For an educated adult living in a developed nation, designing and building a wind turbine that generates electricity is something to be proud of. For a half-starved, uneducated boy living in a country plagued with drought, famine, poverty, disease, a cruelly corrupt government, crippling superstitions, and low expectations, it's another thing altogether. It's nothing short of monumental.

After completing his first windmill, William "went on to wire his house with four light bulbs and two radios, installing switches made from rubber sandals, and scratch-building a circuit breaker to keep the thatch roof of his house from catching fire." His project had the attention of village locals early on, but at this point he gained the attention of TED, Technology Entertainment Design, through whom he was introduced to individuals willing to contribute to his plans to "electrify, irrigate, and educate his village, as well as pay his tuition at the prestigious African Leadership Academy in Johannesburg."

In short: A young man struggled to educate himself, to build something his village needed, and in the end made a difference to the entire locale and gained the education he'd always wanted. Yes, it's a fluffy, feel-good story with a happy ending. What should you take from the it? Maybe that there's hope in the bleakest of situations, maybe that your teachers and parents were right about the power of education, maybe just that I'm a sappy bookworm with a soft spot for happy endings. No matter, if you wish to learn more, you can read the recently released The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, check out William's blog, or peek at this video from before he ever wrote his autobiography. [GOOD via Boing Boing]