Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Chasing Windmills

William was the only boy in a family of seven children, growing up on a small maize farm in the African country of Malawi.  At the age of fourteen, he had never been away from his home village of Masitala.  He attended school, but had never seen a computer or used the Internet.  His village didn’t even have electricity.

That year, a disastrous famine ravaged Malawi.  The lack of water for proper irrigation meant a huge decrease in crop production, bringing more than 70 percent of the population to the edge of starvation within five months.  William’s family could only eat one meal per day that consisted of three bites each of Nsima, a thick, starchy porridge made from maize.  Their health declined, and they all dropped physically down to almost nothing.

Much of the family’s limited earnings were spent on kerosene for cooking and heat, since there was no electricity.  With their income dwindling due to the much-reduced crop yield, the family had to cut expenses.  William dropped out of secondary school, because they could no longer afford to pay the 75 dollar per year school fee.  But despite hunger and limited resources, William was not simply going to accept this as his fate.  Instead, he decided to educate himself at the small community library.  He couldn’t read English very well, often absorbing the information through diagrams and pictures.  In the process, he came across an idea to potentially help his family.

William read as many science books as he could find in the library, particularly those on physics.  He thought to himself, ‘We don’t have enough water in Malawi, but we do have wind… what can I do with that wind so we can have something more?’  It was in Using Energy, an old American textbook, that William first saw a picture of a windmill. The small caption with the picture explained that, "windmills generate electricity and pump water."  Pumping water meant irrigation, a defense against dying crops and hunger.  And electricity meant less reliance on purchased kerosene.  William began studying books on windmills.

The books he found didn’t explain how to build anything, or exactly how windmills create electricity or pump water.  However, despite the language barrier and having no formal engineering experience or education, William began to figure it out on his own.  He decided to try to build a windmill to power his family's home.  Many people, including his own family, thought William was crazy.  But William knew that windmills didn’t fall out of the sky; in other words, someone had to build them, and if someone else could, so could he.

Having no money for materials, William went to a scrap yard.  There, he found such parts as a broken bicycle, a tractor fan, melted plastic pipes, a shock absorber and some old wire.  These items did not appear in the windmills in his books, but nevertheless, he used them to build the machine.  But would it work?  At first, it generated enough power for one light.  William learned more by tinkering, and continued to make improvements.  Soon, the windmill was powering four lights with switches, and had a circuit breaker that he fashioned out of nails, copper wire, and a magnet.  Building on this success, William constructed a second windmill that pumped water, irrigating the fields and supplying clean drinking water to his village.

Once the local newspapers picked up his story, it spread around the world.  In addition to bringing electricity and water to Masitala, his innovations earned William Kamkwamba the 2010 GO Ingenuity Award, a prize awarded to inventors and artists that promote the sharing of their ideas and skills with youth in developing nations.  He was invited to speak at the global conference on Technology, Entertainment and Design (TED) in Tanzania, and he received a scholarship to return to school at the African Leadership Academy in Johannesburg, South Africa.   After being featured in the Wall Street Journal and on the Daily Show, William came to the United States to begin his college career at Dartmouth.

Before he discovered the wonders of science, William was just a simple farmer.  But with desire and determination, he was able to change not just his life, but the entire landscape of his community and his home.  William's goal is to motivate those in situations similar to his own to change and improve their lives by whatever means possible, whether that means digging wells, educating their families, or even building windmills.  He says, “I tried, and I made it.  To all the people out there like me who are struggling with your dreams, trust yourself and believe, and whatever happens, don't give up.”

Until next week...

Live Your Dreams

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