How a Malawian teenager harnessed the power of the wind.
(Article by Mark Frauenfelder of make magazine)
William Kamkwamba’s parents couldn’t afford the $80 yearly tuition for their son’s school. The boy sneaked into the classroom anyway, dodging administrators for a few weeks until they caught him. Still emaciated from the recent deadly famine that had killed friends and neighbors, he went back to work on his family’s corn and tobacco farm in rural Malawi, Africa.
With no hope of getting the funds to go back to school, William continued his education by teaching himself, borrowing books from the small library at the elementary school in his village. One day, when William was 14, he went to the library searching for an English-Chichewa dictionary to find out what the English word “grapes” meant, and came across a fifth-grade science book called Using Energy. Describing this moment in his autobiography, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind (co-written with Bryan Mealer), William wrote, “The book has since changed my life.”
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.”
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.
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.
Months later, in front of a crowd of disbelievers who had scoffed at him for behaving strangely, William lashed his machine to the top of a 16-foot tower made from blue gum tree branches. As the blades began turning in the breeze, a car light bulb in William’s hand started to glow. In the weeks that followed, 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.
He begged his parents to send him to school—he had big dreams for modernizing his village and needed to learn more math, physics, and electricity to realize them—but they barely had enough money to feed him and his five sisters.
William and his windmill remained a local curiosity for a number of months, until the head of a national teacher’s organization saw the windmill and recognized the boy’s accomplishment as something extraordinary. A media firestorm ensued, with newspaper articles, blog posts, radio stories, and a presentation at TED Africa in Tanzania (TED stands for Technology Entertainment Design), where William, who didn’t know about laptop computers and had never heard of Google, discovered airplanes, mattresses, hotels, air conditioning, and the mind-boggling concept of having as much food as you wanted whenever you wanted it. Befriended by Tom Rielly, TED’s irrepressible and well-connected partnership director, William was taken on a tour of the United States, where he met many high-tech millionaires who were charmed by the instantly likable underdog who never complained about the lousy cards he got dealt in the game of life. They happily contributed to William’s plans to electrify, irrigate, and educate his village, as well as pay his tuition at the prestigious African Leadership Academy in Johannesburg.
With so many tales of bloody hopelessness coming out of Africa, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind reads like a novel with a happy ending, even though it’s just the beginning for this remarkable young man, now 21 years old. I have no doubt that William—who is rapidly becoming a symbol of promise and possibility for the people of Africa—will be leading the way.
The state and religion in East Africa have never been completely separate. There is a Judeo-Christian heritage in common law and a strong faith-based education and socialization process of post-colonial elites, and development processes. However, religious leaders in Kenya and Tanzania are demanding more and more explicit acknowledgement of religious institutions in their national Constitutions.
In recent months various religious leaders have made a case for explicit creation of religious courts in Tanzania or the removal of constitutional guarantees on Kadhi courts, or the creation of a Christian equivalent of a Kadhi’s court in Kenya. Both demands have been made in a significant political context: constitution-making process for Kenya, and post-election politics in Tanzania.
During the 2005 election campaign Tanzania’s largest party, CCM, promised that should they be returned to government by the voters, they would get to work on establishing Islamic Courts in the country. CCM won the vote. Tanzania’s Muslims are still waiting for this pledge to be fulfilled.
In his ministerial budget presentation for 2009, the Minister for Constitutional Affairs and Justice, Mathias Chikawe, announced that while the government has been trying to incorporate ‘Islamic principles’ into existing laws, Kadhi courts did not feature in the government’s agenda.
This provoked an angry reaction from the Islamic community with some accusing the government of flip-flopping on its campaign promise. The Tanzania Muslim Council threatened CCM with a loss of votes in future elections. During a Parliament question and answer session, Prime Minister Mizengo Pinda told legislators that his government would not be pressured, especially since the issue may lead to divisive debates in the country. Nevertheless, Muslim organizations maintained their push for what they believe to be a just demand with plans to protest against the government’s decision.
While publicly demonstrating resolve, privately senior figures within CCM were concerned that the groundswell of anger amongst Muslims may cost the party in the local elections to be held in late 2009 this year. Such fears proved well founded after news broke that leaders within the Muslim community were mobilizing for nationwide protests.
The government engineered what appeared to be a truce by announcing the formation of a joint committee of Muslim leaders and civil servants to find ways to resolve the issue. This followed a meeting between the Prime Minister and the country’s most influential sheikhs in the country, after which Chief Mufti Issa bin Shaaban Simba urged his fellow Muslims to be patient and not to allow anger to govern their decisions.
However, parliament continued to be rocked by debate, with several MPs warning against the inclusion of religion in legal matters arguing that such a decision could lead to a Rwanda-style bloodshed. Speaking at a campaign rally in Mwanza, the Civic United Front (CUF) Chairman Prof. Ibrahim Lipumba attacked President Kikwete, saying that the government’s u-turn led to a rancorous and divisive tone in Tanzania on the Kadhi courts issue. Various senior figures within CCM added fuel to the fire by telling reporters that those who read into the 2005 election manifesto a promise to establish Kadhi courts were confused and in the process they revealed the divisions this issue has exposed within the party itself.
The European Union injected itself into the middle of the debate after the head of the EU Commission in the country, Ambassador Tim Clarke, implored the government to remember the secular foundations laid down by Mwalimu Nyerere when contemplating the Kadhi courts issue. Ambassador Clarke went on to hope that Tanzanians will retain the strict separation of Church and State as envisioned by Mwalimu Nyerere, for it has served the country well by making it the beacon of peace in East Africa. Kenya’s High Commissioner to Tanzania also advised against the establishment of Kadhi Courts.
Are East Africans tired of living under secular states? Do religious courts erode national unity in East Africa? What is the significance in the region of the Muslim demand for Kadhi’s courts and the Christian backlash against such demands? Are these demands by religious leaders an explicit call for a religious state?