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A Malawian miracle

A boy from Malawi saves his family by building a windmill from discarded rubbish.
Chinwuba Iyizoba | 7 October 2009
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In Africa, it seems that there is still much work to be done, compared to developed nations. Last week, the BBC ran a report about a young Malawian boy who invented a windmill. William Kamkwamba was forced to drop out of school because his parents couldn’t pay $80 a year for his schooling. But he did not loose hope. Instead he educated himself using a local library.

In 2002, following one of Malawi's worst droughts, which killed thousands of people and left his family on the brink of starvation, he built a windmill to pump water into his father's farm. "I was very interested when I saw the windmill could make electricity and pump water and I thought to myself: that could be a defence against hunger. Maybe I should build one for myself," William told the BBC.

He described how he stumbled on a drawing of a windmill in a tattered book, and began to dream. He dreamt of bringing water to his father’s farm -- it was a matter of surviving or dying from hunger. So, against formidable odds and penniless, he began to work. With nothing more than a fistful of cornmeal in his stomach, he worked on his project mostly in the night, with no other light except a smoking paraffin lamp, enduring bites from the mosquito’s and insects attracted by the light.

The taunts of sceptical family and friends made things even worse. "Many, including my mother, thought I was going crazy," he recalled. "They had never seen a windmill before".

For spare parts, Kamkwamba rummaged through dustbins and refuse dumps. He used bicycle spokes, a tractor fan blade, an old shock absorber and fashioned blades from plastic pipes, which he flattened by holding them over a fire. Neighbours, shocked to see him sifting through rubbish, concluded that he was on drugs,

"People thought I was smoking marijuana," he said,

Can you catch the wind?

Finally, Kamkwamba finished work: a 5-metre (16-ft) tall, blue-gum-tree, wooden tower, swaying in the breeze, looked more like a tinker’s folly than a work of engineering, "I received quite an electric shock climbing up that tower," Kamkwamba told the BBC.

But, glory was soon to follow. The neighbour's jeers soon turned to amazement when Kamkwamba scampered up the tower and hooked a light bulb to the turbine, and, as the blade began to spin in the wind, the light bulb flickered alive and the crowd of astonished onlookers went wild.

Soon the whiz kid's 12-watt wonder was pumping power into his family's mud brick compound. Before long, locals were queuing up to charge their mobile phones and the Daily Times wrote an article on him.

He expanded the 5-metre windmill to build a 12-metre model and a year later succeeded in bringing solar power to his village. Then he installed a solar pump. As the fame of his renewable energy projects grew, he was invited to the prestigious Technology Entertainment Design conference in Arusha, Tanzania. By the middle of last year he had built a "Green Machine" windmill for pumping well water. By last September he had received a scholarship to study in the elite African Leadership Academy in Johannesburg, South Africa.

The moral for Africans is clearly that we must learn never to give up trying to change our environment. Unfortunately, many Africans are still waiting for things to happen. Recent surveys show that 64 per cent believe that success is determined by forces outside their own control. In my own country, Nigeria, the refrain is: "God will provide".

Young William's story is a challenge to African youth, who, often faced with incredible limitations, give in to despair. This example of the triumph of the human spirit over adversity should spur all Africans to get rid of lazy attitudes and start working, using personal study and self help, to overcome the myriad of problems caused by deficiencies of education. As Victor Frankl, a concentration camp survivor, put it: "When we are no longer able to change a situation... we are challenged to change ourselves. Difficulties test men’s virtues and sometimes spur them to do the impossible." In short, Africans are called to do the impossible.

In addition, William's story is a good example of why Africans should continue to have lots of children in the face of opposition from western population control enthusiasts. William is the second eldest of Trywell and Agnes Kamkwamba’s seven children (he has six sisters). Africans have lots of children not because they have never heard of contraceptives or abortion pills. These are available over the chemist’s counters in Africa, and many young unmarried girls are familiar with them. We have children because we love them and we believe they provide our greatest potential. William has taught his family to maintain the windmill when he's away at school. His sister, Dolice, and cousin, Geoffrey, can quickly climb up the tower, as it sways and clatters in the wind, to make repairs -- a living proof that people are the solution to Africa’s troubles, not the problem. Every child comes with one mouth to feed, two hands to help and a brain to innovate. Poor countries don’t need less children but more dynamic people.

It is sad and ironic that in super-rich countries people don’t want children. The Americans, the Swedes and the French, on average are much richer than Ivorians, Ghanaians, and Togolese or even Indians, yet fertility in these countries is below replacement level. This often makes young people in such "advanced" countries comfort-freaks. It can be argued that they are so spoilt by infinite luxuries and comforts from a tender age that even the smallest setback can become intolerable. The caving in of European societies to euthanasia and birth control is a result of Western culture’s lost ability to cope with suffering, pain and self denial of any kind. As one American lady said to me: "My biggest fear is suffering, and I am so scared of pain." Thus, the high suicide rates in these countries.

In Nigeria, our large population creates a huge market for businesses. MTN, a mobile phone company in Nigeria that pioneered the GSM mobile phone here in 2001, making phones available to street vendors and artisans, declared $800 million profit early last year. Africans have hope because of their children -- hope in the future, hope that one of the many little ones running around will be another Barrack Obama or better still, another William Kamkwamba.

Finally, the great margin for improvement in Africa is often a source of excitement and enthusiasm for the adventurous. I recall letters from a German friend who returned to his native Germany after spending one year in Enugu. "I feel like coming back to Nigeria immediately," he wrote to me. "I would be back in Nigeria this minute if I was given the chance." He says he is feeling choked by the infinite rules and regulations of Germany where everything seems to have already been done. He longed for Enugu, where he could be himself, where he felt needed and where he could contribute something. Challenges are important. The abundance of challenges in everyday life -- though trying and unpleasant -- may directly or indirectly contribute to making Africans happier.

William Kamkwamba, who has been profiled in the Wall Street Journal and flown to conferences around the world, is determined to return home after his studies and to bring power not just to the rest of his village, but to all Malawians, only 2 percent of whom have electricity. "I want to help my country and apply the knowledge I've learned," he says. "I feel there's lots of work to be done."

Chinwuba Iyizoba is an electrical engineer in Enugu, Nigeria

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