Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind - Wimbe, Malawi

Aug 11, 2010
Harnessing the power of wind isn't a new idea, but it can be a meaningful one in a small village. Inspired by a picture, a local Malawian boy in a small village called Wimbe decided that he could re-create the windmill he saw, creating electricity for his tiny house and others in the area. The inspirational story of William Kamkwamba spawned a book (called The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind) and a round of appearances on talk shows to share his tale. I was given the book as a Christmas present, and I figured that I should stop by and see his work as I'd be passing near the village on my way back to the capital.

Unfortunately, my stop in Kasungu the night before wasn't so relaxing. I got off the bus in the small station and found a street lined with vendors selling belts, used clothing, batteries and a few other random things, along with a few eager bicycle taxi drivers trying to get my business. I decided to just stay in a nearby cheap hotel, another concrete cell looking place with more than a few mosquitos hanging around. I wandered around town in search of a quick local dinner of rice and beans before heading back and spending a while trying to squash all the bugs in sight before tucking myself into the slightly torn mosquito net around the bed for an early night. It seemed that the nearby bar had other plans, though. Just as I was ready to try to fall asleep, loud music and thumping bass filled my room, and even my earplugs didn't help the situation. Trying in vain, I tossed and turned the whole night, not sleeping more than 5 minutes at a time, finally getting up around 6 in the morning, only 30 minutes after the music finally stopped. Luckily I had been getting a lot of sleep in the last village (there's not much to do after dark), so I wasn't too exhausted, so I headed up to the corner to find a minibus to Wimbe. Another small fight among the drivers took place, but I eventually got in the van with a few others and headed on my way. Only about 30 minutes later, we stopped at another crossroads where the driver instructed me to come with him. We walked down the road, and he found another little shared taxi and told me that it would take me the final few minutes down the dirt road to Wimbe.

Bumping along through the dust and yellow grass, we came to a halt in the middle of this tiny village with just a few cement shops along a hard dirt road. I was told that this was Wimbe, so I got out and wandered along, figuring that I might be able to find the windmills myself. I couldn't really see anything, so I asked one of the locals about it, and he instructed me to wait a few minutes while he wandered off. When he came back, he and a local 20 year old boy told me to follow them, passing through the poor village shacks to an area just outside of town separated by a small field. The next set of five or six houses looked a little different, with solar panels on top and three or four windmills standing tall above them, spinning in the wind that I could already see was frequent here. We knocked on the door of the first house, and eventually another young man came out. As it turns out, both the guy guiding me and the one who just came out of his house were cousins of William. They showed me to the next house, with an older woman coming to greet me. Though she didn't speak much English, the boys translated for me, telling me that she was William's mother and asking where I came from. They showed me around the back of the house where one new, professionally made windmill spun effortlessly next to two others made from wooden ladders and old wheels slowly turned with a bit more resistance. I also got to see the tiny hut in the back of the house where the electricity created by a simple electromagnet attached to the windmill was harnessed. Despite the international press this story has received, the hut is still a small one, filled with basic toys and clothing.

The last part of the short tour showed me the windmill built with the same design as the original one that was first created by William. The first one apparently broke down eventually, being built sometime around 2002, and this one was almost exactly the same. A rickety structure looking precarious on a series of sticks and planks, it stands about 30 feet high, with a bicycle wheel and chain attached to the blades of the windmill, looking like some sort of used plastic fan blades from an air conditioning unit or other motor. Simple enough, this incredible idea and creation of William's was remarkable given the fact that he grew up in such a small, relatively undeveloped place, not letting that stop him from believing that he could make a difference in his town. I was told that he was currently living in the capital, leaving in just a few days for New York City to attend university there. I said my goodbyes to his mother and one of his cousins after signing a small guestbook with signatures from intermittent visitors ranging from Malawian government officials to documentary makers, and then I headed back into town, trying to find a ride back to Kasungu.

William's other cousin escorted me, and we found that it would probably be faster to just walk the 4 km back to the main road and catch a ride from there. The kind young man followed along with me, asking me what brought me to this place along with other typical questions about my lifestyle in the US. Realizing that he was going to take me the whole spite of surely having something else to do that day, I told him that I'd be fine, and he headed back on his way. Near the end fo the road, I was able to hop0 in the back of a pick up truck for just a few minutes before getting to the main road. There I lined up with a few locals waiting for the next minibus or passing car, piling into a small compact car again for the short ride back to Kasungu. Back in town, I hopped on the next bus to Lilongwe, getting inside just before a large rainstorm passed through. On my way back, I couldn't help but think of how amazing it was that a boy in a small town like this had done so much to help his village and find a way to improve the lives of his family and himself through such a simple, yet important, idea.

(Two of the windmills behind William's house. This young Malawian boy saw a picture of a windmill in a book and decided that he could build one, providing electricity for his family and those around him. Pretty impressive.)

(His original design used a bicycle wheel and chain with some large fan blades to create a spinning windmill along with a very basic electromagnet to harness the energy.)

(This rickety structure is actually the second version of his windmill, as his first one eventually broke down - not too surprising given the small pieces of wood that he had to use to create it.)

(It's quite an inspirational story of this boy from a tiny village in Malawi doing so much to help his community. These are some of the few concrete shops lining the dusty road in his small town of Wimbe.)


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