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When William is nine years old, his uncle John dies from tuberculosis. William has trouble expressing his grief. William’s friend and cousin, Geoffrey, has a difficult time and is confused by his father’s passing. William says that mourning for his uncle was the loneliest he ever felt. Trywell follows the advice of the village chiefs and gives all of the property and wealth to Jeremiah, John’s oldest son. Jeremiah uses the money to go drinking in the neighboring towns, and within two years, Jeremiah has squandered almost everything.
A change in president creates difficulty for farmers in Malawi. When Bakili Muzuli becomes president, he removes subsidies for farmers and allows wealthy companies to sell crops for much cheaper, decreasing the amount that farmers can earn. William and his cousins must start working on the farm to replace the seasonal workers. A year after his Uncle John died, Socrates, another of William’s uncles, moved to William’s village. Socrates’s dog, Khamba, and William become friends and hunting partners. William and Geoffrey hunt birds to eat. William devises a trap, like a large slingshot, that kills five birds at once. He trades the birds for entry into the nearby mphala, where the unmarried adult boys live, so that he can hear the older boys’ stories about girls.
When William turns thirteen, he and his friends, Geoffrey and Gilbert, start to mature. They spend less time hunting and more time at the trading center. William does not let Khamba join him, because people will think he is crazy for having a dog for a friend. William describes the importance of radios in Malawi. Since electricity is not available in many locations, battery-powered radios are extremely popular. William wants to know how radios work, so he and Geoffrey take them apart to determine the function of each component. After destroying many radios for research, William and Geoffrey open a small radio repair service out of Geoffrey’s bedroom. Since they cannot afford batteries, William and Geoffrey scrounge discarded batteries in the trading center, so that they can test the radios that they repair. William also becomes interested in how car engines work, but he cannot find anyone who knows very much. Even his father cannot help. The rest of William’s time is spent working on the family farm, since all his siblings are girls. The work is difficult and nearly year-round.
In December of 2000, heavy rain creates flooding across Malawi, destroying farms. The flooding is followed by a long drought. William’s family farm produces few crops, and they are stunted and weak. William’s father reassures him that at least the problems are happening to everyone.
Uncle John’s death creates a profound change in William and his tendency toward innovation blooms. This is a big moment for William because he loses interest in childish pursuits in the face of real problems. William is growing up fast, and his new dog Khamba signifies the change. It is with Khamba and his cousin that William devises a trap for birds. At this point, magic has already failed William. He knows now that his creativity is the only thing he can rely on. When the boys catch five birds in William’s trap, he sees the immediate benefit of self-reliance. Magic cannot get him enough to eat, and childish hopes will not make real change for William and his fellow Malawians. As William continues to grow, he will develop more and more of his skills and perspective. The bird trap is the first example of William’s innovative spirit, but it certainly will not be the last.
William seeks to control the chaotic environment in which he lives. Gaining a new perspective as he grows, William’s eyes are open now to the chaotic influence of corrupt government and natural forces such as drought and floods. His values and interests turn from fruitless obsessions with strength and mangolomera to knowledge and strategy games like bawo in which he explores creative solutions to problems. Malawi, as a setting, possesses many problems that are as of yet unsolved. Through bawo and his experiments, William seeks control over these chaotic forces. Using radios, William is now engaging directly with his chaotic environment, rather than living in deceptive explanations of how things work. William is on his way to becoming a powerful force in his community and a person dedicated to helping his community.
Radios take on special significance in this section, as William’s first step toward his future in education. Radios symbolize the community’s relationship with technology. Very few Malawians know how radios work, and many say they run on magic. William takes this village-wide ignorance as a challenge, and obsessively picks radios apart to determine how they work. While William’s schooling may be intermittent and slow, he educates himself. The radios are his first lesson in electronics. While others may look down on William for fiddling with old devices, William is discovering the key to electricity for his entire village. That day is still a long way off, but the radios he picks apart are teaching him. What others cannot yet see is that William is walking a path to improving his mind. Each radio he picks apart leads him one step closer to the windmill.