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When William sees a bicycle light that runs off of a dynamo, he becomes fascinated. He examines how the tire spins a wheel and wires carry the electricity to the bulb. William and Geoffrey attach the dynamo’s wires to the AC terminals of a radio. While William spins the tire, the radio works. William then explains that only two percent of Malawians have electricity. To get power lines to one’s home, one would have to travel over a hundred kilometers, pay a large sum of money for an application, and then pay more money for the Malawian government to run power lines.
William takes his primary school exams to see if he qualifies to be placed in one of the secondary schools. William finds out that, after the flood and drought, the surplus maize that the government would normally have distributed to people in need had been sold off and the money was not accounted for. As the price of grain rises, William’s father must sell the family goats to buy more maize, so that the family has enough food to last until the next season. William and Geoffrey both must go without breakfast, making their work in the fields even more exhausting. Gilbert’s father, the chief of the village, goes to a political rally and asks the president to help with the famine. He is beaten by government agents. William questions the safety of everyone in the village, if something so awful can happen to the chief.
This chapter foreshadows the importance of electricity in the lives of William and his fellow villagers. It becomes clear that electricity cannot be delivered to William’s village, nor any other Malawian villages in the same predicament. As prices spike, the villagers need to grow more food to prevent a famine, but they have no way of pumping water to their fields. The powerlessness of the situation shows William how his father is not the invincible provider William once believed him to be. He also sees how Trywell’s belief in communities supporting each other is flawed. William comes to realize that in the face of famine, people may not be able to help each other survive, and will likely fend for themselves and not help others. Without electricity, the village is in serious trouble. Now, the more abstract problems in William’s society become clearer. He must face a famine with his family and community, and do so without the support of the government or other allies.
Starvation enters the narrative in Chapter Five, and it will recur as a motif moving forward. William describes how leaders sold grain reserves to make themselves rich. As a result, there is no emergency supply of food when famine strikes the country. William’s family is forced into a bad situation, and the children must work and starve at the same time. In his exhaustion, William witnesses a direct example of the government’s unwillingness to help. Even as his people are starving, the chief is beaten by government agents for asking for help. Starvation and famine lie ahead for Malawi, but its leaders do not care. The famine will challenge the very lives of William and his family, but it will also bring his innovative experiments to a grinding halt. The very challenge he seeks to overcome will prevent him from working on a solution.