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William Kamkwamba grows up in Masitala Village, outside of Kasungu, Malawi. His family lives on a farm where they grow maize and tobacco. Like ninety-eight percent of the rest of Malawi, the family does not have electricity. William describes how the region where he lives has a strong connection to magic. He has grown up fearing witch doctors and curses.
William’s father, Trywell, was once a traveling trader, but eventually he settled down to become a farmer. Working on the farm is difficult, but it keeps the family fed and clothed. William has two close friends, Geoffrey (his cousin) and Gilbert (who is the son of the village chief). Even at an early age, William is curious and intelligent. He goes hunting for birds with his friends and devises a unique trap that allows him to kill several birds at once.
As William matures, he and Geoffrey become interested in how radios work. They disassemble many radios, until they learn the functions of all the internal parts. Eventually, William and Geoffrey become so knowledgeable that they can fix radios for other people. William becomes interested in bicycle lights that work off a dynamo that turns against the wheel.
In December of 2000, a large flood devastates Malawi. It is followed by a prolonged drought. Widespread famine makes everyone desperate. The corrupt government has sold off all the grain stores that would normally be used for relief. The new president has also removed all the subsidies that helped farmers like William’s father. Grain prices rise and people begin to starve across the country. William’s family cuts back on their meals, eventually only eating one small meal a day.
When William’s primary school grades are posted, he finds out that he does not qualify for any of the boarding schools that he wanted to attend. Instead, he and Gilbert walk to Kachokolo to attend secondary school each day. After a few weeks, the headmaster announces that all students must pay their fees to keep attending. William’s family is still having trouble finding enough food, so he must drop out of school.
Without money for school and little to do on the farm, William finds a new hobby. He borrows several physics books from the library in his former primary school and becomes interested in electric windmills. He dreams of building a windmill that could power lights and a water pump to irrigate the family farm. He thinks of the bicycle dynamo and begins to formulate a plan. Instead of attending school in Kachokolo, William goes to the scrapyard near the school to harvest parts for his windmill. Gilbert and William stop a traveler and Gilbert buys the dynamo light from the traveler’s bike for William.
William builds a working windmill from all the pieces that he has collected. William, Gilbert and Geoffrey cut down several trees and build a sixteen-foot-tall tower to place the windmill on. As William climbs to the top to attach the windmill, many people gather to watch. Most of the town has assumed that William is crazy. They have watched him collect random parts and tinker with electricity for months. The windmill spins and lights a small bulb that William has attached to it. Everyone is amazed.
William gains renown across the region and is eventually recognized by the head of the Malawi Teacher Training Activity, Dr. Mchazime. As Dr. Mchazime arranges for William to be interviewed by newspapers and radio stations, the story spreads. William is eventually invited to attend a TED conference in Arusha, Tanzania. The audience is amazed by William’s short presentation. Several individuals help William raise funds to attend an expensive secondary school and properly wire his home for electricity. William is able to build a larger windmill that can power a water pump from a deep well.
William travels to America, where he gets to see the large windmills in Southern California that originally inspired him. He is recognized by many more organizations and gains entrance into the African Leadership Academy in Johannesburg, South Africa. There, he is surrounded by other young Africans who have overcome many struggles and work toward building a better future for Africa.