1The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope, by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer

Reviewed by Mal Warwick

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A debate has been raging for years within that rarefied global community that earns its keep from the business of what we Americans call “foreign aid.” (Others, less afflicted by an aversion to international engagement, call the field “overseas development assistance.”)

On one side are the advocates for large-scale bilateral and multilateral aid, insisting that huge grants from the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and their ilk are the only source of real hope for the many desperately poor nations of what is broadly, though incorrectly, called the Global South (Asia, Africa, and Latin America). The advocate-in-chief for this perspective is Professor Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University, who has argued that massive infusions of aid to the governments of the poorest nations can lift them out of poverty in short order. In 2006, Sachs published his seminal book, The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time, a work that provided the rationale for the Millennium Development Goals.

Arrayed against Sachs and his colleagues are the born-again critics of government-to-government aid, most noticeably William Easterly, a long-time World Bank economist who came in from the cold in recent years to testify to the widespread failure of “foreign aid.” His 2007 book, The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good, set off the debate between the two opposing camps.

The gist of the difference between the two perspectives is simple: One side insists that the problem of poverty is far too big to be addressed through anything other than large-scale action carried out within each poor country on a national scale. The other side contends that top-down, nationwide development programs rarely work and that only solutions crafted at the grassroots and adopted by those who are most affected by them can bring about genuine social change.

Though I’ve read a number of other books taking one side or another in this debate, the work that has cast the most light on the topic is one that paid no attention whatsoever to “foreign aid” or economic development schemes, whether large or small. It’s an extraordinary, first-person tale by a young man from Malawi entitled The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind.

William Kamkwamba, the narrator of this awe-inspiring story, was a seventh-grade dropout who mastered fundamental physics by reading an out-of-date English textbook in a local, three-shelf library near his village and using his knowledge to construct a working windmill out of junkyard parts to generate electricity to irrigate his father’s farm. He was 14 years old.

You can read news reports and even the most perceptive magazine articles about the challenges of development, but you won’t get nearly as close to the essential truth of the challenge as you will from reading The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. Kamkwamba’s tale is unsparing of himself, his community, and his country. Through his all-seeing eyes, we witness the tragic consequences of the profound official corruption that held sway in Malawi for so many years after it gained its independence from Britain in 1964. We feel the unrelenting hunger he and his family experienced for months on end in the famine of 2001-2002. We see the darkness descend all around us as William is hounded by fearful villagers who can only explain his windmill as magical. But, most of all, we observe the steady evolution of his brilliant young mind as he confronts one setback after another, and prevails over them all.

If there is hope for Africa, as I firmly believe, it lies in the minds and hearts of William Kamkwamba and other young people whose innate genius is unlocked by the spread of education and opportunity for self-expression at the grassroots. There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of William Kamkwambas across Sub-Saharan Africa. And it will be a combination of top-down aid – to build schools, train teachers, and buy textbooks – with the local action of countless NGOs, with both local and international support, that will provide them with the tools and the freedom to solve the problems that have held down their forebears for generations past. I don’t think genuine development – thorough-going social change – will come any other way.

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