Young inventor visits Indian Springs

William Kamkwamba speaks to Indian Springs students on Aug. 26. (Reporter photo/Christine Boatwright)

By CHRISTINE BOATWRIGHT / Staff Writer

INDIAN SPRINGS – William Kamkwamba’s heavily accented voice rang out in Indian Spring School’s Town Hall on Aug. 26.

“My parents are farmers,” he said. “It’s not that easy. We experience drought, and the outcome of crops can be real low.”

Kamkwamba grew up in an African village in Malawi, and while he was still attending school, the area faced a severe drought. He said he had to drop out of school because his parents needed the money to buy food.

“My family didn’t have money for my education,” he said. “They couldn’t afford to send me to school. They used money for more food to sustain us.

“I wanted to continue my education,” he added. “I didn’t want my life determined by not being educated. I didn’t want to become a farmer like my dad. He was a farmer not by choice, but because he had nothing else to do.”

Kamkwamba began reading library books to keep up with his studies, but soon, he found books on physics and electricity. A diagram of a windmill inspired him to recreate the windmill in his village, he said. He found parts in the village’s junkyard and began building his windmill out of PVC pipe, shock absorbers, a tractor fan and a bicycle frame.

“A lot of people were laughing at me and think I was going crazy, even my mom,” he said. “‘You’re not going to find a wife,’ she told me. ‘Maybe you are smoking weed.’ I didn’t stop doing what I wanted.”

Kamkwamba’s interest in inventions began when he was young.

After he finished his windmill and provided electricity to his parents’ thatch-roof house, the village librarian told the people who donated the physics books about Kamkwamba’s invention. This led to media attention and Kamkwamba’s first TED (technology, energy and design) conference in Tanzania.

“I was so excited to see and be in a plane for the first time,” he said.

Kamkwamba finished high school in South Africa. He built another windmill to supply electricity to his village’s primary school.

“I was teaching young people my skills so they can learn and teach other people,” he said.

Kamkwamba co-authored the book “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind” with Bryan Mealer in 2009. He spoke through a translator as Mealer wrote the story. Later, Kamkwamba revised the book for accuracy and “to be like my voice,” he said.

Kamkwamba currently is attending Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. He said when he was looking for a college, he wanted a good engineering program.

“In life you face many challenges no matter where you come from,” he told the students of ISS. “You think there’s no way to get out of them. Everything is possible in this world if you put up your mind and trust yourself.

“I encourage you as you go forward with your studies, follow your dreams. It’s possible,” he added.