The following is excerpted from a feature by Jennifer Wulff ‘96 that appeared in the Sept - Oct 2011 issue of Dartmouth Alumni Magazine.
He tackled a paper on Nietzsche’s Antichrist in his freshman writing course, built heat- and compressed-air-powered engines in Thayer’s machine shop and even learned how to play ice hockey during one of Hanover’s most intense winters in recent years. Asked about the difficulty of those feats, or his adjustment to the countless day-to-day changes he’s faced since moving to the United States from his village in Malawi, William Kamkwamba just shrugs and smiles.
Kamkwamba's 2009 book The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind spent five weeks on The New York Times bestseller list; in it he recounts how he built his own homemade windmill at the age of 14. During Malawi’s deadliest famine in 50 years, when he was forced to drop out of school because his family could no longer afford the $80 annual tuition, he checked out a book called Using Energy from the library in his small village of Wimbe. Relying mostly on illustrations to aid him, since he could barely read English at the time, Kamkwamba came up with a plan to power his family’s home. This in a country where the thought of a poor maize farmer’s family having electricity was unheard of: Only 2 percent of the population enjoys such a luxury.
Kamkwamba spent weeks at the local scrap yard, which happened to be right across the road from his former school, searching for any type of material that might prove useful. Meanwhile, his former classmates mocked him, calling him misala, which means “crazy” in his native language, Chichewa. Even his mother thought he’d lost his mind. But within a few months the young MacGyver had pieced together bottle caps, bicycle and tractor parts and the rubber from a pair of worn flip-flops to craft his 16-foot-tall wonder. His family and neighbors stood aghast as Kamkwamba climbed to the top of the rusty, rickety structure and hooked up his first light bulb, which suddenly—magically—glowed with a gust of wind. He soon wired his whole house and added a circuit breaker, step-up transformer and battery. Locals eager to charge their cell phones began lining up outside the Kamkwamba home.
“To start with nothing and end up with a fully fledged windmill that produces power is an extraordinary move,” says engineering professor John Collier ’72, Th’77, who is Kamkwamba’s advisor. “And to do it all with no tools except for some nails? I don’t think there’s a doubt in anyone’s mind that he’s a natural at this.”
Now that he has access to the machine shop at the Thayer School of Engineering, which stocks tools and materials he couldn’t even dream of in Africa, Kam-kwamba is delving into many more projects. “We’re working now on computer-aided design [CAD], which will give him a real boost,” says Collier. “He’s got a great imagination and big plans, so CAD is perfect for him.” This summer, after a month-long trip back home, Kamkwamba, who turned 24 on August 5, spent the rest of his off-term in Hanover to enjoy more time in the shop. After all, that was what drew him to Dartmouth in the first place. “At other schools you could maybe use the machines in your senior year, but here I could use the shop as a freshman, so I thought this was better suited to me,” he says. “I’m definitely more of a hands-on person.”
Unfortunately, his shop time is often limited because of the tremendous amount of studying he needs to do. “I’m sometimes up all night trying to do my work,” says Kamkwamba. In addition to his regular classes he’s also working with a math tutor to gain more experience with calculus before diving into advanced engineering classes. “He works incredibly hard,” says his roommate, Varun Ravishanker ’14. “I’ll be in bed for two hours by the time he gets back from the library.”
Kamkwamba’s can-do spirit became the unofficial theme of the 2007 TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) global conference in Arusha, Tanzania. After the story of his windmill traveled from the local papers in Malawi and into the blogosphere, he was chosen as one of 100 fellows to attend the biannual gathering of great minds. As soon as TED community director Tom Rielly met Kamkwamba, who was still reeling from his first plane ride and the experience of sleeping in a hotel for the first time, Rielly asked if he’d mind answering a few questions on stage.
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VIDEO: In January 2019, a film adaption of The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind premiered at Sundance Film Festival.