Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind

Continuing the holiday book blogging theme, I just finished The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer.

This was a book that my Dad gave me for my birthday a couple of months back, along with several others, and it had sat somewhere towards the bottom of the big teetering pile of books-in-progress on my bedside table, which is a constantly churning, occasionally-overflowing-onto-the-floor, index of whatever I'm currently interested in. Somehow this book hadn't really caught my attention (I guess the cover-art didn't really work on me), but mainly out of a sense of duty to my Dad I threw it into my bag for this trip.

And Wow! This is one of the best books I've read in a long time. It's gripping, it's tears-down-the-cheeks heartwarming, it's inspiring, and it's must-read material for anyone who cares deeply about the shape of the ongoing collision between global civilization and global resource constraints.

The book is a collaboration between William Kamkwamba who grew up on a peasant farm in Malawi, and Bryan Mealer who is a westerner and professional journalist working mainly in Africa who became interested in William's story and worked with him to write this book.

Prior to reading the book, I couldn't have found Malawi on a map, though I vaguely knew it was in Africa somewhere. The Wikipedia corrects my ignorance:

And provides the basic picture of the economy of Malawi:

Malawi is among the world's least developed and most densely populated countries. The economy is heavily agriculture-based, with around 85% of the population living in rural areas. More than one-third of GDP and 90% of export revenues come from agriculture. The economy of Malawi has in the past been dependent on substantial economic aid from the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and individual nations. In December 2000, the IMF stopped aid disbursements due to corruption concerns, and many individual donors followed suit, resulting in an almost 80% drop in Malawi's development budget. However, in 2005, Malawi was the recipient of over US$575 million in aid. The Malawian government faces challenges in developing a market economy, improving environmental protection, dealing with the rapidly growing HIV/AIDS problem, improving the education system and satisfying its foreign donors that it is working to become financially independent. Improved financial discipline has been seen since 2005 under the leadership of President Mutharika and Financial Minister Gondwe. As of 2008, it was estimated that Malawi had a GDP of $4.082 billion, with a per capita GDP of $299 and inflation estimated at around 7.9%. Agriculture accounts for 35% of GDP, industry for 19% and services for the remaining 46%. Malawi has one of the lowest per capita incomes in the world, although economic growth was estimated at 9.7% in 2008 and strong growth is predicted by the International Monetary Fund for 2009. The poverty rate in Malawi is decreasing through the work of the government and supporting organizations, with people living under the poverty line decreasing from 54% in 1990 to 40% in 2006, and the percentage of "ultra-poor" decreasing from 24% in 1990 to 15% in 2007.

The main agricultural products of Malawi include tobacco, sugarcane, cotton, tea, corn, potatoes, sorghum, cattle and goats. The main industries are tobacco, tea and sugar processing, sawmill products, cement and consumer goods. The industrial production growth rate is estimated at 4.4% (2007). The electricity of the country is 96.7% hydroelectric and 3.3% fossil fuels (2001). The country makes no significant use of natural gas. As of 2005, Malawi does not import or export any electricity, but does import all its petroleum, with no production in country. Beginning in 2006, the country began mixing unleaded petrol with 10% ethanol, produced in-country at two plants, to reduce dependence on imported fuel. In 2008, Malawi began testing cars that ran solely on ethanol, and initial results are promising, and the country is continuing to increase its use of ethanol.

As of 2007, Malawi exports an estimated US$604 million in goods per year. The country's heavy reliance on tobacco (it accounts for about 70% of export revenues) places a heavy burden on the economy as world prices decline and the international community increases pressure to limit tobacco production. The country also relies heavily on tea, sugar and coffee, with these three plus tobacco making up more than 90% of Malawi's export revenue. Malawi's dependence on tobacco is growing, with the product jumping from 53% to 70% of export revenues between 2007 and 2008. Other exported goods are cotton, peanuts, wood products and apparel. The main destination locations for the country's exports are South Africa, Germany, Egypt, Zimbabwe, the United States, Russia and the Netherlands. Malawi currently imports an estimated US$866 million in goods per year, with the main commodities being food, petroleum products, consumer goods and transportation equipment. The main countries that Malawi imports from are South Africa, India, Zambia, Tanzania, the US and China.

In 2006, in response to disastrously low agricultural harvests, Malawi began a program of fertilizer subsidies that were designed to re-energize the land and boost crop production. It has been reported that this program, championed by the country's president, is radically improving Malawi's agriculture, and causing Malawi to become a net exporter of food to nearby countries.

This is the backdrop to William's story. He grew up on a small farm on Malawi. In his early childhood, his family was poor, but getting by. They relied almost entirely on maize (corn) they grew themselves for food, supplemented by home-grown vegetables and small amounts of hunted or bought meat. The family grew a tobacco crop which they sold to provide a small cash income used to buy essentials. The only source of non-human energy was wood for cooking, which the women of the family would walk hours every day to gather. Home was a grass-thatched shack:

(The windmill in front we will come to).

The early part of the book provides a colorful account of life growing up in Malawi where William attended primary school. His life started to derail in the early 2000s when a severe famine gripped Malawi after bad weather caused a harvest failure. The middle part of the book is a harrowing first-person account of what it's like to live through a famine. This section is from pp132-133:

It didn't take me long to eat. When the food was gone and out of sight, I stood up and made my way down the corridor. Stepping over the dog, I walked back to my room, closed the door, and got in bed.

The next morning, the hunger woke me up. Little did I know, but my stomach had taken over my entire body, filled every limb and crevice, all the way up to my head like a great big balloon. At some point in the early morning, it had finally burst and revealed its emptiness. It had only been filled with air, and in this nothingness, there was only pain. I took deep breaths to try and fill the space again, but it was no use. I was flattened like a tube. It hurt so badly. I lay in bed and listened to the rain pound my ceiling steadily through the grass thatch and plastic sheeting below. Somewhere in the dark, it dripped and dripped.

I have to eat, I thought.

The book details the creative and resourceful ways William's uneducated parents adapt to and survive the famine - they take some big hits, but they and all their children manage to live, which many around them don't. However, one of the things that has to be sacrificed is the fees for William to attend secondary school. William is desperate to get an education, and does his best to get around this, but to no avail (pp170-171):
Once in class, I sat in the back corner of the room with my head down. I was so scared of getting caught, I never asked questions for fear of looking suspicious. As long as I'm silent, I thought, I can listen and still learn. I was certain Mister Tembo was wise to my tricks, remembering that I was booted the previous term for lack of fees.

Several students got nabbed without receipts and were publicly expelled, making me incredibly nervous about this game I was playing. In the mornings I got awful stomachaches; it was so bad one day that I almost confessed to my father and ended it all. Gilbert would meet me on the road and we'd joke about my cunning tricks.

"Good morning, friend. I'm happy to see you're trying your luck again."

"Yah, let's hope today is not the end."

"Just stay quiet and keep your head down."

"I guess."

Finally, after two weeks, the teachers caught on to me. That morning, Mister Tembo read aloud the names of debtors in class, and that's when I was caught. The second my name was called, I stood up and walked to the door.

"Guys, I paid... just forgot my receipt," I said. "Don't worry, I'll get it and come right back..."

Once outside, I nearly started crying. I went home and told my father the news.

"I've been expecting this," he said. "I just didn't know when."

Now a dropout, William helps out on the farm and attempts to educate himself via the local library which has a few shelves of books donated from western countries. In particular, there are three basic science books which fascinate him, and from which he teaches himself the principles of electricity and magnetism. He tinkers with radios, learning to fix them and earning a little extra cash that way. The transformative moment of his life comes in the library (pp 157-159):

The English-Chichewa dictionaries were actually kept on the bottom shelf, but I never really spent much time looking down there. Instead I asked Mrs. Sikelo. So I squatted down to grab one of the dictionaries, and when I did, I noticed a book I'd never seen, pushed into the shelf and slightly concealed. What is this? I thought. Pulling it out, I saw it was an American textbook called Using Energy, and this book has since changed my life.

The cover featured a long row of windmills - though at the time I had no idea what a windmill was. All I saw were tall white towers with three blades spinning like a giant fan.


The wind would spin the blades of the windmill, rotate the magnets in a dynamo, and create electricity. Attach a wire to the dynamo and you could power anything, especially a bulb. All I needed was a windmill, and then I could have lights. No more kerosene lamps that buned our eyes and sent us gasping for breath. With a windmill, I could stay awake at night reading instead of going to bed at seven with the rest of Malawi.

But most important, a windmill could also rotate a pump for water and irrigation. Having just come out of the hunger - and with famine still affecting many parts of the country - the idea of a water pump now seemed incredibly necessary. If we hooked it up to our shallow well at home, a water pump could allow us to harvest twice a year. While the rest of Malawi went hungry during December and January, we'd be hauling in our second crop of maize.

The book goes on to detail the months's long slow laborious process of William building a windmill - scrounging some parts from a junkyard, begging and borrowing others, drilling holes to assemble the parts by using a nail heated in a fire, building blades from melted PVC pipes. His village thinks he's crazy - Malawi has lots of wind but no windmills so no-one has a clue about what he's doing - and even his family doubts him, but he perseveres. Eventually, he gets the thing to work:

He's able to light his family's house, and start a business charging people's mobile phones. Eventually, his achievement comes to the attention of prominent people in Malawi, and from there western tech bloggers and journalists. More and more people are inspired by his story, and help him in various ways - he presents his windmill at a TED conference in Africa, gets invited to the US, and eventually it leads to this book.

The book is a wonderful read - obviously the "overcoming adversity via ingenuity and perseverance" element is very appealing to a western audience, and Bryan Mealer does a fantastic job of using this hook to work in a lot of material about what it's like to live in Malawi and go through a famine, which we would probably otherwise have very limited interest in. The story is very sensitively and well told - we are shown the suffering, but never overloaded beyond our capacity to empathize.

Some lessons I found in the book:

  • Being a poor peasant farmer really sucks.
  • Even a little bit of external energy makes a massive difference in quality of life.
  • Even a little exposure to western science and technology can be transformative for a few individuals - the role of three donated textbooks in this story is really something.

Finally, one last thing that struck me in my follow-up research for this blog post. The book emphasizes that Malawi is having a lot of trouble feeding its people, the country has largely been deforested and people are walking hours a day to find firewood. The NYT concurs:

Mr. Juma and his friends are loggers, members of a vast fraternity that has illegally laid waste to half this nation, mostly in the last 15 years, all to hawk firewood and charcoal at roadside stands.

Because of them, experts say, Malawi loses nearly 200 square miles of its forests annually, a deforestation rate of 2.8 percent that the Southern Africa Development Community says is one of the highest in sub-Saharan Africa.

The cutting blights a pastoral, sometimes breathtaking landscape. It dries up streams, pollutes the air, lowers the water table, erodes the soil and silts rivers so badly that, officials here say, hydroelectric plants are blacked out by the gunk.

It is hard to think of many other things that Mr. Juma and his fellow loggers could do that would damage the nation more.

The problem is that it is hard to think of many other ways that Mr. Juma and his fellow loggers could make a living, period.

"The problem is that we have nothing else to do," said Mr. Juma, a wiry 33-year-old with a neon green shirt tied around his bare waist, standing over the remains of the chopped-up masuku. "We have no money to raise our families. We have nowhere to run, nothing else to do. So we have to cut the trees to feed our families."

And yet, the Wikipedia notes that "Beginning in 2006, the country began mixing unleaded petrol with 10% ethanol, produced in-country at two plants, to reduce dependence on imported fuel. In 2008, Malawi began testing cars that ran solely on ethanol, and initial results are promising, and the country is continuing to increase its use of ethanol."


1 comment:

KLR said...

Thanks for this - will see if the library has a copy. These missives from the low-tech front are always good food-for-thought about our future. John Michael Greer posits people like William lighting up our low-energy future; I'm always put in mind of those crystal radio hobbyists in the 1920s and 30s, guys like jazz guitarist Les Paul who built his own multi track tape recorder long before they were available commercially.

Glad to see I'm not the only one who builds teetering mountains of books on the nightstand, too. ;)