Speaking at Library Journal‘s 2012 Movers and Shakers Luncheon, William Kamkwamba proclaimed that “everything is possible.” His own life story has certainly proved that. One attendee told him that he represented everything that Movers and Shakers means. Here’s my introduction to his talk.
In his way by plane to TEDGlobal 2007 in Tanzania, William Kamkwamba sat next to a software engineer named Soyapi Mumba, who politely asked his fellow passenger’s name. When he was told, Mumba exclaimed, Oh my god. William the windmill guy?
Mumba had been one of those responsible for telling the world Mr. Kamkwamba’s remarkable story, a story the author himself tells so affectingly in his memoir, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. If you’ve read this book, you will know that Mr. Kamkwamba has come far‚ all the way to Dartmouth College, I might add, where he has just finished his final exams. And he will certainly go farther. But however far he goes, to his family and neighbors, his fans and his readers, he will always be William the windmill guy.
As a boy in Malawi, Mr. Kamkwamba was forced by poverty to drop out of the first year of secondary school, even as famine swept his country. But he retained that vital spark of curiosity that made him ask, how does sound come from a radio? Why does a bicycle lamp connected to a dynamo light up when you hit the peddles?
To find out, he had the patience and the enthusiasm for constant experimentation, dismantling and effectively destroying many radios in the process and hence replicating the scientific method that has driven discovery worldwide for millennia.
Mr. Kamkwamba was determined enough to scavenge junk heaps for parts, and he has the imagination to see what he might do with what others saw as mere trash. He was also smart enough to go to the library and get smarter by borrowing books like Explaining Physics, teaching himself the principles of science so well that, having read his memoir, I finally understand how electricity works.
And then that magic moment, that act of insight, of synthesis and creativity we all hope for and don’t always get; he borrowed a book called Using Energy that had a windmill on the cover. And suddenly he realized: if the cyclist’s frantic peddling is what finally makes the bicycle light go on, with windmills the rider is the wind.
With a windmill converting energy from one form to another, he could have electricity, which would mean light for studying and a water pump for his family so that they could irrigate and hence harvest twice a year, thus averting hunger.
Suddenly he was a man with a plan, not just for himself but his family, his village, and his country, where only two percent of the population have electricity. With a confidence he didn’t know he possessed, he set about to build a windmill, and when he knotted together those two crucial wires and released the spinning wheel so the blades could catch the wind, he lit up not just one little light bulb but the whole world.
So, curiosity, patience, enthusiasm, determination, imagination, smarts, confidence, a supreme moment of insight, and, finally, a plan that helps everyone. What better speaker could we have for our 2012 Movers and Shakers luncheon in Anaheim this year?
Fortunately, Mr. Kamkwamba’s memoir, written with Bryan Mealer and published by HarperCollins in 2009, has just come out as a children’s book from Dial Books for Young Readers, illustrated by an African-born artist and capturing the spirit of his work. With the author here to promote it, we had our supreme moment of insight. As Mr. Kamkwamba says at the close of his memoir, If you want to make it, all you have to do is try.