William Kamkwamba's parents couldn't afford the $80 yearly tuition for their son's school. The boy sneaked into the classroom anyway, dodging administrators for a few weeks until they caught him. Still emaciated from the recent deadly famine that had killed friends and neighbors, he went back to work on his family’s corn and tobacco farm in rural Malawi, Africa.
With no hope of getting the funds to go back to school, William continued his education by teaching himself, borrowing books from the small library at the elementary school in his village. One day, when William was 14, he went to the library searching for an English-Chichewa dictionary to find out what the English word "grapes" meant, and came across a fifth-grade science book called Using Energy. Describing this moment in his autobiography, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind (co-written with Bryan Mealer), William wrote, "The book has since changed my life."
Using Energy described how windmills could be used to generate electricity. Only two percent of Malawians have electricity, and the service is notoriously unreliable. William decided an electric windmill was something he wanted to make. Illuminating his house and the other houses in his village would mean that people could read at night after work. A windmill to pump water would mean that they could grow two crops a year rather than one, grow vegetable gardens, and not have to spend two hours a day hauling water. "A windmill meant more than just power," he wrote, "it was freedom."
For an educated adult living in a developed nation, designing and building a wind turbine that generates electricity is something to be proud of. For a half-starved, uneducated boy living in a country plagued with drought, famine, poverty, disease, a cruelly corrupt government, crippling superstitions, and low expectations, it's another thing altogether. It's nothing short of monumental.
(It was very exciting to read that William's favorite magazine is Make!)
Mark Frauenfelder is the founder of Boing Boing and the editor-in-chief of MAKE and Cool Tools. Twitter: @frauenfelder. Come and hear Mark speak at the ALA conference in Chicago on July 1.