In this memoir, a young man in Malawi has to drop out of secondary school for lack of funds. But with his interest in electronics, access to a modest library, and incredible tenacity, he builds a windmill to generate electricity for his family. The story is inspiring, and it’s not surprising that a movie is coming out soon:
Over the course of the memoir, Kamkwamba gives insight to a range of issues that he and those he loves have faced: surviving a famine, adolescent marriage, getting sent away from school for not having a uniform, having to reduce meals in times of food insecurity, and the HIV crisis (documented in Kim Yi Dionne’s book Doomed Interventions).
I have a couple of quibbles with the book, which necessarily entail spoilers. So if you don’t want those, stop reading now! None of them mean that you shouldn’t read the book. But if you have read the book, I’d be interested in your take.
First, after Kamkwamba builds his windmill and continues to innovate, he ultimately gets “discovered,” first by local media and later by tech types from the U.S. These Westerners sponsor Kamkwamba so that he is able to provide a more stable life for his family and pay the school fees of several of his friends. Kamkwamba goes on to study at elite schools. I’m very happy for him, and I enjoyed hearing about his adventures. But I’m personally less interested in these tales that ultimately hinge on Western charity. (Again, this isn’t a critique of Kamkwamba’s story! It’s just a comment on the kinds of stories I’m most excited to read.)
Second, in the final pages of the book, Kamkwamba calls his fellow Africans to courage: “My fellow students and I talk about creating a new kind of Africa, a place of leaders instead of victims, a home of innovation rather than charity. I hope this story finds its way to our brothers and sisters out there who are trying to elevate themselves and their communities, but who may feel discouraged by their poor situation.” Kamkwamba showed amazing ingenuity and tenacity, but ultimately what pulled him out of poverty was charity. The Western donors weren’t investing in his windmill; they wanted to help out an inspiring kid. I’m glad they did! The story tells us a lot about hard work, but I’m not sure what it tells us about elevating oneself and “innovation rather than charity” (emphasis added).
The audiobook is well read by Chike Johnson. In the ebook — but not the audiobook — there’s a nice epilogue (“about the book”) in which Kamkwamba describes what has happened in his life since the book was published. It seems like he’s doing lots of great work in Malawi and beyond.
This is book #5 in my effort to read a book by an author from every African country in 2019.