Friday, April 20, 2012

Counting Down to Earth Day: Day 3

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind
By William Kamkwamba & Bryan Mealer
Illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon
Dial, 2012
$16.99, ages 6 and up, 32 pages

It stood like a clumsy giraffe and was cobbled from metal scraps, but to William it was more magical than anything he'd dreamed of.

In this inspiring adaptation, Africa's William Kamkwambi recounts with New York author Bryan Mealer how he rigged a windmill for his village using only a picture as his guide.

The story, which can be read for free online at, is based on Kamkwamba's New York Times best-selling memoir by the same name, also co-authored by Mealer.

Kamkwamba and Mealer condense the story beautifully, while West Africa-born artist Elizabeth Zunon conveys Kamkwamba's irrepressible spirit with fluid cut-outs and luminous, earthy oil paintings.

At age 14, William Kamkwamba pondered the possibilities of what could be. When night came to his drought-ravaged village of Malawi, he closed his eyes to see where his mind would take him.

In his dreams he built things and took them apart, like trucks with bottle-cap wheels and pieces of radio, and he wondered things. "If I can hear the music, then where is the band?"

He also dreamt of his grandpa's tales of witch planes and ghost dancers, hovering and twirling "as if a hundred men were inside their bodies."

At dawn, as he threw his hoe in the fields, his mind also wandered. He imagined magical beings drifting in the maize rows and wondered what made the engine of a passing truck go.

But as drought took hold and turned the maize to dust, William and his family, along with other villagers, found themselves in desperate need.

Without a crop to sell, there was no money. William's family had to cut back to one meal per day and William had to drop our of school.

William's stomach was hollow from hunger and sadness, but he remembered that Americans had built a library down the road and he started to his feet.

In the library, he poured through stacks of science books, learning about things he'd only dreamed of, like "how radios pulled their music from the sky."

Then one day, he saw a wondrous picture of an invention that looked like a giant pinwheel. "Something to catch magic?" he wondered.

It was "taller than the tallest tree and it had blades like a fan", and to Williams' amazement it could pull electricity from a breeze and pump water from deep in the ground.

He closed his eyes and saw all that this machine could do for his people. It could outsmart the scorching sun and bring water to crops even when the rain didn't come.

"'Magesti a mphepo,' he whispered. I will build electric power."

But how does a boy with very little build something so elaborate?

He starts at a junk yard and drags home whatever he thinks could be useful: a tractor fan, PVC pipe, a broken bicycle wheel, a small generator that once powered a bike headlight.

Then he arranges them in the dirt and tinkers, as villagers shake their heads, thinking him crazy to even try. "This boy is masala," they call out. "Only crazy people play with trash!"

Perhaps. But maybe being a little crazy is what all great thinkers share.

With the help of his cousin and best friend, William sets off to build. Together they cut down gum trees with their pangas (broad-bladed knives) and hammer them into a tower.

At the top of the tower, William rigs up the fan and hooks it to his generator, and then the three stand back, villagers gather and they wait.

First a breeze comes, then a gust, the tower sways and the blades spin -- like magic.

Batik-like strips of blue fabric spiral out from the blades in Zunon's illustration (as if water itself were streaming onto the baked ground).

Then William connects wires from the generator to a small bulb and it flickers on.

Though light cannot fill their empty bellies, this is only the beginning. Soon more windmills will be built and William will build a pump to pull water like magic from the ground.

Poignant and powerful, Wiliam's story makes anything seem possible. (William used some of the income from his original memoir to send siblings and other Malawi kids to school, and now attends Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, where he dreams of starting a renewable energy company.)

Zunon, who grew up on the Ivory Coast and now lives in New York, is also the illustrator of last year's poignant picture book, Salama: A Tanzanian Lullaby by Patricia MacLachlan.

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