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Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Review: 'The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind'

By William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer
October 2009
William Morrow
ISBN: 978-0-06-188498-6

Growing up in Malawi, William Kamkwamba listened to his grandfather's tales of men with magic who cursed people and leopards who ate them. He listened well, because he knows how to weave a tale himself in relating his own journey from farming to creating his own technology.

The early part of young Kamkwamba's story portrays a carefree existence with friends. School wasn't taken seriously, even if he wanted to do well, and family are good people who clearly love and like each other. Famine slowly but inevitably strangles their dreams and claims its victims. There is a particularly difficult passage regarding an animal who adopts Kamkwamba that is very hard to read. But he does not spare himself in relating it.

The famine goes for years; survival is hardly guaranteed. It affects reader interest -- writing about the famine appears to be the author's main point for pages and pages instead of the contraption he created -- and also affects diffident student Kamkwamba's chances of being able to stay at school. But a sympathetic librarian lets him read about electricity and engineering. And that makes all the difference.

It is in the telling of how he creates an electricity-producing generator, using such items as pipeline, a seriously broken down bicycle and paper clips, that Kamkwamba shines in telling his story. His success, and how his village reacts to what he's done, are delightful, even though they also are the parts most consciously written for a Western audience. His subsequent international acclaim isn't half as exciting.

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind is a story for anyone who needs to see that anything is still possible these days, regardless of how little a person has or how unconnected to a network of people who make things happen. Kamkwamba explicitly states he hopes others who struggle will hear of what he has done and know they are not alone. Kamkwamba's philosophy is simple: "If you want to make it, all you have to do is try."

Although such an idea may seem naive, its ability to help a determined young man is amply demonstrated.

© 2010 All Rights Reserved Reviews at CompuServe Books and reprinted with permission

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