delanceyplace.com 3/4/11 - "the book that changed my life"

In today's excerpt - William Kamkwamba, a Malawian inventor, speaker and author. He gained fame in his country when, in 2002, at the age of fourteen, he built a windmill to power a few electrical appliances in his family's house in Masitala using blue gum trees, bicycle parts, and materials collected in a local scrapyard. Since then, he has built a solar-powered water pump that supplies the first drinking water in his village and two other windmills and is planning two more, including one in Lilongwe, the political capital of Malawi.  As the son of a subsistence farmer in his poverty-ravaged African country, his family's house had no electricity or running water, and he could not afford to go to school after famine left his family destitute. Then he stumbled upon the book that changed his life:

"Most students at Kachokolo Secondary and Wimby Primary stopped going to school during the famine.  After I dropped out ... fewer and fewer classmates showed up.  The teachers would call recess around 9 A.M. and then disappear themselves into the fields and trading center to search for food.  By February there was no school at all.

"But as the dowe and pumpkins became ready ... students began returning to school and classes resumed ... because my family still couldn't afford my school fees, I was forced to stay home doing nothing.

"I remembered that the previous year a group called the Malawi Teacher Training Activity had opened a small library in Wimbe Primary School that was stocked with books donated by the American Government. Perhaps reading could keep my brain from getting soft while being a drop out.

"The library was in a small room near the main office. A woman was sitting behind a desk when I walked in. She smiled, 'Come to borrow some books?' she said. This was Mrs. Edith Sikelo, a teacher at Wimbe who taught English and social studies and also operated the library. I nodded yes, then asked, 'What are the rules of this place?' I'd never used such a facility.

"Mrs. Sikelo took me behind a curtain to a smaller room, where three floor-to-ceiling shelves were filled with books. It smelled sweet and musty, like nothing I'd ever encountered. I took another deep breath. Mrs. Sikelo then explained the rules for borrowing books and showed me the collection. I'd expected to find nothing but primary readers and textbooks, boring things. But to my surprise, I saw American textbooks on English, history, and science; secondary texts from Zambia and Zimbabwe; and novels for leisurely reading.

"I spent the day combing through the books while Mrs. Sikelo graded papers at her desk. Despite the variety of titles, I left that afternoon with books on geography, social studies, and basic spelling—the same textbooks my friends were studying in school. It was the end of the term, and my hope was to get caught up before classes started again.

"At home I planted a thick blue gum pole deep in the ground near the mango tree out front, then made my own hammock out of knotted maize sacks. For the next three weeks, I began a rigorous course in independent study, visiting the library in the mornings, and spending the afternoons reading in the shade. ...

"After about a month, the school term finally ended and [my friend] Gilbert was free to hang out. One morning we went to the library to kill some time—we often stayed for hours, just sitting in chairs and reading—but today Mrs. Sikelo was in a rush.

" 'You boys spend hours in here taking my time,' she said, 'but today I have an appointment. Just find something quickly.'

" 'Yes, Madame.'

"The reason it took so long was that none of the books were arranged properly. The titles weren't shelved alphabetically, or by subject or author, which meant we had to scan every title to find something we liked. So that day while Gilbert and I looked for a good read, I remembered an English word I'd stumbled across in one of my books.

" 'Gilbert, what's the word grapes mean?'

" 'Hmm,' he said, never heard of it.  'Look it up in the dictionary.'

"The English-Chichewa dictionaries were actually kept on the bottom shelf, but I never really spent much time looking down there. Instead I asked Mrs. Sikelo. So I squatted down to grab one of the Dictionaries, and when I did, I noticed a book I'd never seen, pushed into the shelf and slightly concealed. 'What is this?' I thought. Pulling it out, I saw it was an American textbook called Using Energy, and this book has since changed my life.

"The cover featured a long row of windmills—though at the time I had no idea what a windmill was. All I saw were tall white towers with three blades spinning like a giant fan. They looked like the pinwheel toys Geoffrey and I once made as kids when we were bored. We'd find old water bottles people threw away in the trading center, cut the plastic into blades like a fan, then put a nail through the center attached to a stick. When the wind blew, they would spin. That's it, just a stupid pinwheel.

"But the fans on this book were not toys. They were giant beautiful machines that towered into the sky, so powerful that they made the photo itself appear to be in motion. I opened the book and began to read."

author: William Kamkwamba
title: The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope
publisher: Harper Perennial; Reprint edition
date: July 27, 2010
pages: 160-161, 166-167
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