Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Windmills of your mind

I'm not a big nonfiction reader (although I have enjoyed a number of nonfiction titles on audio), and I'm really not a fan of inspirational true stories -- where people overcome obstacles, tragedy, whatever ... and provide insight on their journey for the rest of us. Truthfully, I'm fairly cynical about their need to share these insights (Hey! Would you turn down that book contract that lets you travel to Italy?).

So for me to listen to The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope by young William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer is a real stretch. I read it because a colleague recommended it for a booklist, and -- after a few bad experiences -- I try to not put books I haven't read on a booklist. When I learned that this was on audio, at least I knew that someone else could read it for me. So I downloaded it for a listen.

William Kamkwamba was born in 1987 in a small village in Malawi. He attended a small village school up until the 8th grade when famine struck the country and his father could barely afford to feed his family of seven children, much less pay his school fees. William enjoyed and appreciated school and was deeply disappointed not to be able to continue. He began visiting the small town library and found an old textbook, Using Energy (published in 1993 by my old employer, McGraw-Hill), that had windmills on the cover. All William really wanted was a light in his room at night and the ability to play his radio. He built the windmill from spare parts scavenged from around his village, although -- if I'm remembering correctly -- it was his best friend who gave him the cash to buy a critical component.

Once the windmill was built, William became a minor celebrity (although there were some who felt he was practicing witchcraft) and he used the electricity to charge the cell phones of his friends and neighbors. He kept tinkering -- hopeful of using the windmill's power to irrigate his father's farmland so the family would not face famine again. Slowly, word of William's accomplishments came out. He was invited to participate in an international conference sponsored by TED (a nonprofit "devoted to Ideas Worth Spreading") -- where (in a charming description in his book) he was introduced to the Internet. And since that TED conference in 2007, William took a trip to several cities in the U.S. (including Las Vegas where he was served a drink by "a lady in her underwear") completed his secondary education, wrote this book, and this fall he began studying for an engineering degree at Dartmouth College. I'm not "inspired" by William's story, but I am touched by his sense of humor, his optimism and his belief in himself.

The narrator is Chiké Johnson (this must be him, yes?). He reads William's first-person narration in "African"-accented English (whether this is how people from Malawi speak English I have no idea), that brims with William's youthful enthusiasm and hopefulness. His voice has a slightly high pitch that grows higher (not uncomfortably) with William's excitement at what he accomplishes. And when William is telling us the story of the 2001 famine and how his family and community suffered, Johnson grows quiet and subdued. It is a performance with multiple levels of honest emotion, one that is just right for this young man's story.

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer
Narrated by Chiké Johnson
Harper Audio, 2009. 10:04 (unabridged)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Did you notice that the narrator is "originally from Milwaukee, Wisconsin"?