Friday, September 20, 2013

Review: The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind

[Today's usual TTC Friday post is going to be a few days late. I haven't been feeling great this week and I've been sitting on this review for a while, so it will have to tide you over. I'll be back soon!]
The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope, William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer
Rating: 3.0/5.0

Like China Road earlier this year, this is a book I only discovered because the author was interviewed on The Daily Show. Being a physics teacher, the story of William building a windmill for his village after teaching himself about electricity sounded interesting and potentially inspiring.

Here's a condensed description, taken from
The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind is the immensely engaging and inspiring true account of an enterprising African teenager who constructed a windmill from scraps to create electricity for his entire community. William Kamkwamba shares the remarkable story of his youth in Malawi, Africa—a  nation crippled by intense poverty, famine, and the AIDS plague—and how, with tenacity and imagination, he built a better life for himself, his family, and his village.

William's story is amazing to me for a few reasons. First, William grew up in a superstitious community. People tended to explain things away with magic and didn't really encourage scientific curiosity. William, however, never stopped asking questions no matter how many times the adults around him tried to dismiss them. Also, this young boy takes it upon himself to make his own education. He goes to the library to read books on the subjects he would have studied in school. He works to improve his English so that he can understand the physics books that captivate his interest. His determination and drive are inspiring.

As a teacher, I found myself wondering how many of our North American students would do what William did if they couldn't go to school? The way that our students take their education for granted often frustrates me, especially when I read books like this (see also: Three Cups of Tea, Little Princes, or Reading Lolita in Tehran). When my physics class began our electricity unit last semester, I showed my students a TED talk that William gave and told them his story, hoping to show them how the concepts they were learning are fairly basic but their applications can be life changing. I hoped that they, too, might get something out of William's determination and ingenuity. Unfortunately, it sparked nothing with that group. So disappointing.

All of this sounds like great stuff but the enthusiasm is entirely mine. The book itself is actually very dull. It's marketed as the story of the windmill but that part is just a very small portion toward the end. The majority of the book talks about William's childhood, some of his parents' history, his village, and Malawi. I get that all of those things are important for context and to convey the significance of the windmill for the people in William's village, but it was long and meandering, and at times just boring.

If you're interested, here is the second of the two TED talks that William has given:

There is also a documentary in the works. The video at that link has a more current interview with William and talks about what he's been up to in recent years.

Overall, William's story is worth hearing and learning about but the book may not be the best medium to do it.

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