The World's DIY Hero: An Interview With William Kamkwamba, Windmill Wunderkind


You've received a lot of attention from your windmill project - how do you think it's changed you? What has been the most exciting moment for you during your trip to the U.S. and the most exciting meeting you've had? And what did you not get to do that you hope to do next time?

I'm so grateful for the attention, but my windmill has not changed who I am. People always ask me this. Maybe they're afraid I'll make loads of money and start buying nice cars or something. The attention just makes me want to work harder. And during all of this, I've told people about my future projects with windmills and irrigation systems, which I have not even finished, so now it's even more important to get back to work and complete some things. And most of all, I want to complete school. I guess the most exciting thing about the book tour was just seeing all the different American cities and meeting all these nice people. I really love Seattle, especially the public library downtown that's made from glass. Can you imagine such a library? I nearly fell over when I saw it.

How well-known are you back in Malawi?

I'm just a guy in Malawi. I'm sure some people know who I am, but I'm just a normal guy who is going to school. I'd like to keep it this way.

You're a hero to many in the U.S. What kind of impact do you hope your experience has on others? Have you heard of other stories like yours?

I haven't heard of other stories, but I'm happy that people are inspired by the story. I want people -- especially poor people and young people, people like me - I want them to know that often we face resistance when we propose new things, especially different things. But if you believe that your idea can improve your situation and help your family and community, please don't give it up. Somewhere out there, someone will understand you and come to help. You are not alone. Just trust and believe in yourself and don't stop.

Just wondering -- Obama's pretty much a hero everywhere. What was the reaction to Obama's election like in Malawi? How do people think of him there? What kind of effect has he had on you?

I like Obama and so do others in Africa. It makes us proud that he has an African family. And as you can imagine, it makes us think that anyone can do anything if they put their minds to it.


Okay, this question's for Bryan. Bryan, you've worked as a journalist in Africa for a number of years. How did you meet William, and given your experiences on the continent, how did his story effect you?

Bryan Mealer: I met William in January 2008 in New York on his first trip to the United States. For five years I'd reported the war in the DR Congo, both for Harper's Magazine and as a correspondent for the Associated Press. I'd written many stories about rape, massacre, disease, and corruption - the stories that we generally see out of Africa and about its people. For me, it's just what happened. I was doing my job. But during that period I had many Africans ask me, "Why do you always report our bad stories and never the good?" and I never had a good answer for them. As I said, I was just doing my job, writing these things for the record, trying to hold bad men accountable for their actions. But after meeting William, I finally felt like I had an answer to the question. I seized upon his story with vigor.

William, I heard you want to study electrical engineering eventually. What kinds of projects are you working on in the near term and at this point, what do you hope to do after you graduate?

I'm still in high school and studying normal subjects like physics, math, history, but also entrepreneurship and leadership. In college I want to study mechanical engineering, and possibly electrical engineering. Then I want to take my knowledge back to Malawi and build low-cost systems to generate power and pump water.

The needs, uses and sources of energy in the United States are vastly different from those of Malawi. What do you think Malawi can learn from the U.S. when it comes to energy, and what can Americans learn from Malawi?

Well, America is the way it is because smart people stayed here and developed their country. In Africa, all the smart people leave and go away. That's why I want to go back home and develop my area. Who else will do it? An aid organization? The government? No. We have to do it ourselves.

So what are some of the best things that the people and governments of developed countries can do to encourage more projects like yours, in countries like Malawi?

Just go out into the villages and ask people. It's that simple. And then give those people a job and put them to work improving their areas, using materials from that area, and teaching them how to fix and maintain these projects. What good is a water pump from Sweden when there's no Swedish person around to fix it when it breaks?

William's got a blog, he's on Twitter and has windmill photos on Flickr. Support him and other young inventors at MovingWindmills.org

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Tags: Africa | Renewable Energy | Wind Power

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