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Building a Windmill, Inspiring a Generation
August 12, 2019

William Kamkwamba delivering his closing remarks at the 2019 Mandela Washington Fellowship Summit
William Kamkwamba delivering his closing remarks at the 2019 Mandela Washington Fellowship Summit

Growing up in Kasungu, Malawi, William Kamkwamba was long fascinated by how machines work.

As a child, William loved above all else making toy cars from scrap wire. He also would marvel at the radio in his home, puzzled by the sounds it emitted.

“I thought there were tiny people inside the radio and eventually took it apart but couldn’t find them,” William joked during his closing speech at the 2019 Mandela Washington Fellowship Summit.

When William was 14, a severe drought struck his village. His parents, reliant on their then-dwindling crop production, were forced to take him out of school to save money.

“I knew that my parents would be able to save enough and that I would eventually be able to go back to school,” William says. “So I borrowed notes from classmates and started going to the library to not fall behind.”

At the local library, William happened upon a book on windmills that explained how they pump water to nearby lands. Intrigued by the text’s diagrams, William set out to make his own windmill out of scraps of metal and other materials he found in a junkyard near his home.

Cover art for William's Netflix biopic "The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind"
Cover art for William’s Netflix biopic “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind”

“I remember my mother telling me, ‘You are never going to find a wife if you keep hanging around the junkyard; no one wants to marry a crazy man,’” William recalls.

But William’s interest in the inner workings of machines paid off when he constructed a windmill — one that would provide water for his home and get him back into school.

Today William is planning to launch an innovation center in Malawi — one that will invite community members to think freely, design new projects and make a meaningful change in their society.

As he explains, William owes his success to his grandmother, a woman who made her own bricks in a community where brick-making was viewed as a man’s work.

“My grandmother told me, ‘When your clothes catch on fire, you don’t wait for someone to put them out.’ She taught me that you know your problems better than anyone else and that, if I see a need, it’s up to me to take action.”

William advises other young leaders to be similarly proactive and to learn from others along the way.

“You have to open up to people, to stay connected,” William says. “You might learn something from someone in Kenya or in Zimbabwe. It’s only when you listen to others that you are able to learn from them.”

Equally important for William is helping others to find their own path.

“An inspiring leader helps others to improve their own communities,” William says.

One of William’s recent projects was designing a solar panel for the same school he had to withdraw from as a teenager. The humbling experience, for William, was another opportunity to “learn from others how to lead.”

Inspired by William’s work? Learn how you can serve your community on our YALIServes page.

The views and opinions expressed here belong to those interviewed and do not necessarily reflect those of the YALI Network or the U.S. government.