Monday, 15 May 2017

Learning from William Kamkwamba, the boy who harnessed the wind

I have come a bit late to William Kamkwamba's book. Though it was published in the UK in 2010, I didn't read it until this year when I was given a copy by one of my cousins. In the meantime, it has zoomed around the world and its Malawian writer has been feted in some extremely prestigious contexts: a profile in the Wall Street Journal, an invitation to give a TED talk and an address at the World Economic Forum. Kamkwamba's inventions are now kept securely in Chicago's Museum of Science.

I have no intention of retelling Kamkwamba's story in its entirety. You can read it yourselves, and I hope you do. It is what his story tells us about the nature of learning, that is important.

People may read The Boy who Harnessed the Wind for a number of different reasons. The first reason is the most obvious and the one which struck me at once. It is as good a description of life in rural Malawi as I have come across.

Here is a boy brought up in a village just outside the 'city' of Kasungu. You can see Kasungu about half way down this map, about 150 km north of the capital Lilongwe. The area is rural, just as most of Malawi is. In Kasungu, as in most of Malawi, there are forests (where these survive), villages of baked earth houses with grass roofs and trading centres where people go to sell their produce, make purchases and drink beer. In other words, there is nothing special about Kasungu, except for its distinctive mountain which hovers before your windscreen as you cross the plain.

I drove across the area two or three times last year, which you may recall was a period of serious drought in Malawi. These pictures were taken in August, towards the end of the winter. The ground was dry as a bone and the air so dusty that my eyes wept constantly. I lived off antihistamines. During one of these journeys, I stayed overnight in the town. The guesthouse we had been booked into, had no running water, no electricity (Malawi relies on hydro power) and no food. We eventually ended up at the Kasungu Inn, which also had no running water or electricity but did have quite acceptable food.

We would regard Kamkwamba's family as 'poor', but that is by our own privileged standards. They were certainly not destitute. When you read the first chapters of the book, what strikes you at once is the sense of a cohesive community and a loving family. They are just one generation away from life as hunters. Kamkwamba tells heroic tales of his grandfather's feats. His own parents, both illiterate, are subsistence farmers, like 80% of Malawi's population.

Kamkwamba, however, describes his family life not to impress on us how modest it was, but to explain the place of magic in the community, in particular the Gule Wamkulu, the terrifying masked figures which are used by chiefs to impose their authority. I mentioned them in passing as a key aspect of the Nyau cult of the Chewa people in the post Walking from present-day Dedza back to the Stone Age, and provided some links to footage of Nyau dances.

The references to magic are really important because this book as about how Kamkwamba taught himself to become a scientist, the rational counter to the paranormal experiences used by villagers to explain or manipulate natural forces. Among the natural forces which Kamkwamba attempted to control with his technical inventions were those with a powerful impact on agriculture.

However, long before Kamkwamba got as far as developing the technology which eventually helped to feed his family, he was a normal school boy, though one lucky enough to be sent to secondary school. His family had already sent his sister Annie to secondary school and now scraped together the fees to send him. Nevertheless, he didn't get into one of the good schools but went to the local community day secondary. Experience of secondary education is not to be taken for granted in Malawi. Only about a quarter of children get that far.

Sadly, however, Kamkwamba's secondary education coincided with a terrible drought, which led to a real famine in which people died.
Kamkwamba's own family almost died themselves, and he was taken out of school, with no hope of going back. That could have been the end of his hopes for the future. He could very easily ended up a subsistence farmer like his father.
However, Kamkwamba was fortunate. His village had a small library, very unusual in Malawi. In that library was an old copy of a school textbook: Explaining Physics. With that book, Kamkwamba learnt about electricity, at first using his new knowledge to charge his radio but eventually developing the windmill which gives the book its title. As the cliche goes, the rest is history....

So what can we learn from the story of William Kamkwamba? Firstly, learning doesn't have to happen exclusively at school. Indeed, the key stimulus for Kamkwamba was the need to know in order to solve genuine problems. All the way through the book, we read how he makes advances in his understanding because of a practical need. He then goes out to find the resources to construct the solution.

Now, by 'resources' we don't mean technical instruments purchased in a shop. Kamkwamba cannibalises old machines and radios. He digs up old water pipes. He drills holes with dried up corn cobs. He solders metal over his mother's cooking fire. He is a real inventor.

Secondly, Kamkwamba is resilient. He struggles on determinedly, no matter the obstacles.

Thirdly, although Kamkwamba is clearly the prime mover, he works with others. His friendships are deep and longlasting. He and his friends work as a team.

Finally, his parents who find their son's obsessions both mystifying and on occasion exasperating, provide Kamkwamba with the solid support he needs. Although the culture of their village is very different from that of our own society, the love and mutual respect within his family is something we recognise. The exception is the withdrawal of support for the sister who breaks the social rules.

Kamkwamba's inventions make a difference to people's lives. His windmill pumps water for irrigation so that the family won't be at risk of hunger again. And when Kamkwamba eventually becomes well known, he uses his gains to support his extended family. He buys iron sheets to replace the thatch on their homes He provides them with mosquito nets and medical care.

Of course, stories like these are always quite difficult to pin down. Is Kamkwamba just a remarkable human being who would have made a success of his life anyway? Or did the challenging circumstances in which he lived bring out something in him which might otherwise have remained dormant?

It seems to me that some of his success was down to chance. He happened to live in a village with a library. Someone just happened to donate an old textbook which then just fitted his needs. However, I think the real answer is that he made connections, between what the situation required and what was available. He had the imagination to see that what looked like an old piece of rubber or a bit of plastic bottle could be the solution to a real problem. Perhaps not going through the rigid content-based curriculum of his secondary school meant that he was free to make those connections himself. That was real learning.

The Boy who Harnessed the Wind, by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer, Harper 2009, UK edition 2010

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