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February 17, 2014
Life on Planet Kathy
Building Your Own Windmill
by Kathryn H. Kidd

This month our ward book group discussed a book about a 14-year-old boy from Malawi who brought electricity to his African village by building a windmill.

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind did not dream of fame and fortune when he built his windmill, however. Originally, all he wanted was some way he could listen to his reggae music on the radio without having to rely on batteries that kept running out and causing the music to die.

From that simple dream, bigger dreams were born. Young William Kamkwamba next decided he was tired of going to sleep when the sun went down. He thought it might be nice if he could have a little light in his bedroom so he could read when he was lying in bed after the sun disappeared for the night.

It didn’t immediately occur to him that he didn’t even have to be in bed after the sun went down. After all, going in bed when it got dark was what people had done since the dawning of man. He just wanted to listen to the radio in bed and, later, read in bed. Was that so much to ask?

So William and his trusty sidekick, Geoffrey, scoured the village for parts they could use to build a windmill like the one in a library book that showed him how to harness the wind. They took apart defunct bicycles and radios, and they went to abandoned factories. William had a knack for seeing new uses for old materials.

He even dug up sewage pipes, washed off the slime, and used them in his contraption. Some of the sewage pipes were still being used, but progress usually requires a little bit of sacrifice. That was the length he would go for his beloved reggae music.

The people of the village laughed. That is what people do when they do not understand genius. William’s own family laughed. Even they did not understand him, especially when he pirated pieces of their home to use in his ever-growing windmill.

But when the blades of his windmill started to turn and music started coming from William’s battery-less radio, people stopped laughing. And when William’s windmill brought a tiny light to life, dimly illuminating his bedroom, people started lining up to see the miracle that 14-year-old William had wrought.

Dreams may start small, but they have a way of growing and taking over the world. Soon William’s family realized that if he could lie in bed at night and read by the light made from his windmill, they could too. In fact, if they had light after sundown, they didn’t have to lie in bed at all.

Here is a passage from the book:

Not long after I’d completed this wiring, I walked into the living room one night and found my family sitting around, listening to the radio. My mother sat on the floor in the corner, crocheting a beautiful orange tablecloth. My father and sisters just stared ahead, lost in the news program on Radio One. I pretended to be one of the reporters on the radio, barging in with my microphone.

“I’m now standing in the living room of the Honorable Papa Kam-kwamba,” I said, in a deep, serious voice. “Mister Kamkwamba, this room used to be so dark and sad at this hour. Now look at you, enjoying electricity like a city person.”

“Oh,” said my father, smiling. “Enjoying it more than a city person.”

“You mean because there’s no blackouts and you owe ESCOM nothing?”

“Well, yes,” said my father. “But also, because my own son made it.”

That is a secret shared by people who make things. Things that are created by the people who use them bring a whole lot more satisfaction to the user than things that are thoughtlessly purchased.

That homemade loaf of bread is infinitely more satisfying, not to say a whole lot healthier, than a loaf of Wonder Bread from the supermarket. The chair that was lovingly carved and planed by hand brings a lot more joy to the user than something that was carelessly brought home from the store.

If you aren’t a maker yourself, the next best thing is to earn the money to pay for it rather than plopping down a credit card to do so. It may be a fine distinction, but if you have scrimped and saved for months to buy that nightstand, it will mean a lot more to you than if you just went out and bought it on credit. Earning the money to buy a wished-for object is the modern equivalent of making it yourself.

But I digress. When we met for book group, the person leading the group quoted William as he later told the story of building a windmill to a worldwide audience. William said, “After I drop out from school, I went to library … and I get information about windmill … and I try, and I made it.”

(How’s that for describing a project that eventually brought electricity to an entire village? The boy had a genius for understatement.)

The bottom line was worthy of thought, however. The kid looked at a windmill and decided that if he tried to make one he could do it. He tried, and he was successful. The lesson he learned? “If you want to make it, all you have to do is try.”

How often do we look at something and think of it as insurmountable? Fluffy recently fixed our trusty clothes dryer using a $21 fuse and a video he found on YouTube. Although he had never fixed a dryer before, he said it was not that difficult when he had the instructions to follow. But often we sigh and say to ourselves, “If only.” Then we sit back on the sofa, pick up the remote control, and turn on the television.

Our dreams are worth more than that, however. If we follow through on our dreams, we can build windmills. Those windmills can bring a little music to our lives or, if we stretch our dreams a little further, they can light up an entire village.

It may be easier to sit back and have things done for us, but it is a whole lot more rewarding to take our dreams by the horns and turn them into reality.

If we fail, at least we’ll have the consolation of knowing we gave it our all. And if we succeed, we may eventually be able to hear music or read a book after sundown. Or, as William Kamkwamba did, we may even be able to change the world.

Copyright © 2024 by Kathryn H. Kidd Printed from