Ancient power source rediscovered in African village

10/2/2009 by: Darleen Hartley - Get more from this author

Wind can be a powerful thing, carrying a child from near starvation to world prominence. Never having heard the term "green energy," an African boy unknowingly brought ancient, and at the same time, leading edge technology to his family’s small subsistence farm. 

In 5,000 BC, breezes moved Egyptian boats along the Nile. Now in another part of Africa, in another technological age, a young boy has discovered the force of the wind. William Kamkwamba came across the description of a windmill in a tattered library book. He recognized what leading scientists have been pursuing on a grand scale elsewhere – wind-generated power.

Living in the village of Masitala in central Malawi, a country where more than half the population lives below the poverty line, and less than 2 percent have electricity, the boy had not been exposed to much in the way of technology. However, he had been exposed to the vagaries of nature. A killing drought in 2002 threatened his family with starvation. In an interview, he told BBC News:  "I was very interested when I saw the windmill could make electricity and pump water." He thought: "That could be a defense against hunger." 

No longer able to afford the $80 a year to attend school, the boy soaked up an education from old books in the local library. Like Abe Lincoln, he studied by lamp light at night after his chores were complete. Armed with enthusiasm, ingenuity, and only library books for reference, William went dumpster diving, pulling a tractor fan, shock absorber, PVC pipes and a bicycle frame from a scrap yard. Hoisting his contraption onto a 5 meter blue gum tree pole, he used wind power to illuminate a car light bulb – to the astonishment of his fellow villagers. 

Windmill diagram

Wind energy is a source of clean, non-polluting, electricity. William never saw himself as an environmentalist – he was only trying to improve his family’s lot in life with no monetary investment and a few simple pieces of junk. Using a car battery for storage, he added a circuit breaker made from nails and magnets off an old stereo speaker, and a light switch cobbled together from bicycle spokes and rubber from a flip-flop. Voila! Electricity to power light bulbs and a radio in the farmhouse. 

His fame quickly spread outside his small village when the Daily Times in Blantyre, Malawi’s commercial and financial center, picked up his story in November, 2006. 

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