Common Reading author energizes Elon with stories of windmills & hope

William Kamkwamba, the builder of a Malawi village windmill whose efforts are recounted in Elon University’s 2014-15 Common Reading selection "The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind," is spending two days on campus this week to share stories about the power of persistence.

A broken bicycle. Pipes dug from a shower drainage line. Copper wiring. A pedal-powered generator that lights bicycle headlamps. Old textbooks, “Using Energy” and “Explaining Physics,” whose illustrations and diagrams inspired a love of science.

And perseverance.

In the African nation of Malawi at the height of a devastating famine, William Kamkwamba dropped out of school to help on the family farm, spending limited free time to learn on his own through books he could barely read. After finding a photo of a windmill in the village library, the young man with big dreams ventured on a quest to build his parents their own sustainable power supply, a resource that could be shared with village neighbors.

Eventual success building that windmill nearly a decade ago caught the attention of national leaders and journalists, setting Kamkwamba on a course to international conference presentations and, last spring, graduation from Dartmouth College. Recently noted as one of “30 people under 30 changing the world” by Time Magazine, Kamkwamba has continued to promote “African solutions to African problems” by building and advocating for other sustainable development projects.

Kamkwamba recounts his journey in “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope,” Elon University’s Common Reading selection for the 2014-15 academic year, and he visited campus for two days this week to answer questions from members of the campus community.

“I want students from Elon to take away from my experience that with everything you do in life, you face challenges,” Kamkwamba said Tuesday morning during the first of four public question-and-answer sessions in McCrary Theatre. “Don’t allow those challenges to stop you from achieving your goals.”

Kamkwamba told students and faculty at the morning presentation more about the people and places featured in his book; his views on politics in Malawi; his experience attending Dartmouth College; his observations about the way he has inspired others to improve their own communities; and even his thoughts on soccer.

The international fame he’s brought his nation, based on the improvements he’s contributed to his village, has changed the way people perceive him. Kamkwamba said he is no longer seen as “crazy.”

“The time I started making my windmill, a lot of people doubted me. They couldn’t believe what I was doing,” he said. “Now, whenever I have an idea, if I share with them, the opinions are real positive with positive feedback.”

The Elon African Society recognized Kamkwamba following the Sept. 16 morning Q&A with its African Innovation Award, which honors those who demonstrate leadership in creativity, research, entrepreneurial efforts and other endeavors that aim to better Africa.

“Mr. Kamkwamba has not only made tangible accomplishments in improving his community, but more importantly, has inspired us all with his dedication to his studies, his passions and his people,” said Elon University senior Omolayo Ojo, president of the Elon African Society. “Let his story serve as a reminder of how far just a little bit of education – whether within a classroom or through our own self-direction, and perhaps more so – can take us.”

The Elon Common Reading Program is designed to challenge students, faculty, and staff to examine themselves and the local and global worlds they inhabit through reading. Readings and related discussions aim not only to encourage critical reflection about important issues but also to invite consideration of how our individual actions affect these issues.

Each year’s reading marks the beginning of the Elon Core Curriculum, the set of courses and experiences that are shared by every Elon undergraduate.

“The Common Reading Committee saw many intellectual themes worth contemplating in this book: innovation, personal initiative, experimentation, Africa, sustainable development and others,” said Associate Professor Jeffrey S. Coker, director of the Elon Core Curriculum. “Most striking is the thought process that allowed William to create devices from junk – a thoughtful, relentless process of experimentation and creativity.”