African innovator gives inspirational talk

Caroline Dzeba

After facing nearly insurmountable challenges of famine and poverty, William Kamkwamba saved his Malawian community by constructing a homemade windmill out of junkyard material.Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer, who co-authored the book, “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope,” addressed a crowd of nearly 100 students and community members in the McCormick Tribune Center on Friday. The speech, sponsored by the Global Engagement Summit, focused on Kamkwamba’s struggle as a victim of the Malawian famine of 2002.When the famine struck, Kamkwamba had planned to enter high school. Even as he and his family survived on three mouthfuls of food a day, he continued to walk to his local library to study physics and electromagnetics.The famine, Kamkwamba said, was a “sad time” for him until, inspired by a windmill design he saw in a library book, he decided to build one to provide drinkable water for his village of Wimbe. “I thought, ‘If I can pump water, I will be able to study,'” he said. After facing three months of skepticism from neighbors and family members, Kamkwamba succeeded in building a working windmill from junkyard materials that provided enough energy to power light bulbs and charge mobile phones. Kamkwamba’s story attracted the attention of the members of TEDGlobal, an academic organization emphasizing innovation, who invited him to speak at their annual conference. “I had never seen an airplane, I had never slept in a hotel,” he said in a soft-spoken voice. “I was so nervous, and when I was speaking, my English disappeared.” Mealer, an author and journalist with the Associated Press who covered wars in the Congo, said he was struck by Kamkwamba’s struggles and successes. He helped Kamkwamba write down his story for the memoir. “This kid’s family nearly starved to death – that in itself is nothing unique in Africa,” Mealer said. “I’ve seen countless people go through the same situation.” What set Kamkwamba apart, he said, was his persistence and determination. “There wasn’t anyone (else) that believed they could do it,” Mealer said. “It is a testament to his grit and persistence.”Kamkwamba, 22, now attends the African Leadership Academy in South Africa, a school he said is working to transform a new Africa.Megha Agrawal, co-director of GES, said the organization invited Kamkwamba and Mealer to speak for their first event of the year because they embody what GES represents – that “every community can be a catalyst for change.” “We figured that Northwestern would be an awesome demographic for them to reach out to,” the SESP senior said. NU students weren’t the only ones who fit the mold for the event – students from all over the greater Chicago community also came to hear Kamkwamba’s speech.Joshua Burman, a high school senior at Northside College Prep in Chicago, said he attended with fellow class members.”The speech made me realize how much potential there really is across the world,” he said. “There are intelligent and passionate people that wouldn’t have an opportunity otherwise.”After the speech, Kamkwamba said he hoped the audience understood his message of perseverance.”In life, challenges will be there all the time, but what needs to be done is to keep going until you succeed, no matter what you are planning to do,” he said. “Just be yourself and keep going.”[email protected]