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African Dynamo

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African Dynamo

William Kamkwamba’s parents couldn’t afford the $80 yearly tuition for their son’s school. The boy sneaked into the classroom anyway, dodging administrators for a few weeks until they caught him.

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With no hope of getting the funds to go back to school, William continued his education by teaching himself, borrowing books from the small library at the elementary school in his village. One day, when William was 14, he went to the library searching for an English-Chichewa dictionary to find out what the English word “grapes” meant, and came across a fifth-grade science book called Using Energy. Describing this moment in his autobiography, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind (co-written with Bryan Mealer), William wrote, “The book has since changed my life.”

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“A windmill meant more than just power,” he wrote, “it was freedom.”

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William scoured trash bins and junkyards for materials he could use to build his windmill.

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Months later, in front of a crowd of disbelievers who had scoffed at him for behaving strangely, William lashed his machine to the top of a 16-foot tower made from blue gum tree branches. As the blades began turning in the breeze, a car light bulb in William’s hand started to glow. In the weeks that followed, William went on to wire his house with four light bulbs and two radios, installing switches made from rubber sandals, and scratch-building a circuit breaker to keep the thatch roof of his house from catching fire.

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With so many tales of bloody hopelessness coming out of Africa, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind reads like a novel with a happy ending, even though it’s just the beginning for this remarkable young man, now 21 years old. I have no doubt that William—who is rapidly becoming a symbol of promise and possibility for the people of Africa—will be leading the way.

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