Before William discovered science, he says, he was terrified of magic. His earliest memory is of a time when his father, Trywell, saved him from magic. When William was six, he ate some bubble gum given to him by other boys playing in the street. The next day, a man comes to William’s house and tells Trywell that someone has stolen a bag of bubblegum. William is scared that this man will send a sing’anga (witch doctor) after him for eating the bubble gum.
Magic and science are at odds from the very beginning of the book. In this example, magic takes a special treat for William (who does not often get bubblegum or sweets) and turns it into something dark. Magic is often a negative force in William’s life, whereas science will act as a more positive force.
William goes to the forest and tries to force himself to vomit up the bubble gum so that a witch doctor won’t be able to blame him for the theft. When William can’t throw up, he runs back to his father and confesses his crime. Trywell goes back to the trader who originally owned the gum, explains that William didn’t know it was stolen, and pays a full week’s wages for the bag. That night, William feels as though he has been saved from certain death, but Trywell just laughs at the incident.
Though Trywell laughs at the circumstances, he still helps William when William is truly afraid. This memory shows that William sees his father as someone who will always support and protect him, no matter the personal cost. An entire week’s wages is no small matter to the family, as will become clear in later chapters when William outlines the tight profit margins of a Malawian farmer.
Trywell, William’s father, is a strong man who does not fear magic even though he still tells the traditional magic stories. One of William’s favorite magic stories tells of the Battle of Kasunga. A young princess of the Chewa people is killed by a black rhino, so the Chief of the Chewa people contracts a magic hunter named Mwase Chiphaudzu to kill the menace. Mwase kills the rhino and is awarded a potion of the Chewa lands as a prize.
Trywell may not believe in magic, but he still perpetuates magic’s influence on Malawian children through these stories. William’s outlook on magic is far more ambiguous, for as much as William clearly admires characters from the stories and wants to be a powerful, magic person, William does not seem to trust magic in his own life.
Yet the Ngoni people, fleeing war in the Zulu kingdom of South Africa, settle in the land that Mwase now rules. The Ngoni decide to eliminate the Chewa so that they will no longer have to compete for resources. When Chief Mwase discovers this plot, he magically transforms his warriors into blades of grass and kills all the Ngoni warriors when they try to invade the Chewa mountain. The mountain was renamed to commemorate this battle, and William explains that the mountain looms just past his village and the town of Kasungu.
The story briefly sketches out the harsh reality of survival in Malawi. As the Ngoni people see it, the Chewa people must die in order for their own people to live. As the mountain of the story looms over the village, it is a reminder that this bargaining or exchange of one person’s life for another’s death is also influential in William’s life – especially when times of famine come.
Trywell learned these magic stories from William’s grandfather. Grandpa is old enough that he remembers Malawi before farming cleared the dense forest and wild animals became scarcer. When Grandpa was a boy, his grandmother was eaten by a lion and the British authorities shot the lion so it would not eat anyone else. Another story tells of Grandpa finding a man who had been killed by a snake bite. Grandpa took a witch doctor to the body, and the witch doctor brought the man back to life long enough for the man to identify the snake who bit him.
William narrates Grandpa’s magical stories in the same tone he uses to narrate the true events of his own life, making it seem as though the magical occurrences are just as real as the mundane details of William’s life. Yet William does make a point to explain that the magical days of Grandpa’s youth, real though they may have been, are gone. Everyday life in Malawi today is less wild and less magical.
Trywell used to go hunting with Grandpa and follow a sacred ritual before each expedition. Grandpa acted as the mwini chisokole, the owner of the hunt who plans when and where the hunt will take place and recruits other men to join the expedition. He was not allowed to sleep in the same room as his wife the night before the hunt so that he would be well-rested and free from distractions. Grandpa would boil a mixture of red maize and roots, then pass it out to all the men on the hunt. The men also told their wives to stay indoors while the hunt took place so that the animals would stay asleep.
William seems uncommitted to whether the rituals of the mwini chisokole actually helped the hunt be more successful, but the sheer amount of preparation shows how important hunting was (and is) to Malawian survival. As this hunt may be one of the only times in an entire year that a Malawain family would get to eat meat, the outcome of this hunt has great significance in sustaining people who are near constantly on the brink of not getting enough food.
As a boy, William did not worry about animals, but he was afraid of the Gule Wamkulu (a secret gang of magical dancers, supposedly the spirits of dead ancestors.) The Gule Wamkulu perform on stilts, and legend says they look for boys to take back to graveyards after their dances. Everyone is afraid of the Gule Wamkulu except for donkeys. William tries to be like a donkey, but he can’t help but fear wizards who steal children to be soldiers in their witchcraft armies. Bewitched children trick more recruits into joining the army by feeding them human meat.
William’s description of the Gule Wamkulu makes it clear that these dancers are actually men on stilts, rather than truly the spirits of the dead, but William still respects the place that the Gule Wamkulu hold in Malawian culture. As a child, the Gule Wamkulu were another example of the negative aspects of magic for William, and here he also brings in the idea that children are most susceptible to magic because they are not yet educated in the ways of wicked witches or bewitched children. Additionally, the “magic” properties of eating human meat are another reminder of the scarcity of food in Malawi. Though hungry children would understandably be tempted by fresh meat, the taboo on cannibalism is strong.
After the incident with the bubblegum, William is even more wary of witchcraft. William tries to protect himself by posting money (as witches are allergic to the rival evil of money) at his bed and praying his soul clean each night. Trywell scoffs at giving William kwacha bills to protect his room at night, believing that magic is nothing next to religious faith.
Money is also seen as evil in Malawian culture, as it is (at least in theory) in some areas of American culture. Whereas William seems to reject magic in favor of science, Trywell rejects magic for religion. William respects his father’s faith more than he fears magic.
Trywell tells William a story about how he stopped believing in magic. In 1979, Trywell was riding in a truck to Lilongwe to sell dried fish. The truck suddenly flipped over and threw the men into the air, then started rolling toward the men when they all landed. The truck stopped just before it would have crushed Trywell, though many other people died. After that experience, Trywell knew he had been saved by the power of God and that magic had no control over his life.
Trywell’s story echoes the earlier story of the Ngoni and Chewa people in that some people must die for others to live. Trywell does not dwell on the fact that other people were crushed by the truck, seeing only his own survival. This survival must have been the will of God, Trywell believes, for there was not either an earthly or magical reason that the truck would have stopped.
William respects his father’s disdain for magic, but can’t quite accept how a world without magic explains extraordinary men like Chuck Norris or Rambo. William and another boy who lives down the street talk about the amazing movies they see on TV and wonder at how these things are possible. All the village boys play a game called USA versus Vietnam that copies the war reels of the Vietnam war using spit shooters for guns. The team playing America always gets to win, because America has war magic.
The game that William and his friends play blurs the line between science and magic, as the boys see Americans as winners due to their war magic, while others might argue that the American military wins due to its superior technology. William and his friends also seem to blur the line between fantasy and reality, regarding the adventures of Chuck Norris and Rambo on the same plane as the war reels. Both kinds of films are very removed from the circumstances of Malawian life, though the boys certainly identify with the emotions behind these movies.
William’s best friends are his cousin Geoffrey and Gilbert, the son of the chief of the Wimbe district. Gilbert’s father is known simply as Chief Wimbe, though his name is Albert Moffat. William and Geoffrey love to go to Gilbert’s house and watch all the people come to Chief Wimbe with requests and offerings. Chief Wimbe dresses like a businessman, not in feathers as the movies suggest. Everyone who goes to see Chief Wimbe must get through his bodyguard, Mister Ngwata, first.
Kamkwamba points out that Malawi’s chiefs are far closer to American leaders (whether businessmen or politicians) in their style of dress, though the popular image of Africa would require all chiefs to wear tribal garb. Kamkwamba describes Chief Wimbe as closer to the mayor of a small town who is deeply involved in his citizens lives, in opposition to the official Malawian government that does not always address the needs of the people.
On this particular day, William and Geoffrey find Gilbert singing along to the radio in his room. They use their secret slang to say hello, shortening the French “bonjour” to “bo.” The three boys decide to go to the Ofesi Boozing Centre and collect the empty cardboard beer cartons for toys and projects. William explains that children in Malawi entertain themselves much the same as children in America and Europe, just using different materials. William and his friends love trucks and build makeshift toy trucks out of the beer cartons, especially a popular brand called Chibuku Shake Shake that has a sturdy carton for making the body of a truck with beer-bottle-cap wheels.
William, Geoffrey, and Gilbert display the ingenuity and creativity that Kamkwamba prizes in Malawians by recycling trash to create entertaining toys. These cartons would have been seen as useless for people with other resources, but William and his friends use everything to its fullest potential. While American children might not play with beer carton trucks, they certainly play the same types of games with their plastic trucks. Kamkwamba notes how similar children’s pastimes are all around the world.
William and his friends find many ways to improve their trucks and personalize them or scratch the logos of well-known truck models designs into the wheels. As they get more ambitious, the boys even build wagons like American go-carts that can carry one person while another pulls a rope to make the car race down the street.
Kamkwamba relates his childhood games to the childhood games of Americans, showing that these two cultures ultimately have a foundation in common. American commerce clearly has a lot of influence in Malawi, as Kamkwamba names many American truck models as his favorites.
The boys of Wimbe often race their go-carts to Iponga’s barber shop, through the frequent power outages make it unlikely that anyone will get a full haircut in one sitting. They also go to Mister Banda’s convenience shop whenever they have a few spare coins to buy fried goat and chips, and they play in the bushes when they don’t have money. In the evenings, the women of the village prepare supper while the boys play soccer in the fields. Sometimes farmers from nearby villages stop by in the evening to barter with William’s father for produce or maize.
Kamkwamba describes the average day in Malawi, as he hangs out in the town with friends or plays soccer, which is not that different from the average life of many Americans, even if the Malawians make do with far fewer material goods. Kamkwamba also subtly introduces the problem of power outages early on, an issue which William’s inventions later in the novel will directly address.
When night fully falls, the children gather inside while Trywell lights a kerosene lamp and prepares to tell folktales. One of William’s favorite stories is about the Leopard and the Lion. In the story, two little girls come to the house of an old man and fall asleep. The old man tells Leopard and Lion that he has food for them, and leads the animals back to his house. But the girls have already woken up and eaten the food, and there is only a note of thanks for the old man on the bed. The old man tells Lion and Leopard to wait in the garden, as he knows that they will eat him if he can’t find them another meal. The old man hides in a large gourd, until Lion and Leopard are tired of waiting. The animals go into the house and see that there is no meal. They then see the old man’s shirt sticking out of the gourd and drag the old man out. The old man tries to explain, but Lion and Leopard eat him.
Again the story addresses the topic of survival. Significantly, Lion and Leopard are not seen as the villains in this tale, as they simply have to eat in order to keep themselves alive. The old man is the villain for specifically trying to harm others who meant no harm to him. Additionally, had the old man been more careful about his hiding place, he would have escaped. The old man’s own carelessness and hurry was his downfall, not the appetite of the animals. In Malawi, the natural law that everything must eat to survive is supported by a cultural tradition that does not punish people for using their own intelligence to help themselves survive, as long as they do not try to hurt others.
The moral of the Lion and Leopard story is: Always wish others well, as planning misfortune for others will come back to haunt you. Trywell is an excellent story teller, because he draws from experiences of his own life that are magical enough to seem like stories.
Trywell has learned the survival lessons of the Malawian stories through direct experience, but he still maintains a focus on helping others. From Trywell’s life, William also learns how to survive while caring for his community.