William’s family still has no money to send him to school, and indeed are too poor to buy tobacco seeds or fertilizer. William is tortured by advertisements for schools on the radio, but knows that his father cannot think about school costs until all the debts on the farm are paid. William works on the farm and plays games in the trading center, trying to avoid becoming one of the boys who have dropped out of school and “groove” through life working a little each day with no plan for the future.
While William’s windmill was a significant achievement, the problems of gaining an education in a rural area are still prevalent. William desperately wants to stay motivated and continue working towards a better future, though this is a hard prospect for many other rural Malawians who cannot pay the fees for school. The lack of education hurts many in the community by robbing young people of their futures.
To keep his mind occupied without school, William returns to the library every week. Feeling pressured to come up with another project as successful as his windmill, William decides to build a radio transmitter. He experiments with radio frequencies by tuning two radios to the same frequency so that one radio’s signal cancels out the other’s. William then uses a Walkman with a radio and a cassette player to play cassette tapes over the radio frequency and hear the cassette music through the second radio.
William returns to radios, the first thing he experimented with in order to understand some of the technology that powers his world. With the increased knowledge he has from the textbooks, William can move from just repairing radios to fully controlling how the radio functions and plays music.
Rewiring the radio and attaching a microphone, William and Geoffrey find out that William can broadcast his voice over the radio frequency up to 300 feet. Now, the boys need an amplifier to send their radio frequency farther. Geoffrey is afraid that the government will arrest them for messing with the radio signals, but William thinks it would be an honor to be arrested for his inventions.
William always prioritizes his inventions above the possibility of government action. Putting his own voice over radio frequencies that are otherwise reserved only for government programs symbolizes how William wants to control his own life without the dominating authority of the government.
William is also anxious to get to work on a water pump. He digs up PVC irrigation pipes from the scrap yard that are long enough to reach the bottom of his family’s well. He fashions a piston out of the metal pipe and a handle so that pushing on the metal pipe forces water out of the plastic pipe. Yet the rubber stopper William uses to create the vacuum that forces water up creates too much friction and the women of the village say the pump is too hard to use. William eventually gives up on the pump.
Not all of William’s inventions are successful, as the materials that he has to work with are often not the ideal components for his projects. While the theories behind this water pump are sound, there is only so much William can do without funds and while using solely recycled materials.
William also fails to create biogas (liquid fuel made of animal waste), which he hoped would save his sisters the arduous job of collecting firewood and halt the damaging effects of deforestation in Wimbe district. After setting fire to a piece of grass using wire attached to the windmill, William hopes to boil water using windmill power. That experiment proves too easy, and William then foolishly rushes to try to make biogas.
William’s boundless enthusiasm for new scientific inventions sometimes gets him in trouble. The first experiment of boiling water using electricity is too simple, as William always wants to push the boundaries of what he can accomplish. His confidence and enthusiasm are huge benefits to his abilities as an inventor, but must sometimes be reigned in.
William gathers goat droppings and dumps the feces in a clay pot in the kitchen while his mother works in the garden. Sealing the top of the pot tightly with a plastic shopping bag and a makeshift radio antennae valve, William sets the pot on the cooking fire and waits to see if the feces will let off biogas. Before William can check his experiment, Agnes comes into the kitchen yelling about the terrible smell. William attempts to justify his experiment by lighting a reed on fire and touching it to the vile white steam now rising from the pot, but the reed just sputters out and dies. Agnes is left muttering about William’s silly experiment ruining her pot.
William’s family supports his inventions, but they sometimes have to put up with the negative consequences of experiments gone wrong. William will go to any lengths for the sake of an experiment, even if it means bringing goat feces into the house. While his intentions are good with the biogas experiment, he takes it too far by not thinking through how to cause as little damage as possible if the trial does not happen as planned.
In 2003, Agnes goes to visit her parents in Salima and returns with malaria. Almost everyone in sub-Saharan Africa suffers from malaria at some point in their lives, especially those like the Kamkwambas who can’t afford to put mosquito netting around their beds. Agnes gets sicker more quickly than usual, and Trywell takes her to the large hospital on his bike. They give her two shots and send her home, but Agnes slips into a coma two days later. The Kamkwambas borrow the neighbor’s truck and rush her to the hospital once more, where they find that the malaria has spread to her brain.
While William can do a lot to improve conditions for his family through his inventions, there are still aspects of poor, rural life in Malawi that William can do nothing to change. Malaria is one of the leading causes of illness in Malawi, especially among children under 5 and pregnant women. This disease is something that the Kamkwamba family is well used to dealing with, but they can do comparatively little to ensure that they survive it.
William is terrified of the hospital itself, and seeing his mother looking so sick in the hospital bed. Agnes later tells William that she had already given up on life, but couldn’t leave this Earth because she saw many people standing around her bed. Agnes dreamed of baby Tiyamike, crying for her mother, and finally managed to wake up from the coma. When Agnes wakes, she yells for Tiyamike, frightening William even more. A few days later, after slipping in and out of consciousness, Agnes’ fever finally breaks.
Agnes holds on to survival for the sake of her family, doing everything she can for them. Agnes’ commitment to her family inspires William to continue to work to help them improve their lives despite the often overwhelming obstacles facing them due to the lack of sufficient health care. Though the clinic is a better choice than the magic healing of a witch doctor, it is still not a comforting environment.
Soon after Agnes returns home from the hospital, Gilbert tells William that Chief Wimbe is very ill. After a few months, Chief Wimbe dies and the entire district begins mourning and funeral preparations. Hundreds of people come to Chief Wimbe’s house to pay their respects, while William and Geoffrey try to comfort Gilbert. At the funeral, the Gule Wamkulu dance over Chief Wimbe’s gravesite and Chief Wimbe’s coffin is laid into its special compartment in the ground.
Though William does not approve of magic in general, he still respects the place that magical rituals like the dance of the Gule Wamkulu have in the cultural landscape of Malawi. Especially at an emotionally charged moment like a funeral, the traditional superstitions of Malawi give important support to the entire community.
Already reeling from the death of the chief, Wimbe also confronts another famine. Though the village was hopeful that the election of Bingu wa Mutharika as president in 2004 would signal better times for farmers, including subsidies for seeds and fertilizer, corrupt officials ensure that most of this aid profits their friends instead of reaching rural farmers. The Kamkwambas manage to get a few bags of fertilizer and plant their seeds, but the rain stops in January of 2006 and the crops quickly wither and die.
Even when the head of the government attempts to provide adequate aid for the farmers, the structure of the government chain of command keeps that help from doing what is necessary to lift up the farmers who form the basis of the Malawian economy. The Kamkwambas must again face the slim odds of survival without depending on the government for anything.
Knowing that this harvest will be terrible, the government promises to intervene. However, people in William’s village are scared and suspicious, turning to anything they can to blame for this bad luck and weather. Stories of vampires and mythical beasts run wild, as well as reports of people having their private parts cut off and stolen in the night.
In times of trouble, the emotional toll on people leads to an increased dependence on magic, as people look for anything to give them a sense of control over the vagaries of the weather. Yet most magic is still a negative force that causes bad things for people instead of good things.
In Wimbe, rumors grow of witches using children to hurt good Christians, until one young boy reports that witches punished him for losing a soccer game against the witch children of Tanzania by ordering him to kill his grandfather. Police ask the boy who in the village is the witch, then beat the man accused by the young boy within inches of his life. William laments that the Malawian government has no provisions in the constitution for convicting wizards and witches of witchcraft.
Kamkwamba is extremely ambiguous about whether he truly wants the Malawian government to have a better system for dealing with magical crimes. On the one hand, Kamkwamba seems to feel pity for the man who was beaten for being a witch, but he also appears sincere in asking for more protection for people who have been harmed by magical means.
In March of 2006, rainclouds gather on the horizon in Wimbe, but a strong wind blows them away. People in the village blame William’s windmill for calling witches and causing the drought. William attempts to explain, but knows that there is little he can say to convince people that the windmill is science, not magic. Luckily, people give up complaining about the windmill when the government releases maize and aid agencies step in to make sure that no one starves and dies.
The opposition between magic and science comes to a head when the other villagers see William’s windmill as an agent of dark magic. While William sees the windmill as the height of the good that science can do, people’s fear and uncertainty scapegoat the windmill as the cause of all their bad luck this year. Fortunately, the Malawian government works for people’s good in a rare instance of truly addressing the needs of the people during this food crisis.
Magic is also blamed for the HIV/AIDS crisis in Malawi. William estimates that 20% of Malawians are infected and that the stigma of HIV and witches claiming to correct any “bewitchment” keep people from seeking real medical treatment. Sing’angas treat AIDS with roots and charge outrageous prices without solving anything. There is also harsh teasing and discrimination against anyone who looks like they have AIDS.
While William is ambiguous about his feelings on magic in other areas, he clearly dislikes the way that sing’angas take advantage of people who are ill by selling them false treatments. For something as important as the HIV/AIDS endemic, William advocates for increased use of Western science and medicine.
William joins a club started by health personnel from Wimbe clinic to help people learn the truth about HIV prevention and AIDS treatment. The club offers a classroom-like environment and gives William a place to hang out with his friends. The club puts on a play that teaches people about HIV and explains the benefits of getting tested, showing the experiences of a husband and wife who are tested for HIV and learn how to live healthily if they have the disease. William celebrates the fact that more people in Malawi get tested and treated for HIV in clinics instead of with sing’angas.
William continues to look for opportunities to increase his education and attend a form of school even if it is only focused on raising awareness for medical practices. William recognizes that changing people’s perceptions of how to treat disease is a long, slow process, but celebrates the steps that people are making to educate the public about the proper methods of diagnosing and treating this serious condition in Malawi.
William’s success with the windmill and the HIV club earns him the attention of a teacher at Wimbe primary, who asks him to start a science club for the younger children. William helps the students build a windmill and shows them the amazing things that innovation and invention can accomplish. He is happy to learn that some of the students were so inspired that they went home and built toy windmills in their own yards. He imagines a future for Malawi where every citizen has free electricity at their fingertips.
Already William is beginning to pass his success on to the next generation. By exposing younger children to the ways that scientific discovery changed his own life, William opens the door for many other students to do their own experiments. Kamkwamba imagines the brighter future for Malawi based on all these bright students working together.