Trywell, William’s father, lived in Dowa during the 70s and 80s working as a traveling trader rather than farming like the majority of Malawians. Malawi was under the control of President Hastings Banda at this time, a man who had worked his way up from a childhood in rural Malawian poverty to become a doctor in England and later to free Malawi from British colonial rule. In 1971, Banda forced the Malawian Parliament to make him Life President.
As much as Kamkwamba disagrees with President Banda’s harsh control over parliament and the country, he seems to admire Banda’s hard work and intelligence that made him a successful, educated man after being born in poverty. William clearly values education as a way to escape the rural farming life.
President Banda’s administration functioned as a dictatorship, strictly regulating many aspects of Malawian life and punishing any who criticized his policies. Yet Banda’s system was beneficial to traders and farmers in Malawi, and Trywell had many exciting experiences working with Muslim traders called the Yao. The Yao came to Malawi from Mozambique, converted to Islam, and began fighting with and enslaving the Chewa people in Malawi. Without the help of the Scottish missionary David Livingstone, the Yao and the Chewa would still be in conflict. Livingstone helped end slavery and began an infrastructure of schools and missions in Malawi. William says that the Yao are now accepted in Malawi, and that his mother is Yao.
Kamkwamba outlines how Banda both helped and hurt the Malawian people, but also created an atmosphere where Malawians do not generally trust the government. Kamkwamba admires David Livingstone much more, especially for the work he did founding schools in Malawi. Kamkwamba suggests that Malawi is continuing to develop into a more tolerant and inclusive place, helped by efforts to bring education to the rural districts of the country.
As a trader, Trywell worked at a huge bazaar in a town called Mangochi with goods and people from all over Southern Africa. Gambling and prostitutes were a constant temptation for traders, but Trywell resisted these money-draining activities. His friends began calling him the Pope (Papa in the Chichewa language) and teasing him for his virtuous lifestyle.
Trywell has one of the few occupations outside of farming in Malawi, able to reinvent his lifestyle to become a trader instead of a farmer. Yet Trywell is more careful with his money and his time than his friends, with ambitions for an even better life.
Trywell was a large man, and liked to fight while he was out drinking at night. He became legendary for his strength. On July 6th, the Malawian independence day that William compares to America’s July 4th holiday, Trywell wanted to see his favorite reggae singer Robert Fulumani sing. Fulumani was so popular with Malawians that the line for the concert stretched out the door of the hall. With everyone pushing to get inside, Trywell pushes past a policeman and makes it into the concert.
Kamkwamba again draws a similarity between Malawians and Americans, celebrating their respective independence days in the same manner. Trywell sees the official police force as an obstacle to the average Malawian’s freedom.
At Fulumani’s concert, Trywell is ecstatic to hear the beautiful music. He begins dancing like a man possessed, until even Fulumani notices from the stage. Fulumani and the surrounding concert-goers ask for Trywell to be removed as he is a distraction. Trywell, crushed that his hero doesn’t like his dancing, tries to reason with the security guards that everyone should be allowed to dance on independence day. For half an hour, policemen try to arrest Trywell, only succeeding when Trywell gets tired of fighting and agrees to spend the night in jail because he respects the law. After that night, Trywell is famous in the district for defeating 12 men with his strength.
Trywell fights for individual freedom over the order that the police enforce, another example of Kamkwamba’s argument that individual strengths should be given free reign to make Malawi strong as a country. The interference of the government actually holds Malawians back in William’s eyes. Kamkwamba will later uphold this principle through his inventions, but he respects his father’s physical strength and personal motivation even if he does not approve of fistfights.
Trywell begins to watch a particular girl who comes to the market each morning, who William reveals will become William’s mother, Agnes. Agnes notices Trywell staring and asks about his reputation. The stories of Trywell’s fights excite her, but she refuses to be an easy catch and ignores Trywell. After months of staring and ignoring, Agnes loses patience and goes to talk to Trywell. Nervous, but determined not to let this chance slip away, Trywell tells Agnes that he wants to marry her. Agnes says she needs time to think.
Trywell once again demonstrated his ability to reinvent his life based on new goals, in this case trading in his single lifestyle for the woman he loves. Agnes both acknowledges the traditional gender roles in Malawi, praising Trywell for his strength and prowess in a fight, but then flouts those roles by choosing to be the initiator of their first conversation.
After the initial meeting, Trywell asks Agnes each day to marry him. Agnes’ older brother, Bakili, warns Agnes about Trywell’s reputation for fighting, but Agnes says she is in love with Trywell and his strength. Bakili tells Agnes’ parents about Agnes’ courtship, and their parents reveal that they were married after meeting in much the same way. The parents give their blessing and Agnes and Trywell marry six months later and have their first child, Annie.
Kamkwamba outlines the accepted rules of a marriage proposal in Malawi, through the families of the intended groom and bride. While Bakili sees the difficulties that Trywell’s current disposition for fights could bring, Agnes sees under the surface to the potential that Trywell has to be a great man and strong provider for a family.
The first years of marriage are a dark time for Trywell. Trywell’s lifestyle of drinking and fighting begins to anger Agnes, and many of Trywell’s friends die or are put in jail. One of Trywell’s clients, Reverend JJ Chikankheni, tells Trywell to turn his life over to the Lord, but Trywell doesn’t listen. A few nights later, Trywell gets into another bar fight and is arrested.
The very thing that first attracted Agnes to Trywell becomes a source of conflict in their marriage. The reverend plants the seed of another way that Trywell can reinvent his life and leave the destructive fighting behind, but Trywell is not yet ready to listen.
While in jail awaiting trial, the prosecutor Mister Kabisa tells Trywell that he will let Trywell go if Trywell becomes a Christian and dedicates himself to God. Trywell agrees to get out of jail, but has a dream the next night where he hears the voice of God telling him to live a better life. Trywell rebuilds his life from that night on, becoming a wonderful husband and father.
Trywell is now able to put his life of fighting behind him and focus on the things that will improve his life and that of his family. This reinvention is necessary for William to become successful later in the book. Trywell ties this reinvention to his faith.
While Trywell had built a trading business, his brother John had established a farm near the districts of Wimbe and Kasungu where President Banda gave lots of support for farming estates. John worked his way up in an estate until he had enough money to start his own tobacco farm. In 1989, when William is one, John asks Trywell to come live in the village and work on the farm. Trywell agrees because he knows farming will give more profit than he makes now as a trader, and he has three kids to feed. The Kamkwamba family moves to the village of Masitala in the Wimbe district, and William’s childhood begins.
Kamkwamba notes that moving to the countryside marks the start of his true childhood, following the path that William takes in the novel from farming in poverty to using his inventions to better his family’s situation. All of these choices are tied to the tricky balance of survival in Malawi, as Trywell must do what is necessary to keep his family fed. John is another character that was able to start a profitable business from nothing, as Kamkwamba upholds the ideals of entrepreneurship and resourcefulness.
John gives Trywell one acre of land to plant burley tobacco to sell and maize to eat. William explains that maize is white corn, and says that his book will teach plenty about growing corn. Trywell helps John with his tobacco plants, making nursery beds in the dambo (marshy land with enough water and nutrients for good crops). It is hard, exhausting work, but Trywell is committed to making a better life for himself the way that Uncle John has done.
Part of the purpose of Kamkwamba’s book is to educate Western readers about the true lives of rural Malawians, outlining their everyday struggles to stay alive in difficult farming conditions. The details about the work of growing maize allow Kamkwamba to show his readers the burdens on farmers that he wants to ease.
As the Kamkwamba family grows, Trywell also has to build a new house to better fit the children. After working in the fields, Trywell comes home and fashions bricks out of grass and clay, which he had to dig out of pits two kilometers away from the house. When all the bricks are made, Trywell builds a roof out of long stemmed grass. It takes two months to make a two-room house, the hardest thing Trywell ever had to do. After three years, the Kamkwamba family has enough money to hire men to add two new buildings to their house so that the four Kamkwamba sisters can have a room. William, as the only boy, gets his own room, which becomes his fortress and day-dreaming hideaway.
Trywell takes the raw resources of the Malawian land to make a home for his family, a practice that William later uses in the novel to better that home with more recycled material. Kamkwamba sees this as a quintessentially African narrative, undergoing a constant process of reworking the available resources to make something that will benefit the people who live there. Here Kamkwamba also shows some of the systemic sexism of his society, however, in that it’s assumed that he should have his own room because he’s a boy, whereas his four sisters all must share a room.
A man named Mister Phiri works on Uncle John’s farm during the planting and harvesting seasons. Phiri has incredible strength from a magic ritual called mangolomera, where a paste of leopard and lion bones is rubbed into cuts in a man’s knuckles. Only the toughest men can survive the mangolomera and earn superhuman strength. Phiri’s power allows him to do amazing things, such as rip up trees from their roots and kill a black mamba snake, but it also pushes him to fight all the time.
Kamkwamba again explains how magic infuses Malawian culture, explaining extraordinary strength through magical means. Mangolomera is an example of the potential positive force of magic, but even it has its downsides. With magic, there is always a cost, and Kamkwamba questions whether the price of mangolomera is worth it by focusing on Phiri’s destructive tendencies.
One afternoon, Phiri starts to argue with another worker named James because James did not buy some items Phiri needed from the market. William hears the commotion and goes to watch. Phiri starts punching James, and William knows that Phiri’s mangolomera will soon beat James to death. Trywell comes to break up the noise, and Phiri begs Trywell to bring the sweet potato vines that act as kryptonite to mangolomera. With no vines nearby, Trywell grabs Phiri and locks the large man in his arms until Phiri can calm down. William cannot believe that his father is strong enough to defeat even mangolomera. Though James is not beaten that badly, Phiri’s mangolomera rubs off enough that James gets sick the next day.
Kamkwamba uses the comparison of sweet potato vines to kryptonite, again tying together American popular culture with his life in Malawi. (Kryptonite is the green stone that inhibits Superman’s strength in the American comic book.) Trywell is better at fighting than Phiri, even without magical help—the supposed usefulness of magic is outweighed by Trywell’s natural strength. James’ illness after even this short encounter with mangolomera shows that magic has the potential to be destructive to everyone it touches.
Phiri has a nephew named Shabani who boasts that he is a sing’anga who can perform mangolomera. William and Gilbert don’t believe Shabani, but they cannot be sure. When William is nine, he is teased because he is small and not good at soccer. Shabani offers to give William mangolomera. William knows his father would disapprove, but agrees to do the ritual. Shabani tells William to meet him by the blue gum tree with twenty tambala (a smaller bill of Malawian money).
Though Kamkwamba has already stated that he is afraid of magic, he seeks to gain control over it by using it for his own purposes. In William’s young group of friends, physical strength is the primary measure of a man, so much so that William is willing to go against his father’s beliefs in order to gain this power.
One hour later, William meets Shabani at the tree. Shabani explains that he will start making cuts on the left hand first, as William is right-handed already and the left hand will need more strength. Shabani pulls out a matchbox of black ashes and mixes the “lion and leopard bones” with some material that he claims to have collected from the bottom of the ocean.
Kamkwamba is skeptical of Shabani’s methods in hindsight, though it is unclear whether at the time he did believe that Shabani obtained these materials from the ocean. Throughout, Kamkwamba remains distant from the usefulness of this magic.
Suddenly, Shabani grabs William’s left hand and cuts the knuckles. When William flinches, Shabani tells William not to cry or the mangolomera won’t work. Shabani cuts each of William’s knuckles and rubs the ash paste onto the wounds, then tells William he will have powers in three days as long as William does not eat okra or sweet potato leaves and keeps the ritual a secret.
Shabani seems to build in excuses for the possibility that the magic is not real, hedging his bets by explaining the ways that William might disrupt the magic rather than allowing for the fact that the magical ritual does not in fact increase a person’s strength.
William spends the next three days at his grandparents’ house in Dowa, waiting for his mangolomera to develop and doing odd jobs for his grandmother. On the fourth morning, William feels stronger and faster than ever. That afternoon, William looks for a boy to fight at the local soccer field. He steps on a boy’s foot and picks a fight when the boy calls him out for his rudeness. William throws one punch, trying to temper his strength so the boy doesn’t die, but the boy just laughs and beats William soundly.
Though William believes that the mangolomera has given him increased strength, it is also possible that he has built up his strength naturally by working for his grandmother. In the fight, however, it becomes clear that the magic has really had no affect on William’s strength. William’s confidence in the ritual made him feel stronger, but the mental benefits of the ritual are not enough when actually put to the test.
William’s uncle finds William after the fight and yells at William for picking a fight with a boy twice his size. Humiliated, William goes home and confronts Shabani about the failure of the mangolomera. Shabani asks if William bathed the day of the mangolomera ritual. When William says yes, Shabani explains that everyone knows that mangolomera doesn’t work if you bathe. William knows he has been cheated, and worries that the “magic” ritual will cause an infection in his hands.
The downside to the mangolomera ritual is that there are several other factors involved that might explain why it didn’t increase William’s strength. Kamkwamba describes his distrust of this specific ritual as done by Shabani, but remains open to the possibility that mangolomera might actually exist when done by a real witch doctor.