When William is nine, his family experiences the sad and unexpected loss of Uncle John. Uncle John collapses in the tobacco field from untreated tuberculosis, and Trywell rushes to get a doctor from the hospital in Kasungu. Uncle John passes away before Trywell can return. It is the first time that William has ever seen his parents upset. Geoffrey is distraught at the loss of his father, and William does not know how to comfort him. William is also ashamed that he does not cry loudly to properly show his grief, and he forces tears to come before he goes to talk to his cousin.
Another difficulty of survival in rural Malawi is access to health care. The closest hospital is in Kasungu, and many people cannot afford to travel so far, or pay for any services once they get there. Death is a somewhat common occurrence in William’s village, but still incredibly tragic when it affects William’s family directly. Kamkwamba describes the mourning rituals of Malawians, describing how important it is to display the right emotions and support the family during this hardship.
Later that day, William’s uncles Musaiwale and Socrates arrive from Kasungu and arrange a wake for John. William cannot handle the press of people inside Uncle John’s house, and he and Geoffrey step outside for air. Geoffrey asks William what will happen now, but William has no answer.
Uncle John’s death has upset the delicate balance of the Kamkwamba family that was allowing them to survive on their farm. As the rest of the family pulls together to mourn John’s death, the younger men like William and Geoffrey are left to wonder about their own futures in this transition.
Chief Wimbe is away, so Mister Ngwata comes to discuss funeral arrangements and the inheritance of John’s property. Mister Ngwata comes out and tells the village that it is now their responsibility to help John’s children with clothing and school fees. A man from John’s wife’s family asks that the remaining Kamkwamba family care for John’s children like their own children. Trywell, Musaiwale, and Socrates then carry John’s coffin to the graveyard.
The community pulls together after Uncle John’s death, understanding that it is the village’s responsibility to ensure everyone’s survival after a tragedy hits. While every person must look out for his or her own survival, the village also bands together to help John’s children.
The gravediggers are already at the grave site, and have dug the grave in the traditional Malawi fashion with a hidden compartment that fits the coffin exactly. This compartment protects the deceased from falling dirt and keeps the family from seeing dirt fall directly on their loved one. The gravediggers lower John’s coffin into this compartment, then build a new floor for the hole with a reed mat and fill in the rest of the now empty-looking hole with dirt.
Kamkwamba gives more detail about Malawian cultural practices, describing the process of digging a grave. Part of the explanation is magical, as the villagers believe that the spirits of deceased people can come back if they are disturbed by the dirt, but part of the explanation is also a practical respect for the living members of the deceased’s family.
After Uncle John’s death, life on the farm is more difficult due to both grief and unsettled business matters. John’s eldest son, Jeremiah, inherits the farm, but the whole family knows that Jeremiah does not have the right attitude for the hard work of running a farm. Trywell wishes that it weren’t customary to give a man’s holdings to his first-born, but he does not want to upset the village chiefs by taking charge of the farm himself. Jeremiah spends all his time drinking away John’s profits in the town center, and Musaiwale takes control of half of the old farm. After two years, none of John’s farm is left.
Jeremiah provides an example of the type of life that William would like to avoid, with no plan for the future and no help for the Kamkwamba family. Though everyone in William’s family knows that Jeremiah will not be able to run the farm, they cannot go against the customary inheritance rules. Trywell is again concerned with doing the “right” thing, though it may have been better for the family in the long run if Trywell had taken possession of the farm.
Farming is also more difficult in general because of the new policies put in place by President Muzuli. President Banda’s thirty-year dictatorship had made the Malawian people angry, and even the intimidation of the Gule Wamkulu is not enough to convince the people to stop protesting. Banda, unlike many African rulers, agrees to step down peacefully, and Bakili Muluzi is elected. Though Banda certainly had his own troubles, he at least helped the farmers in the “breadbasket” of the country with kits of fertilizer and seeds. Muluzi only cares for business and opens the market to foreign imports of crops. Soon, tobacco prices are so low that most Malawian farmers don’t bother to grow it.
President Banda uses the magical Gule Wamkulu to inspire fear and force people to follow his policies, another example of the negative influence of magic in Kamkwamba’s opinion. Yet though Banda was not a perfect leader by any means, Kamkwamba still recognizes the ways that Banda’s administration was better for Malawian farmers. Muluzi might be a “fairer” president, elected through democratic means, but he is not in touch with the actual needs of the mostly rural population.
William’s family continues to grow tobacco, but can no longer hire additional workers to help William and his cousins do all the farm work. Uncle Socrates loses his job as a welder on a large tobacco estate and moves back to the village with his seven daughters and his dog, Khamba. William at first wants nothing to do with Khamba, a tall, skinny dog with black blotches across his exotic white fur. Malawian dogs are usually not kept as pets, but used for security reasons. Yet, no matter how much William tells Khamba to go away, Khamba continues to follow William around.
The Kamkwamba family comes together once more as farming conditions get worse. They all must work together in order to help each family member survive. Unlike pets in some American families, dogs are not considered “part of the family” but simply another mouth to feed as times get tougher. Khamba is supposed to be a useful guard dog, but at this point he is just a nuisance to William.
Soon enough, William stops trying to get rid of Khamba and even enjoys his company. Khamba does his work protecting the chickens of the farm and loves hunting in the forest. William takes him to find birds in the dambo, a practice that William learned from his older cousins Geoffrey and Charity. Before getting a dog, William, Geoffrey and Charity trapped birds in tree sap and then pounced on them before they could escape. Meat is a luxury in William’s family, and William’s parents never make him share the delicious birds he catches.
William often looks to connect with other people, and forms a friendship with the dog Khamba in the absence of other boys in his family when his older cousins are unavailable. When hunting, William is allowed to keep everything for himself. His parents do not expect William to contribute the extra meat to the family, because that prize came from William’s work alone.
On one hunting expedition, Charity rashly decides to get more sap for trapping birds. However, the best sticky sap is also poisonous if it gets in one’s eyes. The wind blows the sap into Charity’s eyes and William and Geoffrey know that they must quickly get Charity to a mother who is producing milk, as that is the only cure for the sap. Luckily, Agnes has just had a baby and is still breastfeeding. The boys lead Charity to William’s house and Agnes is able to cure the sap-blindness in exchange for all the birds Charity catches on his next hunting trip.
This story helps flesh out the details of William’s young life. Kamkwamba stresses how careful he and his friends had to be in the fields, as plants like the sap tree could be incredibly dangerous if not handled correctly. Aside from the considerations of food and shelter, Malawians also have to be aware of their surroundings and make sure that their lives are not at risk from an accident.
Hunting with Geoffrey and Charity taught William how to best trap birds and patiently wait for the moment to kill, skills that Khamba understands by instinct. On hunting trips, William takes a sack full of many tossed out items that might be useful, including two knives that William made out of discarded iron and plastic sheeting.
Farming families like William’s must adapt to the best methods of survival in Malawi, weighing the costs and benefits of actions that animals like Khamba do on instinct. William also recycles objects that would be thrown away instead of wasting money on specific materials for traps.
On a hunting trip, William and Khamba head down to the blue gum trees by Geoffrey’s house to take advantage of their shade. William strips two blue gum branches of their bark and stakes the sticks in the soil. He uses a piece of old bicycle tube to make a slingshot-type bit between the two gumtree poles and attaches a rope made out of gumtree bark. William stacks old bricks in such a way that the slingshot will slam birds into the bricks when William pulls the rope. Finally, William sprinkles corn husks into the center of the slingshot area to lure wild birds to his trap.
Kamkwamba’s clear, logical description of the trap he builds already shows the marks of William’s aptitude for engineering. William is adept at building functional things, such as a trap, out of whatever resources he has on hand. While it might not be the “perfect” trap that an engineer would build in a laboratory, it is the trap best suited towards William’s particular environment and materials.
After setting his trap, William hides behind a tree as Khamba silently stays on alert. Half an hour later, four wild birds swoop in to eat the bait. William waits until he sees Khamba’s ears prick up and a fifth, fat bird flies into the trap. William then pulls the rope and kills all five birds. William stuffs the birds into his pocket and heads to the mphala, the home for unmarried boys.
William is able to depend on Khamba’s instincts to get a higher catch. In Malawi, even one bird more is a significant difference due to the scarcity of meat for many farmers. William must have incredible patience and time his trap just right to maximize his “profits” in the hunting field.
William’s cousin Charity lives at the mphala, as does his friend Mizeck. The mphala is cluttered and full of the paraphernalia prized by Malawian boys, including posters of the famous Malawian soccer teams on the walls. It smells of smoke and unwashed boys, but William loves any chance he has to hang out there. Since he is younger than the mphala boys, William must buy his entry with treats such as tasty birds. William desperately wants to be included in the older boys’ conversations, which are mostly centered on pretty girls.
The mphala reveals another facet of Malawian culture, where boys of a certain age are expected to disengage somewhat from their families, through they are not yet married and looking to start families of their own. Kamkwamba speaks of it in terms of an American fraternity house where boys can gather as they become men. Malawian culture also puts a lot of emphasis on respecting elders, explaining part of William’s deferential treatment to Charity and Mizeck.
This particular hunt has been a large enough kill that William can take his riches to the mphala. Mizeck allows William in, but forces Khamba to stay outside. William yells at Khamba for show in front of the older boys, but makes sure that Khamba gets to eat the bird entrails. Charity and Mizeck roast the birds over a fire and set to their feast. William is happy he is allowed to stay while the boys are eating, but as soon as the birds are gone, Mizeck and Charity tell William to go home to his mother.
William may put on bravado in front of Charity and Mizeck, but his actions show that he truly does care for Khamba. This is another example of how William internalized Trywell’s stories about always treating others with kindness. Still, William’s youth means that he is not seen as a worthy companion in the mphala.