William turns 13 in 2000 and starts to grow up. He, Gilbert, and Geoffrey spend less time hunting and more time playing bawo, a mancala game, in the trading center. William is good at this strategy game, an important consolation for his lack of skill at physical sports. William never allows Khamba to follow him to the trading center because the older men tease him for allowing a dog meant for hunting to come into the trading post. William must throw rocks at Khamba to make him stay home.
William’s strengths obviously lie in mental pursuits, rather than the physical strength that he admires in his father and other Malawian men. In trying to find his place as a man in the village, William must balance the cultural emphasis on physical pursuits with his own desire to increase his intelligence and education. For now, William shows that he buys into the community’s regulations on manly behavior by leaving Khamba at home.
As William matures, he stops caring so much about the soccer team, the MTL Nomads, that had sometimes taken over his life as a child. When William got so obsessed that he couldn’t eat if the Nomads lost, he gave up following soccer for good. Instead, William and Geoffrey begin to talk about old radios and figuring out how to fix them.
While an obsession with soccer teams is another thing that Malawian boys and American boys might have in common, William is forced to put aside such non-essential activities much sooner than the average American boy might have to. Missing a meal for a soccer game is practically inexcusable given the frequent scarcity of meals.
As most Malawians do not have electricity and television, radios are the main source of connection to the outside world. Though there were only two radio stations, both controlled by the government, for much of William’s childhood and adolescence, he still remembers the radio programs fondly.
Radios are a significant example of the way that technology can improve the lives of people in rural communities. William is intensely interested in radios for these world-opening capabilities, even if the radio channels in Malawi were not entirely propaganda-free.
William wanted to know how radios play music and produce sound as soon as he saw one. Through much trial and error, William and Geoffrey learn how the integrated circuit board, made up of wires and plastic, connects to little bean-like transistors that increase the sound volume. They investigate the internal antennae for the long AM waves and the external antennae for the short FM waves. After William and Geoffrey sacrifice many old radios to fully understanding how radios work, people bring the two boys broken radios to fix.
William again displays his natural ability to understand scientific and engineering issues. Though Kamkwamba uses all the correct terminology for the parts of the radio in the book, he notes that he was unaware of most of this vocabulary at the time when he was experimenting with radios. William’s natural ability to work with radios is handy, but he still needs the added support of a quality education to fully understand the scientific principles at work in these machines.
Soon, Geoffrey and William run a radio-repair business out of Geoffrey’s bedroom. To find out the source of the problem, the boys need a power source, but they don’t earn enough to afford batteries. They look through the trash for used batteries that might still have some juice left, and make battery terminals out of empty Shake Shake beer cartons. The adults in the village are sometimes puzzled that William and Geoffrey are technically minded at such a young age, but encourage the boys to keep up their business and get good jobs.
Geoffrey and William become entrepreneurs from an early age, showing the same motivation and ingenuity that made Trywell successful as a trader. The villagers clearly see how these traits could translate to a life outside of the mundane work of farming. William and Geoffrey also show their resourcefulness by finding batteries in the trash to use for their projects, recycling things that would otherwise be useless so that they don’t have to find ways to pay for new batteries.
William becomes very interested in finding out how things work, but is discouraged when no one in the village can tell him how trucks move, or how CD players play music. William decides he will become a scientist so that his job can be to figure out how these machines function, but he must first get good marks on his Leaving Certificate Examination at the Wimbe Primary School. Only students with the best grades are chosen to go to well-funded government secondary schools with full science classes.
William’s natural interests require a better education than is usually given to people in this rural community of Malawi. After primary grades, which reach the equivalent of 8th grade in the American system, school is not mandatory for Malawians. William will have to sacrifice time, energy, and money to continue his education beyond that level and find answers to his questions.
Aside from studying, William spends the majority of his time working the farm. By far the most important crop is maize, the main ingredient of the nsima that is the basis of every meal. Nsima is made by combining corn flour and water and scooping the mixture into little cakes that can then be eaten plain or used as a utensil to eat any other food. A meal without nsima is not a meal at all for a Malawian.
The staple crop of nsima is often the only thing that keeps Malawians from starving when meat is scarce and other vegetables are not growing. Nearly 60% of the nutrition that keeps Malawians alive is found in this corn crop.
Farming maize for nsima takes intense work from the entire family. Women work in the home doing all the cooking, cleaning, and childcare while the men work in the fields. In July, William must clear the land from the previous harvest by burning the old corn stalks. From August to November, William digs new dirt rows into ridges in the ground that rotate the soil and make the soil soft enough for seeds to push through the hard Malawian ground.
The whole family must contribute to farming the food that keeps them alive. Most of the burden of farming falls on men, though Kamkwamba recognizes that the women work just as hard (or harder) at the tasks that constitute women’s work in Malawi. The harvest seasons in Malawi are opposite that of American corn farmers, due to the location of Malawi below the equator and the added factor of the rainy and dry cycles of the year.
William gets up at 4 am to take advantage of the cooler early morning for the exhausting work of breaking the dry, hard ground. Agnes prepares corn porridge and sends him to the field with a warning not to cut his foot with the hoe – a common injury among rural Malawian children. The forest is still dark as William walks to the field, the only time William is still afraid of the Gule Wamkulu.
The constant possibility of injury is another thing that Malawians must factor into their survival plans. As the farm needs every available person to work, children with injured feet are sent back into the field, risking infection and a further threat to the child’s life. William may be older now, but he still fears magic as seen in the figures of the Gule Wamkulu.
Rain comes to Malawi in December, and all farmers must scramble to get their fields planted as soon as possible. The seedlings sprout after a few days and farmers apply fertilizer after two weeks to help the corn stalks grow as much as possible. The harvest is then collected in May and lasts through September. This cycle means that food is plentiful from May to September, but farmers must store up enough grain to last from November to April. After buying fertilizer and seed in December, then splurging for meat on Christmas, most families must wait out the hungry season from January through April while the rain pours and nourishes the next harvest. Though the work is hard, and people struggle to prepare their fields with so little food, a good crop can produce enough to sustain the family all year.
The seasonal cycles in Malawi mean that farmers must work near constantly for a harvest that only comes once a year. If the harvest is not enough to sustain the whole family, then their family will suffer the following year. As many things might make a harvest smaller than usual, the calculations of how much seed the farmer can buy with the previous year’s profits versus how much the farmer has to plant to ensure a full crop is often a tricky balance that leaves farmers short when January arrives. The hungry season can make or break a family if they do not retain enough food to survive and fuel the men who have to ready the fields for the crop next year.
In December of 2000, the rain came late in the month and then fell so strongly that the seeds were flooded out of the ground. At William’s farm, the seedlings were able to stay rooted, but the rain washed away the fertilizer that would help them grow. Due to President Muluzi’s new policies, fertilizer was too expensive for most families to buy again, and the promised aid from the government never arrived. After the floods, the rain disappeared altogether and a drought lasted until March. Some seedlings received enough water to grow to maturity, but crop yields were nowhere near their usual height and number.
Muluzi’s administration is particularly unhelpful to William’s family when the weather throws an extra obstacle into the farmers’ never-ending battle to plant enough food. Though Muluzi may be a pro-business politician who tries to benefit the businessmen of the country, he does not seem to understand that the business of survival is far more important and has much less room for mistakes in the prices of materials necessary for a good crop.
As William and Trywell survey the sad state of their maize, William asks Trywell what will happen next year. Trywell simply sighs and says that everyone will have to deal with these consequences. The smallest villages feel the effects of the drought worst, with fewer people to work the fields and a smaller margin of error to keep away hunger. William’s family is only able to fill five sacks with grain that year.
All of Malawi suffers from the effects that bad weather and poor governmental management have on the crop, but there is some variation in how hard certain communities are hit. Smaller villages often have no surplus even in a good year, and will suffer more when a poor harvest makes a specific year even tighter. The Kamkwambas’ yield of only five bags is a mere fraction of the usual harvest and certainly not enough to sustain the family through the entire hunger season.