William becomes interested in bicycle dynamos, small metal lamps that attach to bicycle wheels and light up when the wheel spins. William traces the wires from the lamp to the wheel, but cannot figure out how spinning the wheel makes the light come on. After noticing that the dynamo wires sparked when they touched metal, William and Geoffrey attach the dynamo wires to a radio where the battery would normally go. The radio does not play when William pedals, so Geoffrey suggests that they connect the dynamo wires to a socket on the radio marked AC. This time, pedaling the bike makes the radio play.
Through his experiment with bicycle dynamos, William learns the difference between DC (direct current) and AC (alternating current). Again, he has the natural ability and curiosity necessary to put these experiments into action, but he needs a more rigorous scientific education than he will get at the local primary school in order to truly understand the concepts that power these machines.
After this small taste of electricity, William wants to create his own in a form where he does not have to continuously pedal. 98% of Malawians do not have electricity, and have no other choice than to go to bed when it gets dark at 7 pm or else waste expensive kerosene oil trying to light their house with smoky kerosene lamps. The only way to get government electricity wired to a Malawian house is to submit a lengthy and expensive application to the Electricity Supply Corporation of Malawi (ESCOM) and hope that they eventually approve the application and find your house to run wires. Even then, government issued power cuts happen often at night, rendering the electricity lines useless.
The government again does not address what William sees as a basic need for rural Malawians who are trying to improve their quality of life beyond the simple farming lifestyles of their ancestors. Free or cheap electricity would be one way for Malawian farmers to build some room for surplus into the yearly equations of profits and expenses that usually come up short. Paying for kerosene is a strain on the Kamkwamba’s family budget, but William needs that light to study at night after working in the field all day if he wants to avoid being a farmer in the future.
The other energy problem in Malawi comes from deforestation. Tobacco estates cut down many trees to make room for tobacco fields and more is used each year for cooking fires in villages without electricity. The lack of trees makes the Malawian soil easily washed into the river and the river must be dredged of silt and garbage so that the electricity turbines in the river can run again. This process is costly and leads to more power cuts as the ESCOM plant must be shut down to clean the river. This makes electricity even more expensive, and leads to more people cutting down trees and adding to the vicious cycle.
Kamkwamba suggests that the government does not recognize how deforestation leads to higher electricity cost, which in turns forces more people to contribute to deforestation. While cutting down trees might be good for business and necessary in villages where wood is the only fuel for cooking fires, Kamkwamba seeks to educate his fellow Malawians to the destructive long-term costs of this project. Free or cheap electricity would go a long way towards minimizing the effects of deforestation, allowing the Malawian land to recover and ultimately helping everyone.
Gilbert and his family can afford electricity, and William is amazed that Gilbert can just touch the wall and get light. William wants to have that ability in his own house, but his family does not have the money even for a small bicycle dynamo. William realizes he has to stop focusing on electricity and worry about graduating primary school first.
William has big dreams for improving his family’s life, but he has to prioritize his formal education to even have a chance of utilizing the concepts that have so much potential. While having electric lights would be nice for the Kamkwamba family, education offers a way for William to better his family’s situation in far more significant ways.
William stays up late each night with a kerosene lamp reviewing his old school books up to Year Eight to prepare for the primary school exit exam. This test is a three-day affair in September, with social studies and English on the first day, Chichewa and math on the second, and primary science on the third. William does his best and waits nervously for December when the grades will be posted. The students with the best grades are chosen to go to one of the three government funded boarding schools. William is jealous of his sister Annie already in secondary school and cannot wait until he can wear the trousers of a man in his own secondary school, though he knows that the school fees will be hard to arrange no matter how good his grades are.
While William may have an incredible aptitude for science, the future of his schooling will depend on his grades for all of the subjects taught in primary school. The Malawian government favors certain schools over others, prioritizing funds to the schools that accept students with the best grades at the expense of all other schools. Even then, secondary school is only an option for students who have the money for school fees. In his life beyond this book, Kamkwamba seeks to provide better education for all Malawian students in order to close this unfair gap.
As William grows, he must help his father more in the fields during school holidays. Tobacco requires even more work than maize, and William has to water each tobacco seedling individually to protect against the harsh sun. One day in late September, William finishes this work and goes with Gilbert to the trading center, where a large commotion of women has gathered. Gilbert explains that these women have come from smaller villages looking for ganyu, or day work, to feed their families during the hunger season. Usually these women can go to the big estates and ask for ganyu, but this year the estates have nothing extra to give out as payment. Chief Wimbe must find a way to help these women.
Tobacco is the Kamkwamba family’s main cash crop, but the effort it takes to maintain the seedlings sometimes overcomes the benefit that selling the tobacco gives. However, the extra work of harvesting tobacco puts the Kamkwamba family in a far better position than those who are forced to look for ganyu just to feed their families. Though the community can usually pull together to make sure that everyone can work for food, those that depend on ganyu are at risk of starvation during famine years.
The maize crops in the outer villages were the first to suffer in the strange flood and drought of the past year. Soon, everyone is running out of food only four months after the harvest. All the places that usually have a surplus to sell during the hunger season have nothing this year. Trywell advises William not worry, as the government keeps a surplus for these times and will distribute it through the ADMARC (Agriculture Development Marketing Corporation) that sells maize at a discounted price.
While there are stopgaps in place for the hunger season of a normal year, the drought upsets that balance. Trywell has faith that the government will step in and provide aid to the people who are suffering. Yet Kamkwamba’s tone throughout this portion suggests that the government will not be as helpful as Trywell hopes, and that the loss of crops is far more widespread than usual.
William trusts his father, but overhears a troubling conversation one day between Trywell and Agnes. At a rally called by the Malawi Congress Party that had supported President Banda, Trywell found out that President Muluzi had sold all the Malawian surplus grain to other countries for profit. The floods and drought had given Malawi a huge food deficit, but organizations like the International Monetary Fund and World Bank had pressured Muluzi to sell off the expensive grain surplus to settle previous debts. No one is entirely sure where the grain has gone, but it is clear that this year will be much harder than anyone expects.
In attempting to turn Malawi into a financially successful country, Muluzi ignores the most important segment of the Malawian population. Without the foundation of the farmers, Malawi cannot grow into a successful, sustainable future. Planning for short term gains does not work when the margins of survival year by year are already so slim. Again, Kamkwamba seems more sympathetic to Banda’s administration, despite its faults, than he is to Muluzi’s governing choices.
The price of maize starts rising in October and people begin to search for other food such as mangos and pumpkin leaves. William’s neighbor gives out unripe mangos for ganyu. A few days later, William notices traders selling gaga, the clear husks of corn, that is normally never eaten by people but used to make corn liquor, feed chickens, or set traps for birds. Now that maize is 300 kwacha a pail, people are turning to gaga as a cheaper alternative, though gaga itself is now ten times its normal price.
In times of trouble, Malawians turn to anything they can to try and survive through the hunger season. Using gaga as a replacement for corn is troubling to William, as he is used to only seeing this product as food for animals. He is beginning to realize that the harsh demands of survival sometimes come at the cost of one’s normal dignity.
Agnes has been cooking meals as usual, and William has been eating as much as he wants with no thought for the poor harvest. Now scared by the sight of people buying gaga to eat, William checks his family’s storeroom and sees that they only have two bags of grain left – enough for 3 meals a day for only 24 days, when there are 210 days until the next harvest. William and his father haven’t even started planting yet, and there is no guarantee that this harvest will be better than last year’s.
So far, William had been somewhat sheltered from the realities of a famine. Now, however, he sees the reality of what his family is facing. Though survival entails many different things, Kamkwamba presents it in the form of a bare math equation, where the amount of food they have is nowhere near enough for the number of days left in the hunger season. They must do something to change those numbers or risk starvation.
Agnes begins milling gaga into their maize flour and Trywell sells off their goats before the price drops too low. William is sad to see their livestock go, as it is a sign of wealth to have animals, but he knows that it is more important that they have food. In November, William goes to work in the fields at 4 in the morning without his usual meal of corn porridge, as his mother wants to start cutting back and stretch what food they have.
The Kamkwambas proactively do many things to change the bleak difference between how much food they have and how much food they need, but the extra food comes at the cost of William’s pride in belonging to a family that owns livestock, and his comfort in having a full stomach before he has to go work in the field. While the bare equations of survival might balance out now, the true cost of the famine is felt in other ways.
William complains to Geoffrey about the missed breakfast, but Geoffrey says he stopped getting breakfast weeks ago. The two boys set to work, at first able to ignore their hunger in the cool dawn hours, but by 7 o’clock William is tired and hungry. Trywell scolds him for slacking off on his ridges, and William tries to reapply himself despite the lack of food. Geoffrey silently works next to William, not stopping to joke as usual. William notices that Geoffrey has been distant lately, and remembers that Geoffrey was recently diagnosed with anemia at the village clinic. Even worse, William knows that Geoffrey’s family has no money for school fees.
Kamkwamba is clear to note that his family was actually fairly lucky during the famine, as no matter how bad William’s life becomes there are many others who had it worse. Geoffrey, though a part of the Kamkwambas’ extended family and therefore somewhat their responsibility, is forced to fend for himself during the famine with the added difficulty of anemia due to previous malnutrition. Yet William is more distraught at the thought that Geoffrey will not get to go to school, as William prizes education above physical comfort.
Khamba too has been slowing down during this hunger season, suffering from old age as well as a lack of food. William tries to keep feeding the dog table scraps, but there are not as many leftovers as before. As maize gets even scarcer, more strangers come to William’s village looking for ganyu in exchange for roots and leaves that no Malawian would normally consider food. Maize is also sold in small portions called walkman that are only enough for one person, a common practice in the city but odd in the countryside where maize is usually so plentiful. Even the large estates have no way to pay these workers with food, though the rich of Malawi are dining well on the chickens and livestock that the farmers are forced to sell. Women and children gather around Chief Wimbe’s (and Gilbert’s) house, hoping for a handout.
As the entire village focuses on the bare minimum for human survival, there is even less possibility that animals such as dogs will be considered. As conditions get worse, people begin planning just for the day with ganyu and walkman, though those practices make it harder for people to ensure that they will have anything to eat in the future. Still, the hunger of some means feasting for others, as some rich Malawians take advantage of rural farmers’ desperation for money to buy extra meat at dirt-cheap prices. Kamkwamba has little respect for those that look out only for themselves during the famine, as well as pitying those who are forced to turn to Chief Wimbe for help instead of being able to support themselves.
President Muluzi travels around Malawi, giving small handouts to assert his power and holding rallies that feed the poor in exchange for their vote next election. William had seen Muluzi at a rally in 1999, when Muluzi promised to repair and refurbish the Wimbe Primary School. Government men had cut down multiple gum trees in preparation for this school, but nothing ever came of this promise. Now, in the midst of the maize crisis, the government says nothing on the radio or elsewhere about this horrible food shortage.
Muluzi has a clear history of not following through with the promises he makes to improve Malawian quality of life. Though refusing to acknowledge the famine, Muluzi takes advantage of these harsh circumstances to consolidate his own position in preparation for the next election. Kamkwamba sees Muluzi as primarily concerned about his own wealth and power rather than the welfare of the Malawian population.
The people of William’s village ask Chief Wimbe to speak on their behalf at the next rally for Muluzi, an event usually full of effusive praise for Muluzi’s work as chairman of the Southern African Development Community and his efforts to broker piece between Congo and Rwanda. Chief Wimbe asks Muluzi to stop funding wells and toilets and simply buy more grain for Malawian citizens. The villagers all whoop and applaud, though the President’s paid audience boos and hisses.
Muluzi’s ideas for improving Malawian villages are not necessarily bad, as wells and toilets are potentially helpful projects. Yet Muluzi fails to see what the communities need most and, even worse, ignores the voices within those communities asking for change. In light of those choices, Muluzi’s work in other African countries seems less about the actual good he is doing and more about puffing up his own reputation on the international stage.
Government officials approach the chief after his speech, and beat him for criticizing the president. For the next few weeks, Chief Wimbe hardly moves from his couch, scared to even go to the doctor about his injuries for fear of Muluzi’s thugs. William is more scared than ever, wondering how a government that dares to beat a chief would treat a poor citizen.
More than just ignoring the needs of Malawian villages, Muluzi actively harms the chief who is working for the average citizen’s best interest. The government is rarely helpful in William’s experience, providing ample reasons to go around government channels in his own efforts to improve conditions for his family and his community.