The week after Christmas, William finds out that the scores of the Standard Eight exams are ready. He runs to Wimbe Primary school, dreaming of the wonderful school he will go to and learn to be a scientist. William finds the list and scans the list of students going to the boarding school in Kasungu. Yet his name is not there. It turns out that William’s grades were only good enough to get him into Kachokolo, a community school often ignored by the government. William is disappointed, but tries to stay positive by thinking that he can study for two years at Kachokolo and then take his Junior Certificate Exam and transfer to a better school.
Even in the midst of a famine, William is able to be excited about school and hope for his future. The pursuit of education is a central part of William’s character, as well as his seemingly boundless optimism in tough circumstances. Furthermore, William does not make excuses for his somewhat poor grades, though conditions at Wimbe primary school were not conducive to productive study. He accepts this small step in his plan and already starts to look ahead to gaining more knowledge in the future.
January brings daily rains that nourish the newly planted maize seedlings. The forests also blossom and the flies and mosquitos come out in full force. These insects and the damp rain make life even more unpleasant for the people who are desperately searching for work and food. Maize and gaga are now so scarce that some dishonest traders mix sawdust in with tiny amounts of corn flour to trick hungry people.
Though the rain is unpleasant in the moment, it is a blessing for the future of the harvest. William’s village needs this rain to get a good crop and recover from the famine. While still in the midst of the famine, people continue to have a selfish mentality that hurts other people. Kamkwamba has no patience for these actions.
Agnes still bakes hot cakes every day, bringing one hundred fresh corn cakes to the market each day for farmers who have no other option for food. Traders like Mister Mangochi who charge high prices for imported maize are the subject of much abuse, but the traders have to charge high prices to make their own profit in such a difficult market. Often in all the chaos of trading and yelling, Agnes can’t protect herself from customers who steal extra cakes or eat the cakes quickly and do not pay.
While the community has to come together to help everyone survive the famine, there are also times when people must be selfish to ensure their personal survival. Mister Mangochi has to charge high prices to keep his own business afloat, and Agnes has to sell her cakes instead of allowing people to take them for free. Kamkwamba explores the tricky balance between fighting for one’s own survival in the midst of a community of people all trying to do the same thing.
As the price of maize continues to rise, Agnes can make fewer hot cakes and the Kamkwambas’ profits shrink. The blob of nsima at dinner gets even smaller, and William’s seven-year-old sister Rose starts to take more than her fair share of the food. Doris complains about Rose’s improper behavior, but Agnes and Trywell say nothing. Rose and Mayless, the youngest sisters, show the effect of low rations more than the other children, due to their already thin frames. Still, Doris becomes paranoid that she will no longer get any food, and punches Rose the next time she takes too much nsima. Agnes pulls them apart, but says nothing to scold Rose or Doris.
Just as the famine hit harder in villages who have less to spare, it is worse for people who had less to lose in the first place. While Rose fights for what she needs to survive, Doris must also do the same – though the specific amount of food might be different for the two girls. Trywell and Agnes do not force the girls to share or collaborate, simply interrupting when the girls start to actually harm one another directly. The siblings have to learn for themselves how to balance survival individually and in a group.
The government continues to ignore the food crisis, and there is no relief maize sent to the ADMARC. People begin to be paranoid that the government is working to hurt people in other ways beyond selling off the maize. Many people take their money out of the bank for fear that the government will steal that as well. Trywell withdraws the Kamkwambas’ entire savings and buys food for one week.
Government distrust has been brewing over the past years, but the famine brings these issues to the forefront. As the citizens start to see the ways that the government acts against them, other institutions such as banks also become untrustworthy. The rate of inflation is now so high that the entire life savings of a family can only buy a week of food, but survival demands that the Kamkwambas pay that price.
Despite everything, William looks forward to school in January. He thinks that being hungry at Kachokolo will be easier than being hungry at home. The only problem is that his family cannot afford the proper white shirt for the uniform. William gets a white shirt from the thrift store but he can’t get it clean without soap. Still, William meets Gilbert on the first day of class, happy to be back at school.
When William is mentally stimulated, he is better able to handle the physical pain of hunger. He does all he can to find the proper materials and uniform he needs to fit in well at school, reusing an old thrift store shirt in order to ensure that he will get the education he desires.
William and Gilbert walk forty minutes to Kachokolo and gather in the yard with the other new students. The headmaster W.M. Phiri welcomes them and shares the rules of wearing a proper uniform and arriving on time. As the students file into class, Headmaster Phiri stops William and asks why William is wearing flip-flops instead of the proper uniform shoes. Unwilling to tell the headmaster that his family cannot afford shoes, William lies that he can’t wear his good shoes to school because he has to cross two streams on the journey and his mother does not want him to get mud on his good shoes.
Even knowing that all of Malawi is facing this famine, William is unwilling to admit that the famine has destroyed the financial state of his family. He does whatever he can to keep his pride intact even if the business of survival demands everything else. Luckily, William’s quick-witted answer is sufficient for the headmaster, showing another instance where William’s intelligence was his best asset.
Aside from uniform shoes, William’s family also cannot afford school books. Gilbert says that William can look on with him. Conditions at Kachokolo are not much better than the sad state of the Wimbe primary school, with no money for new desks, repairs to the building, or new supplies for the classes. Still, William enjoys learning about ancient civilizations and finding Malawi on a map.
Though the school itself is neglected by the government, William’s experiences at Kachokolo support the importance of community involvement in education. Gilbert supports William at school by lending him books, showing how important it is for William – and other rural Malawian students – to have friends who can help them in times of need.
Unfortunately, hunger is actually harder for William to deal with at school than in the field. Most of the students have trouble paying attention and talk at recess focuses only on food and hunger. Even worse, Headmaster Phiri announces in February that the grace period for unpaid school fees is over. William knows his family does not have the money. He finds his father in the field that night and asks about money for school. Trywell shakes his head and promises that next year will be better.
It is hard for William to focus on his education, through he prioritizes learning above nearly everything else, when his basic needs are not met. For many students in emerging countries, schooling has to take a backseat to survival in times of hardship. Trywell even has to admit that he does not have William’s school fees, though his children’s education is usually Trywell’s top priority.
William sadly tells Gilbert the next morning that he has to drop out. With Gilbert at school, William goes to find Geoffrey, whom he hasn’t seen in weeks. William is shocked at how skinny and ill Geoffrey has become, but Geoffrey ignores his own troubles to tell William to trust in God through his school difficulties. In fact, 50 of the 70 students at Kachokolo had to drop as well. William is reminded that all of Malawi is suffering together.
Geoffrey’s advice helps William realize that his personal difficulties are mirrored all over Malawi. Everyone is dealing with the same hunger, and dwelling on this misfortune will not make it better. It also highlights the familial support that William receives during the famine.
By late January, even the gaga of corn husks is gone and famine truly arrives in Malawi. William is reminded of the plagues of Egypt as he watches starvation make skeletons and zombies out of people. Even worse is kwashiorkor, a condition where a lack of proteins in the blood causes a starving person’s body to swell. Starving people will eat literally any root or seed they find, even if it puts them at risk of poison or disease.
From the things Kamkwamba has described already, it’s almost unthinkable that things can get worse. Yet they do, until William can only compare what he is seeing to the dark times of the Egyptian plagues from the Bible story of Moses. Even worse, the balance of survival means that the uncertain death from poisonous or unclean food is preferable to the certain death of starvation.
Men continue to pass through Wimbe looking for any work or food. Men stop at William’s house, thinking that their iron roof means they have money and food. One man even walks into the Kamkwambas’ dinner and eats half their nsima before walking away. In the market, people alternately stare at the traders with their small portions of maize selling for the price of gold, or scream and plead with God to end their suffering. Everyone has stories of starving people who died as they were being given food.
The balance of surviving week by week is now down to day by day. There are few reliable sources of data for the number of people who died during the famine, as the Malawian government did not keep accurate records of this time, but the number is certainly in the thousands. Kamkwamba’s stories humanize and personalize the true cost of this food crisis.
Amid all the starvation and suffering, President Muluzi goes to London. When a reporter asks Muluzi what he plans to do about the famine, Muluzi responds that diseases are a problem in Malawi but that no one has died of hunger. Hearing this interview on the radio, Trywell shakes his head at the President’s willful blindness. William knows that it is up to them to make sure that they survive.
While Trywell had initially counseled William to trust in the government to help them, the president elected by the people seems to care very little about the people of Malawi. Muluzi denies the food crisis, making relief from government or foreign aid agencies even less likely.