Soon after Muluzi denies the famine on the radio, William notices that Khamba truly is starving to death. After the treat of the goat skin at Christmas, William has not been able to feed Khamba because there is never enough to share with a dog. William wakes up the next morning aching with hunger and decides to go hunting to try and fill the clawing void in his stomach. Khamba, electrified by the word “hunt,” manages to go with William.
Khamba, a secret pleasure of William’s childhood, is one of the things to suffer most during the famine as William begins to see how harsh the world can be. Here, William returns to hunting, one of his childhood pastimes, as the famine continues to worsen, possibly hoping to hold on to the better times for a little while longer.
William takes ash to use as bait for his trap, then heads out into the rain. At the trap site, William sets up his snare and begins to daydream about how delicious the meat will taste, and how it might fortify Khamba to live one more month until the harvest is ready. Yet the birds realize it is only ash and hop away before the trap catches anything.
Though William is incredibly resourceful, substituting ash for bait and building a trap with the materials he can find, he is unable to trap any birds. No matter how smart William is, there are some aspects of life, such as picky birds and famine, that he cannot overcome through ingenuity alone.
That night, Khamba falls deeply asleep, waking only when William brings him a small pinch of nsima. Two days later, Khamba vomits up what food William can give him and William knows the end is near. Charity and Mizeck stop by William’s house and Mizeck becomes enraged by the sight of Khamba’s sickly frame. Charity and Mizeck force William to “be a man,” and agree to put Khamba out of his misery.
Another cruel aspect of starvation is that the body is eventually unable to process food even when some is available. Like the swelling of kwashiorkor, this harsh reality is another reminder for William that survival in Malawi is a vicious discipline. Tragically, William also has to “become a man” by taking on the distasteful responsibility of ending Khamba’s life so he is no longer in pain.
The next day, Charity and William take Khamba out to the forest. The day is beautiful, for once, but William can only feel the hot tears beginning in his throat. They stop at the blue gum grove, and Charity ties Khamba to a tree. William gathers the courage to take one last look at Khamba, shattered by the sight of his pitiful frame as Khamba understands he is being left for good. Charity rationalizes that Khamba was old, but William knows he has done a terrible thing.
Another cost of the famine is the loss of the relationship between William and Khamba. While children all over the world must deal with the loss of a pet for one reason or another, William has the added burden of knowing that he was unable to provide for his dog and indirectly caused his dog’s death by giving up on Khamba.
Uncle Socrates comes to visit Trywell the next day, and asks William where Khamba is. William pretends he doesn’t know, and Socrates guesses that wild dogs got Khamba. Charity arrives the next morning and convinces William to go check if Khamba is dead. Carrying hoes to make people think they are going to do field work, the boys approach the blue gum grove. Khamba’s body is huddled under the tree, with insects crawling in his mouth, and no sign that the dog struggled at all against the rope. William somehow finds the energy to dig a grave and the boys bury Khamba. Until William began writing this memoir, he says, Khamba’s death had remained a secret.
While Kamkwamba clearly feels intensely guilty about Khamba’s fate, the reactions of Socrates and Charity suggest that William was not truly at fault for Khamba’s death. The famine, combined with Khamba’s age, mostly likely would have caused an even more painful death for Khamba had William not chosen to leave him at the tree. Though Kamkwamba does not explicitly state a desire to memorialize Khamba, including Khamba’s life and death in this book clearly does so, and helps repurpose the story to a greater good as Kamkwamba hopes to support and inspire others who grow up in poverty.
Two weeks after Khamba’s death, a cholera outbreak reaches Wimbe from southern Malawi. Cholera attacks a person’s stomach, causing violent diarrhea that leaves the body so weak that death comes within six hours of the first symptoms. The disease is a constant threat in Malawi in the rainy season when floods wash pollution from poorly built latrines into drinking sources. During the famine, migrant workers would be struck with cholera on the road, contaminating even more ground when the rains came.
The famine continues to harm Malawians in indirect ways, other than starvation alone. The true cost from this lack of food includes hundreds of people who died from diseases or the generations of malnourished children who survived but were scarred by this experience. Cholera is an especially taxing disease, taking a physical toll on its victims and an emotional toll on their loved ones that only worsens everyone’s ability to survive.
The clinic gives out chlorine tablets as a preventative measure for cholera, and the Kamkwambas closely monitor the cover on their latrine. Still, William can’t escape the sight of people stricken with cholera walking to the clinic and the chlorine-burials at the Catholic church in the village. People are dying every day from hunger or cholera.
Though writing from the perspective of an adult, William is still just a child when he witnesses the devastation of the famine. As with losing Khamba, seeing his community fall apart contributes to William’s loss of innocence as he fights just to survive.
After months of eating solely pumpkin leaves, Geoffrey’s anemia has also worsened, leaving his body swollen with fluids and too weak to walk. Geoffrey is even struck blind in bright light. Agnes takes half of their family’s flour for the day and takes it to Geoffrey’s mother because she cannot allow any of the Kamkwamba family to suffer. Two days later, Agnes does the same for Grandpa.
Though splitting their food may make things even harder for William’s family to make it through the famine, Agnes follows Trywell’s philosophy of always helping others. She also stays faithful to the traditional Malawian values of family and community support.
All of the Kamkwambas have lost perilous amounts of weight. Trwyell begins weighing himself obsessively, but Agnes refuses to weigh herself and forbids the children from approaching the scale. Agnes tells her daughters to trick their brains away from hunger by thinking of good things. Trywell begins excusing himself from meals and tells William in secret that “hunger only kills men.” William understands, having seen men take on the bulk of the pressure of foraging food for an entire family and burning precious energy in the fields.
The business of survival takes on another numerical measure as Trywell tracks his weight. As with the amount of grain and number of meals, there is a slim margin of error between a weight that lets the Kamkwamba family stay alive and a weight that means certain death. The traditional gender roles of Malawian society, putting most of the burden of providing for a family on men, makes this equation even trickier for fathers and those who have other mouths to feed.
A week later, Mayless contracts malaria and is unable to eat. She can’t go to the clinic because the building is quarantined with cholera. The Kamkwambas can do nothing but pray, until Mayless finally recovers. She gets better, but is thinner than a ghost.
Health care is another huge problem in Malawi, as modern clinics are often understaffed and underfunded. With the Wimbe clinic overwhelmed by cholera, the Kamkwambas turn to spiritual means of healing for their daughter instead of science-based medicine.
In Mid-February, William and Geoffrey help Trywell prune the tobacco crop. The boys wish they could eat the tobacco leaves as they hang the bundles to dry. Before the tobacco is even ready, Trywell begins making deals for tobacco so that the Kamkwambas will have food that night. As the weeks go by, the rates of tobacco for maize get steeper and steeper, but Trywell somehow manages to keep the numbers all straight in his head.
Trywell begins projecting the farm’s business into the future crop, a risky move as there are any number of things that might happen to decrease his actual tobacco gains. Yet Trywell must do what he has to in order to help his family survive another day, no matter what trouble it might bring for their survival (and profits) in the future. These deals take great cleverness, something Trywell has in spades though he has little formal schooling.
Meanwhile, the corn crop continues to ripen. William estimates twenty more days before the first green maize, called dowe, will be ready to eat. He dreams about the sweet taste of this plant, likening it to American corn on the cob. Rumors that the dowe is already ready in the southwest cause a stampede of people rushing toward the food source and worse thievery along the road. On February 27th, President Muluzi informs the people that there is a hunger crisis, after nearly five months of intense suffering in rural Malawi.
Even in the midst of a famine, William finds ways to draw similarities between Malawians and Americans. Though their circumstances are different, as most Americans do not have to deal with a food crisis of this magnitude, the things that people enjoy – like corn on the cob – are the same in many places. Now that the end of the crisis is in sight, President Muluzi finally recognizes the danger his people are in, too late to actually help most of the casualties.
At the beginning of March, William begins checking the dowe to see if it is ready. Finally, the crop is ripe and William races back to his house with arms full of dowe. He and his sisters hurriedly cook the ears of corn, not even waiting for them to cool before devouring every last kernel. Through a stroke of good fortune, the pumpkins are also ready in the fields, and the Kamkwamba family has its first hearty supper in months. William tells Geoffrey that they are like the seeds from a parable that Jesus once told—planted on fertile soil, and able to survive.
The Kamkwamba family’s constant hope and hard work has paid off as the harvest comes in. William compares his optimism to the biblical story that tells of seeds who fall in many different types of soil. The seeds, symbolizing people, are choked by weeds and thorns or scorched by sun as people choose not follow the God’s laws for their lives. The seeds in good soil thrive because they were obedient to God and remained faithful, just as the Kamkwambas stayed as positive as possible during the famine.
As dowe and pumpkins bring people back from the edge of starvation, the village begins to reawaken. While life cannot really return to normal until the next harvest, people smile and chatter in the street instead of speaking only of hunger and ganyu. However, the dowe also brings thieves who creep into fields at night and devour all the ripe dowe they can find. Some farmers exact horrible revenge on these thieves, but Trywell counsels William that all Malawians faced the same hunger, and they must learn to forgive.
The harsh times of the famine make it hard for many people to erase their mentality of personal survival at all costs. Trywell helps William learn an alternate philosophy that always treats others with kindness and respect. William, following in his father’s footsteps, constantly tries to help people even when he knows that people might not give him the same courtesy. Trywell sees survival as a collective effort and does not hold a grudge against the people who steal food because they need it so badly.