During the famine, most students stopped going to school, but the arrival of dowe and pumpkins means that the village has enough energy to resume classes. Sadly, William still cannot afford the school fees and spends his days playing games in the trading center instead of in class. Missing the mental stimulation, William decides to go to the small library at the Wimbe primary school stocked with American books.
Education is one of the most important things to William, and his disappointment about the lack of school even somewhat overshadows the joy of the end of the famine. Instead of giving up without formal school, William takes his education into his own hands by going to the library.
The librarian, Mrs. Edith Sikelo, greets William at the library and explains the rules for borrowing books. William is pleasantly surprised to find that the library houses more than just primary readers. Despite the variety of books, William checks the textbooks that his classmates are studying in school in the hopes that he can independently catch up before classes start next year. He goes to the library each morning and studies under the blue gum tree in his yard all afternoon. Gilbert helps William stay on track by loaning William his notes each day, but William still struggles because the English books are difficult for him to understand on his own.
The library at Wimbe Primary, though very small, is stocked with books in English on a range of topics (as a result of foreign aid organizations). This aid is an invaluable resource for the village and could offer William information on subjects beyond what is taught in the Malawian school curriculum, but William is still focused on achieving as much as he can within the school system itself. Gilbert once again forms a source of support for William’s desires to gain an education.
One Saturday, Gilbert and William meet at the library. William finds a science textbook with diagrams and pictures that he finds very easy to understand. One of these diagrams explains how hydro plants, such as the one on the Shire River in southern Malawi, use water to produce electricity. William compares this to a bicycle dynamo and beings to wonder how he could set up a machine that would generate electricity for his family. Another book, Explaining Physics, illustrates scientific concepts that William has wondered about for years. William checks out both books and begins working his way through the complicated English explanations.
Though William’s English language skills are lacking, he has an incredible ability to instinctively understand engineering and physical concepts in diagrams. He puts this natural scientific aptitude to work explaining the technology that people in his village use every day without fully understanding it. William wants to use this knowledge to improve life for his family and his larger village. While the books are difficult for William to get through, he is lucky to have these books available when other rural students might not have that advantage.
William continues to read Explaining Physics, finding a chapter on magnets and electromagnets. William already knew that magnets have opposing sides that attract or repel each other, but uses the book to learn how to make his own magnets using the earth’s magnetic field, electricity, and a nail. Magnets can also create electricity, when a coil of wire spins in a magnetic field. This is called alternating current, as opposed to the direct current in most batteries. Bicycle dynamos are one of the best examples of an alternating current, with the rider providing the spinning motion. William keeps Explaining Physics for a month and reads it instead of continuing his independent school study.
William brings together the formal education he finds in the American textbooks with the informal experiments he has been doing throughout his childhood with the technology available to him. Kamkwamba takes the opportunity to give a brief, easily accessible explanation of how some of these scientific concepts work, giving his readers the same opportunity to grasp how these scientific principles can be used to improve every day life through inventions like radios or bicycle dynamos.
When the school term ends, Gilbert and William go back to the library looking for something fun to read. William stumbles across an American textbook called Using Energy, a book that will change his life. On the cover are windmills, though William doesn’t even know what a windmill is at this point. The book explains how energy is found all around us, and just needs to be converted into the proper form in order to be used. Windmills can harness the motion and energy of the wind to create electricity. William understands how the wind could provide the necessary force to generate electricity just like in a bicycle dynamo, but without the effort of a bicycle rider.
This one textbook gives William the knowledge he needs to finally effect change for his family and his community. William has previously wondered about how to save the rural farmers labor while giving them the advantages enjoyed by urban dwellers or people in more developed countries. A windmill is the perfect way to use a renewable and free resource in order to give his community the leg up it needs.
William begins to dream of all the things a windmill could do for him and his family, including creating electric light to replace kerosene lamps and a rotating pump to irrigate and water the fields. A good pump would allow the Kamkwambas to harvest twice a year – a tantalizing prospect after the horror of the famine. A windmill promises William release from the darkness and hunger that has marked the past year of his life, and the freedom to go to school instead of working the farm. Armed with the knowledge that someone built a windmill for the picture in this textbook, William imagines that he too can build a windmill.
William’s confidence and optimism are put to good use when he dreams of building a windmill. Despite the fact that he has never seen a windmill in real life, William sees that it is theoretically possible and believes that he can build it. While others might have been too put off by the sheer amount of work it will take to make a windmill in less than ideal conditions, William is able to see past that to the amazing potential that a windmill could have for his family.
William experiments with small prototypes before tackling a giant windmill. He starts to gather materials for blades, a shaft, and a rotor as well as looking for wires and a dynamo to generate electricity from the movement of the blades. He splits an old plastic perfume bottle into blades, then adds PVC pipe extenders. William creates a makeshift drill out of a nail and a maize cob to bore holes in the PVC pipe and wire it to the blades. Agnes catches William heating his drill on her cook fire and tells William to stop messing with toys and help his father in the field. William cannot yet explain that this “toy” will eventually be much more help to farmers.
True to his engineer heart, William starts with a small prototype that he will later reinvent for a full-sized windmill. This prototype is made entirely of recycled pieces, showing how adept William is at using what is available for the task he needs to accomplish. However, his mother does not fully understand what William is doing. Agnes is generally supportive of her son, but sees the more practical aspects of William’s project rather than his dream.
Now William needs a dynamo, but he has no money to buy the shiny bicycle dynamo he has seen in the windows of Daud’s shop at the trading center. He considers earning the five hundred kwacha through ganyu, then realizes that this prototype windmill could actually use a smaller generator such as a radio-cassette player motor. William goes to Geoffrey’s house and explains why he needs a radio motor. Geoffrey is eager to help, though he had originally though William’s constant trips to the library were boring and useless.
William constantly figures out ways to get what he needs, reforming his plan when one pathway comes to a dead end. Geoffrey’s support is vital at this juncture, when no one else understands why William is “wasting” his time with this project. Geoffrey is also an example of someone who values education for its practical applications, rather than for the pursuit of knowledge alone.
William and Geoffrey extract the radio motor and attach it to William’s blade contraption. They hunt through the garbage to find a woman’s shoe and use a piece of rubber from the sole to make sure that the motor’s wheel and the blades have enough friction to catch together when the blades move. Geoffrey spins the blades by hand and William tests the current by pressing the motor’s wires to his tongue. Their prototype works. They then test the prototype by wiring their windmill to Geoffrey’s radio. When the wind blows, the radio produces music!
William and Geoffrey will go to just about any lengths in gathering materials for their project, even digging through the trash to find materials that can be given new life in their windmill. They are also unafraid of the potential for danger in working with electricity, to the point of shocking themselves just to see if their machine works. This somewhat foolish bravery allows them to be successful.
Moving on from this small success, William dreams bigger. Working from the same model of his prototype, William plans out the pieces he will need for a full size windmill. For the next month, William hunts through the abandoned scrap yard of a large tobacco estate near Kachokolo school. William and Gilbert had often played there, but William now sees the wealth of materials the scrap yard holds for his plan.
William’s windmill project not only serves to revitalize William’s own desire for mental stimulation, it also reuses materials that had been left to rust by the town. Recycling machinery in this way benefits the village by getting rid of dangerous junk piles and using that material for a new and better purpose.
The first afternoon, William finds a tractor fan that will be perfect for the windmill’s rotor and a tractor piston he can use for the shaft. Three days later, he finds a ball bearing to reduce friction in the windmill, and painstakingly pops the bearing out of an old nut-grinding machine while pretending to be his childhood hero Bolo in order to ignore the pain in his hands. As he works, William looks across to the grounds of Kachokolo school and hopes that the tobacco crop will earn enough money for his family to pay the school fees and allow him to return to class when the new term starts.
William’s project takes not just mental effort, but intense physical toughness. Calling all the way back to the first chapter, when William and his friends would play act the plots of the American films they saw, now William channels Bolo, a Chinese martial arts actor and bodybuilder, in order to gain the inspiration he needs to keep at this painful work reclaiming pieces in the scrap yard. Similarly, Kamkwamba hopes his own story of hard work and success will inspire other people in poverty to find new ways to improve their lives.