Before I discovered the miracles of science, magic ruled the world.
Although Geoffrey, Gilbert, and I grew up in this small place in Africa, we did many of the same things children do all over the world, only with slightly different materials. And talking with friends I’ve met from America and Europe, I now know this is true. Children everywhere have similar ways of entertaining themselves. If you look at it this way, the world isn’t so big.
We traveled four hours north to the Wimbe trading center, where my relatives were waiting to greet us. They helped us move down the road to Masitala village and into a one-room house near Uncle John.
This is where my father became a farmer and my childhood began.
My first and only experience with magic had left me with a sore eye and hands that throbbed from bad medicine. With my luck, I thought, they'll probably become infected and fall off.
“We know this man has left behind some riches, and these treasures include his kids. We'd like to advise his brothers to take full control of these children. Make sure they finish their secondary education as they would have if their father had been alive. And in regards to the material wealth, we don't want to hear of troubles in the family as a result. If anyone here wants to help this family, help the children with clothing and school fees.”
Since we learned everything through experimenting, a great many radios were sacrificed for our knowledge. I think we had one radio from each aunt and uncle and neighbor, all in a giant tangle of wires we kept in a box in Geoffrey’s room. But after we learned from our mistakes, people began bringing us their broken radios and asking us to fix them.
Nsima isn't just an important part of our diet—our bodies depend on it the same way fish need water. If a foreigner invites a Malawian to supper and serves him plates of steak and pasta and chocolate cake for dessert, but no nsima, he'll go home and tell his brothers and sisters, “there was no food there…”
We call this period “the hungry season.” In the countryside, people are working the hardest they work all year to prepare their fields, but doing so with the least amount of food. Understandably, they grow thin, slow and weak.
But bringing electricity to my home would take more than a simple bicycle dynamo, and my family couldn't even afford one of those. After a while I kind of stopped thinking about it altogether and focused on more important things. One of them, for instance, was graduating from primary school.
One pail equaled twelve meals for my family, meaning six pails equaled seventy-two meals for twenty-four days. I then counted how many days before the next harvest: more than two hundred and ten…
“I’m ashamed to see this school broken in such fashion. We should tear the whole place down and start from scratch, build it again strong and proud! Teachers’ houses also need to be shipshape, and students need new desks and books!”
Of course, the crowds cheered and applauded at this. But instead of buying us new desks, he sent men into our blue gum grove to chop down our trees to build them. Even then, there weren't enough.
Several large pieces of skin remained in the pot, and I thought about my sisters and parents who were at home, probably hungry and dreaming of meat on this Christmas Day. But I didn't dare ask Charity to allow me to share. It was a well-known rule that whatever happened in mphala stayed in mphala.
My parents never scolded Rose for taking more than her share. But Doris soon reached her breaking point. Over the past weeks she'd become paranoid, fearing she wouldn't get any food at supper and my parents wouldn't help her.
My own problems didn't seem so important; the hunger belonged to the entire country. I decided to put faith in my father's word, that once we made it through the hunger, everything would be okay.
No magic could save us now. Starving was a cruel kind of science.
And through them, I was able to grasp principles like magnetism and induction and the differences between AC and DC. It was as if my brain had long ago made a place for these symbols, and once I discovered them in these books, they snapped right into place.
What is this? I thought. Pulling it out, I saw it was an American textbook called Using Energy, and this book has since changed my life.
The cover featured a long row of windmills - though at the time I had no idea what a windmill was.
Within a few meters, I entered the scrapyard and stopped. Behold! Now that I had an actual purpose and a plan, I realized how much bounty lay before me. There were so many things: old water pumps, tractor rims half the size of my body, filters, hoses, pipes, and plows.
At least with daughters, like my sister Annie, a father can hope they'll marry a husband who can provide a home and food, even help them continue their schooling. But with a boy it's different. My education meant everything to my father.
Just then a gust of wind slammed against my body, and the blades kicked up like mad. The tower rocked once, knocking me off balance. I wrapped my elbow around the wooden rung as the blades spun like furious propellers behind my head. I held the bulb before me, waiting for my miracle. It flickered once. Just a flash at first, then a surge of bright, magnificent light. My heart nearly burst.
In Malawi, we say these people are “grooving” through life, just living off small ganyu and having no real plan. I started worrying that I would become like them, that one day the windmill project would lose its excitement or become too difficult to maintain, and all my ambitions would fade into the maize rows. Forgetting dreams is easy. To fight that kind of darkness, I kept returning to the library every week.
But Geoffrey was scared we would be arrested by the authorities for messing with their frequencies. People were also saying this nonsense about my windmill: “You better be careful or ESCOM power will come arrest you.”
If the first people to experiment with great inventions such as radios, generators, or airplanes had been afraid of being arrested, we'd never be enjoying those things today.
“Let them come arrest me,” I'd say. “It would be an honor.”
But the most amazing thing about TED wasn’t the Internet, the gadgets, or even the breakfast buffets with three kinds of meat, plus eggs and pastries and fruits that I dreamed about each night. It was the other Africans who stood onstage each day and shared their stories and vision of how to make our continent a better place for our people.
Erik wasn’t a biological African (he was raised in Kenya and Sudan), but what he said summed up our crowd perfectly:
“Africans bend what little they have to their will every day. Using creativity, they overcome Africa's challenges. Where the world sees trash, Africa recycles. Where the world sees junk, Africa sees rebirth.”
I took a deep breath and gave it my best. “After I drop out from school, I went to library… and I get information about windmill…” Keep going keep going. . . “And I try and I made it.”
My fellow students and I talk about creating a new kind of Africa, a place of leaders instead of victims, a home of innovation rather than charity. I hope this story finds its way to our brothers and sisters out there who are trying to elevate themselves and their communities, but who may feel discouraged by their poor situation.