William Kamkwamba reveals that he will eventually be successful in creating a windmill that generates electricity. He begins by describing his childhood in rural Malawi, where magic is far more influential than science. William’s father, Trywell, has no time for magic and often saves William from getting in trouble with anything to do with witches – though Trywell still tells magical stories to William and his sisters. Trywell’s life includes enough strange and wonderful occurrences that Trywell has no need of magic. Trywell was a trader as a young man, rather than a farmer, and earned a reputation for drinking and fighting anyone. Trywell fell in love with Agnes, and later married her. Yet it is only when Trywell is arrested for beating a man that he becomes a Christian and turns into a wonderful husband and provider for his family. Trywell and his family move to the district of Wimbe so that Trywell can be a farmer like his successful brother John.
As a child in Wimbe, William spends most of his time with his cousin Geoffrey and his friend Gilbert, the son of the chief of their district. They make toys out of trash and recycled goods when they are not at Wimbe Primary School or helping their families in the fields. William daydreams in his private bedroom, safe from the squabbles of his four sisters, wishing he could be strong through a magical ritual called mangolomera. He has heard of a man named Phiri who had super strength and agrees to go through the same ritual. However, the magic does not work and William is left worrying if the fake medicine given to him by a sing’anga (witch doctor) will make him sick.
When William is nine, Uncle John dies and Geoffrey’s family is left in disarray. Trywell helps manage John’s farm for a while, then turns it over to Geoffrey’s brother Jeremiah, who unfortunately is too lazy to run a farm. Farming in general is also tougher in Malawi due to the policies of the newly elected President Muluzi, who is more pro-business than the previous President Banda’s farmer-friendly dictatorship. During this time period, William’s Uncle Socrates comes to live in Wimbe, bringing with him a dog named Khamba that becomes William’s friend despite William’s initial dislike of dogs. William goes hunting with Khamba and enjoys the rare luxury of eating meat.
William and Geoffrey become interested in radios and soon understand the machinery inside well enough to have a small radio-repair business. William looks forward to taking real science classes in secondary school and achieving something more than the average Malawian life of farming maize to make nsima, the staple food of Malawi. Farming is hard work and keeps William exhausted through the harvest and planting time, as well as hungry during the months in between harvests. In December of 2000, the rains are so heavy that most farmers can’t even plant – spelling disaster for all the Malawians who depend on these farms for food.
Through the preoccupation of a terrible harvest, William begins investigating how bicycle dynamos are able to light a bulb with electricity generated by a person pedaling. William begins to dream of the improvements he could make to his family’s life if he had electricity to power lights and irrigation pumps. He studies hard for the exit exams for Wimbe primary school so that he can get chosen for a good secondary school, become a scientist, and better his family’s conditions. Meanwhile, the corn supply in Wimbe continues to get lower and lower as more farmers from the outer villages come into William’s village looking for ganyu (day work) after such a dismal crop. Even worse, President Muluzi has sold all of Malawi’s surplus grain store. Soon the Kamkwamba family is doing everything they can to keep food on the table and make the little grain they have stored up last until the next harvest. When Chief Wimbe tries to speak to President Muluzi’s officials on behalf of the hungry people in the village, he is beaten up by some of Muluzi’s thugs.
By December of 2001, William and his family are down to one meal a day, and his mother gives birth to another baby girl. Keeping up hope, Trywell and Agnes name her Tiyamike, meaning Thank God, instead of reflecting on their poor circumstances at the moment. Agnes starts a hot cake stand to make enough money for supper each night, but the price of maize continues to rise as the food shortage goes on unrelieved. William’s older sister Annie even elopes with a young teacher from the next village over to escape the poverty and starvation in Wimbe. Villagers, including William, line up for hours for even the rumor of maize at the government storehouse, and even start to sell their possessions for the price of one day’s meal. That Christmas is dismal, the monotony of hunger only broken by William and his older cousin Charity’s crazy scheme to get a goat skin from the butcher and cook it as meat. The boys chew the skin that they can, then give the rest to Khamba.
As the famine continues, William does get the good news that he has been accepted at Kachokolo Secondary School. It is not one of the top schools William wanted, but it will at least give him a chance to further his educational goals. He starts classes in mid-January, but is forced to drop out when Trywell does not have the money to pay William’s school fees. William is left with little to do but watch the new harvest grow and play games in the village trading center. Starving people die along the road looking for work or in the clinic from diseases such as cholera, but President Muluzi continues to deny that anyone is dying of hunger. William faces his own personal tragedy when he is forced to leave Khamba to die as there is no food to spare for a dog.
Finally, in March, the young corn called dowe is ready to eat. William and Geoffrey celebrate in the field, and the Kamkwamba family is able to eat semi-regular meals once again. The village begins to come back to life, and William is able to think about school once more. To keep his mind active, William goes to the library at Wimbe Primary School, where he finds books on physics and engineering that change his life. From a diagram and illustration in the book Explaining Physics, William gets the idea to build a windmill to generate electricity from the wind. With Geoffrey’s help, William makes a small prototype windmill out of recycled materials and an electromagnetic motor he built himself out of old radio parts.
With that small success, William begins to gather materials for a full size windmill strong enough to power lights for his home. He spends his days in an abandoned scrap yard near Kachokolo school looking through the old machinery for any parts that will be useful. Meanwhile, classes at Kachokolo start again after being canceled during the famine. William attends for a few weeks, but is once again unable to afford the school fees. This year’s plentiful harvest keeps him busy for a time, but William soon returns to his windmill project. The other villagers start to notice and think that William has given up on school or gone crazy, but William knows he will be successful. Eventually, William finds or creates all the pieces he needs to assemble a windmill except for the crucial generator. Gilbert steps in and buys William a bicycle dynamo so that he can complete the windmill. Geoffrey and Gilbert help William assemble all the parts, build a tower, and hoist the windmill up to a height where it can catch the breeze. A crowd gathers to watch the strange goings-on as William wires up a small lightbulb and releases his windmill blades to spin and generate power. Everyone erupts into cheers when the lightbulb lights up.
William wires up a system of lights into his house and even figures out how to use his windmill generated electricity to charge cell phones. He continues improving and troubleshooting his recycled materials until he has wired his entire family’s house with lights and built a make-shift circuit breaker to protect from possible power surges and fires. William even replaces the original bicycle chain on his windmill’s motor with a far more reliable rubber belt so that he no longer has to risk injuring himself while fixing a snapped chain. He then turns to other projects such as radio transmitters, water pumps, and biogas. Some experiments are successful while some are not, but all work to fill the lack of formal schooling in William’s life. Most of the people in the village greatly appreciate William’s inventions.
Hardships come to William’s life once again as Agnes suffers from a particularly bad bout of malaria, Gilbert’s father Chief Wimbe dies, and the region experiences another drought and subsequent threat of famine. Though the government offers aid this time under the new direction of President Mutharika, some people still blame William’s windmill for calling witches and dark magic to chase away the rain. William sees many ways that magic and superstition can hurt Malawians and joins a club that seeks to educate people about the scientific diagnosis and treatment of HIV/AIDS to counteract the deaths that come from ineffective magic healing.
On a routine inspection of Wimbe primary school, officials notice William’s windmill and inform Dr. Hartford Mchazima about a talented rural boy with an aptitude for science. Dr. Mchazima helps spread William’s story across Malawi and across the world as William is featured in an American blog. William becomes a fellow at TEDGlobal 2007, and goes to Arusha, Tanzania to present his windmill project. The attention of such significant Malawian figures earns William back the approval of his town and a scholarship to a boarding school. While at TEDGlobal, William meets many people, African, American, and European, who share his goals of improving life for people in emerging countries through new technology. A few of these inventors and innovators, including Tom Rielly, help William get sponsors so he can make several practical improvements in his village and attend excellent schools such as the African Bible Christian Academy. William improves his English and travels to America, speaking about his windmill and learning about even more things that might help Africans reach the same quality of life as Americans. William then returns to Africa to attend the African Leadership Academy in Johannesburg, South Africa, where he can collaborate with other young inventors, scientists, and activists who have a vision for bringing Africa into a brighter future. William dreams of inspiring people with his own story of success despite terrible hardship, and works to give other children in Malawi the education that they need to build their own windmills and improve their own lives.