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Film Review: William and the Windmill

Story by Andrew Pasquale, staff writer

Malawi is a tiny rural country in southeast Africa that in recent years has suffered recurring droughts and floods that have decimated maize crops. As recently as March 25, 2015, Tanzania donated 1,200 metric tons of maize and 66 tons of medicine to Malawi after their most recent flood. Wimbe, a village in Malawi, is William Kamkwamba’s birthplace, and it is here that the story of The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind begins.

Trywell and Agnes Kamkwamba are maize farmers in the village of Wimbe, Malawi, who have raised seven children, of whom William is the second-born. In 2000, their best agricultural efforts were thwarted when a drought wiped out much of the country’s harvest and Malawi was plunged into famine. When the couple ran out of money from their meager harvest, William had to drop out of school.

William’s windmill. Photo by Tom Reilly of TED and courtesy of Erik Hersman.

At first, hungry for knowledge, William asked his friend Gilbert about the day’s lessons and copied his papers. As time went on, he began paying visits to Wimbe’s public library. One day William found a book titled “Using Energy,” which he read and eventually used to teach himself how to construct a windmill out of objects he found around the village.

William’s first pan-African debut was at the TED Global conference in Arusha, Tanzania. There he met Tom Reilly, TED’s Community Director, who along with Andrea Barthello would act as his professional facilitators and parents from the West. The two invested time and resources in William, helping him first to get into the African Leadership Academy in South Africa and then Dartmouth University in New Hampshire.

While studying at the African Leadership Academy, William coauthored a book with Bryan Mealer titled The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind and embarked on a world tour to promote it. Later in the film, William went back to Wimbe to help the community leaders rebuild the dilapidated schoolhouse. The building was reconstructed, William’s windmills generated electricity and computers were installed. And, instead of stipulating that the school be private, William chose to keep it public so that everyone could benefit.

As William began his studies at Dartmouth University, he reflected on his experience of becoming a household name. William emphasized that he wanted to be known as William, a student like everyone else. He disliked that people knew him as “the windmill boy” and even told a classmate when asked if that was him that they merely went to the same high school.

William and the Windmill is a heavily layered film, full of complex issues that could be analyzed from a myriad of angles. Unfortunately, due to the length of the film, the panel discussion was cut short and discussion had to be continued in the lobby. The panel consisted of Edna Wangui, Associate Professor of Geography; Greg Kremer, Professor and Department Chair of Mechanical Engineering; Randall Gabriel, founder and CEO of Carbon Free Innovations; and Ohio University junior Tristan Cormack.

Throughout most of the film, William appeared uncomfortable, especially when he was the center of attention. Regarding what William said at Dartmouth about wanting to fit in with the crowd, Wangui said that the windmill was what opened the first door for him to succeed and make a contribution to the world.

“Even though William does not want to be thought of as ‘the windmill boy,’ that is basically where his story starts and that is eventually what opens doors for him and provides the opportunities that he eventually gets,” Wangui said. “Without that windmill, we don’t have the story.”

William Kamkwamba at TED in 2007. Photo courtesy Erik Hersman.

Cormack added, “He (William) always felt obligated to say yes, even when he probably didn’t want to be doing it. How many instances were there of that, where he was saying yes and he really maybe didn’t even want to be in a lot of these situations?”

Finally the discussion turned toward gender. While it is true that women appeared to be well represented in the African Leadership Academy, this is not true for the village where William grew up. Wangui lead the discussion on gender for this final portion of the panel. She addressed the issue like this. “[When] reading stories like this—the ones that get recognized—even just recognized locally, not internationally like this—they are almost always boys. And that is because of the way gender roles are structured. And in that kind of family the girls have so much work to do, nobody’s going to let them go tinker around.”

As much as William and the Windmill is a story about hard work and dedication, it is also a story about luck. There is no doubt that William has the potential to do great things, but he would never have gotten the chance to prove himself had certain stars not aligned. Being male allowed him to have free time to tinker and learn to build windmills after having to drop out of school.

Also, he was in the right place at the right time to meet the right set of affluent people who would later help him get his ideas off the ground. These things are not meant to diminish

William’s efforts and achievements, but rather to emphasize that stories are often more complex and issues more nuanced than they appear on the surface. Perhaps more importantly, everybody’s stories deserve to be told—from all places and of all genders.

The Spring Sustainability Series at Athena Cinema will run through the end of April. All screenings are free to the public.

Andrew is a recent graduate of Ohio University’s Environmental and Plant Biology Department who makes his own deodorant and chocolate. You can usually find him out in Waterloo or in Porter Hall helping with ecophysiology research. On the weekends, he works at The Village Bakery

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