How my windmill changed my life: Exclusive interview with William Kamkwamba

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The TED Blog met with William Kamkwamba shortly after the publication of his autobiography, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. Here, he answers questions about his book, his life story, his plans for the future, and offers some inspiration to others who face poverty and struggle to achieve a dream.

How does it feel to visit a place like New York City, after coming from a place filled with poverty and famine — the place you illustrated so unforgettably in your recently-published autobiography?

There are some things people here take for granted — things that people who live in other parts of the world, like Africa, like my country, Malawi, don’t have. People in Malawi sometimes do not have clean water. Here, people have clean water all the time. When I see this city, and all of the things people have, and I think about all the people in my home country who do not have enough food, I just think, “Oh my God.”

After living through the famine, facing death by starvation, and watching many people in your village starve and develop diseases like cholera, will you ever get used to having clean water and food?

I will always be thinking of the difference between this place and the place I came from. I will always be looking back at the things I’ve gone through, thinking of the struggling people I’ve seen. But maybe if things get better there, I will be able to stop thinking about the difference.

Much of the book centers around your fascination with electricity, and harnessing energy from the environment with low-cost components. Are you still studying electrical engineering?

Yes. Right now I am studying at a high school level. I plan on going into engineering — especially mechanical engineering. I will also be studying electrical engineering.

When you have your degree — or between then and now — what sorts of machines or systems are you planning to build?

Right now I am interested in building a drilling machine. I want to build a machine that can drill wells for water. With this problem of water in many places in Africa, we need to find a solution for how you can dig wells so you can be pumping water from deeper places.

I want to bring clean water to people who do not have it. What I’m trying to do now is think of ways to build a well-drilling machine that is low-cost so people in rural areas can afford it. People in rural places could use the water for irrigation, or for drinking.

Will your well-drill design require electricity?

No. You can either use a small gas engine that does not need much gas, or you can operate it manually. It will be simple. The people can use power if they want, or they can use it by hand if they want.

As I said before, my main plan is to see how I can bring clean water to poor people. Once I finish with the drill, I want to design a pump that can be inserted into the wells they have drilled, so they can use it to pump their water to use for drinking or irrigation.

In your book, you emphasize the importance of maize and tobacco to your family’s farm. With an easy-to-come-by water source and an irrigation system, what else could you grow?

With an irrigation system, you could also grow different vegetables and fruits; you could grow peanuts and soybeans.

By the way — do you have any favorite foods in here in the US?

Yes, but it is hard to say anything specific. In my country, we have the same, same, same, same food to eat, all the time. So, to name one specific food as my favorite is very difficult for me. Most of the food I have tasted from different countries I like. I like pizza. I like cheeseburgers. (Laughs.)

One thing you talk about in your book is the limited extent to which you had interacted with anything outside of your village. Until you were much older, you had never even visited Lake Malawi, which was only hours’ travel away from your home. What did you think of big cities like New York before you visited?

People in my village had this mindset that in big cities like New York, if you are lost or without directions, no one will help you. The first time I came here, I tried to make sure not to walk by myself, because it would be difficult for me if I got lost. But people will help you. The other day I was walking and a man asked me for directions, and I helped him.

Before I came, people always told me it was cold here. When it’s cold in Malawi you can still wear a t-shirt or a long-sleeve shirt. When I came here, I didn’t bring warm clothes. The airport was heated, and when I arrived I said, “This is hot, it’s not cold.” But then when I stepped outside into the air — whoosh, I was freezing! Then I said, “Oh my God, this is very cold.” It was the coldest day for me. I couldn’t believe that it could be that cold.

In your book, there’s a funny story about an experiment you did to try to capture and utilize an unusual, low-cost energy source for cooking. Tell me that story.

Once people in my village found out that I had managed to make electricity with my windmill, people asked me if they could use the electricity for cooking. But there was not enough power from the windmill to use to cook. Also, if I were going to use electricity to cook, I would need to find a cooking coil. But I couldn’t find those types of things.

In one of my science books, I saw they were talking about bio-gas — the ways you can take waste and make energy. It showed a way you can take cow poop and put it in a hot tank, and then you can wait for some time until gas is created. You can then burn the gas for power.

I wasn’t patient enough to wait for a couple of weeks to wait to see what would happen. I wanted to see right away. I said to myself, I can do it faster, instead of waiting for a long time. If what is needed in the bio gas tank is heat, then I can put goat’s poop in a small tank and heat it to make the bio-gas faster. (Laughs.)

So I took one of my mother’s pots and put the goat poop in it. Then I took it and boiled it. I was hoping that the steam that was coming from the pot would be bio gas. I tried to light it to cook with it, but it didn’t work.

My mother was not around at that time — but when she came back she asked me, “What are you doing?” (Laughs.) I said, “I’m boiling sweet potatoes.” She didn’t believe it.

So, that experiment failed.

What did that incident teach you?

Sometimes you can fail in an experiment. But if you fail, you still don’t stop observing that thing, looking for a better way. I am still looking at systems for cooking, but next time I will be patient.

In the beginning of your book, you tell the story of how your father came to meet, and marry, your mother. If I remember, he saw her in the market and said, “Marry me.” By the way, have you been seeing anyone?

Right now, no. Not yet. (Laughs.) But in the future, yes. There’s no hurry.

Are you similar to your father?

In some ways, yes. My father is a strong man. He used to drink a lot. (Laughs.) He would make some trouble, sometimes fight. But no fighting for me. (Laughs.)

One thing that has helped me to become patient and cool is that I grew up with sisters. At school, if some guys would pick on me, I would have no one to defend me. They would say, “Hey! William! If you have money, give it to us!” just because they knew that I couldn’t do anything about it. As I grew up, I learned to say to someone, “These guys are bothering me.”

Being an outsider is a big theme in your book — from bullies like those at school, to those who called you crazy for trying to build a windmill. How did you manage to stay focused on your windmill, even while people were calling you crazy?

To encourage myself, I would look at the picture of the windmill in the book, and I would tell myself, “Somewhere, someone did this thing. If somebody did this thing, I can also do it.” Even then, with people saying I was crazy, I’d say, “OK, say what you’re going to say, but I’m still going to do this thing.” I would not accept to stop doing this thing because of what people were saying.

I believe that people do this all of the time, when somebody is doing a new thing. I remembered Noah in the Bible. When he was making the Ark, people were laughing at him. When I was making the windmill, people were laughing, but I new exactly what I was doing. I had the vision in my mind. I knew I was going to do make a thing that would look like this, act like this.

What do those people say now, seeing your success with the windmill?

They say, “Ah, we just thought you were crazy because we had never seen such a thing in our lives!” When I told them I was building a windmill, they had no idea what a windmill was. I also think people thought I was crazy because I was going into the junkyard, looking through the garbage. (Laughs.)

Talk about what it was like when you first came to TED.

I had no idea what exactly TED was all about, or what to expect. It was also my first time to fly in an airplane or to be away from my home. I was scared, saying to myself, What exactly am I going to do? I was sitting here at TED, watching people talking, not understanding anything.

I had heard about computers before, but only of the type that has a screen that looks like old televisions. In my mind, the desktop computer was what all computers looked like. But it was the first time I had ever seen or heard about a laptop. When I was told that this small thing was a computer, I said, “What?” (Laughs.) “This is a computer? The computer I know of has a biiiig screen! Someone cannot put one in a small bag.”

Then my mentor Tom [Rielly] asked me if I had ever seen the Internet. I said, “No, I have never seen it.” I had heard about the Internet on the radio. People were saying many things about it. But I had no idea about what it could do. So, when Tom told me I could find any information on the Internet, the first thing I did was search Google for windmills. I was amazed that I could find pictures and information — even instructions about how to build windmills. When I built my windmill I just used a book with pictures! I was amazed. Everything I needed to learn had been hidden in the Internet the whole time!

Since you built your windmill, have others in Malawi built windmills?

Yes. There is a man who built a windmill. He hasn’t yet hooked it up to generate electricity, but he has managed to make the windmill part. There are many people who want me to build them a windmill. But because I’m busy with school, I can’t go and help. I’m planning to teach other people how to do it, so if those people want a windmill, they can build one. I have taught my cousin so he can build one now. I have also taught another cousin to do it. More people are waiting to learn.

What was it like telling your whole life story for the first time? You had to look back at a lot of painful experiences, such as one heartbreaking story about your childhood dog.

It was great, but there were some times — remembering the saddest stories — when it was very tough. But at the same time, I was remembering happy, funny stories that happened to me. It was a lot of different moments mixing, things I’ve gone through that were good and bad. Talking about a lot of my life was relaxing, in a way.

Is there anything you regret that happened or that you did in the past?

Yes. I regret the time when I got beaten up. A young guy beat me. I started the fight. I started it for no reason at all. I wanted to fight just so I could test my strength. I regret that I tried to hurt somebody for no reason — just to look for a fight. I guess maybe it was because I was young.

And what is your favorite moment from your story?

One thing that makes me happy to remember is hunting. I am also happy when I think about making toy cars. We also used to make a toy where we could pull each other, like a car. And, of course, the part where I finally hooked up my windmill. I will always remember the time when it was first working: “Chh! Chh!” It was amazing. That makes me happiest.

What do you say to other people who are in a very difficult situation who might want to improve their lives and their community?

I would tell most young people that in life you can go through many difficulties, but if you know what you want to do, if you can focus, and work, then in the end, you will end up doing it. No matter what happens, if you don’t give up, you will still succeed. People can say all kinds of things, but if you know what you’re doing, in the end, you will do it. Everything is possible.