From Malawi to Hanover to the Sundance Film Festival, the journey of William Kamkwamba ’14 has been anything but predictable. This Friday, audiences nationwide will share that story when a movie based on his life, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, comes to Netflix.
For Kamkwamba, becoming a Hollywood inspiration has been overwhelming. Asked how it felt to see himself played by Chiwetel Ejiofor in a major film, Kamkwamba said “It’s hard to put it in words. At points it’s hard to watch because it relives tough times from my past, but some parts show joyful moments. I have mixed feelings watching it.”
The Road to Dartmouth
Kamkwamba’s story began in rural Malawi, where a deadly famine forced him to drop out of school at a young age. With illustrations from a library book as a guide, then 14-year-old Kamkwamba used his newfound free time to build a windmill from scrap metal and broken shoes. Suddenly, his family had electricity for the first time – and Kamkwamba was a media sensation in Malawi and beyond.
The attention took him to the TED stage, where he delivered a talk "How I Built a Windmill" that electrified audiences, and led him to publish The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind – the film’s inspiration – with Harper Collins in 2009. Around the same time, an interview with Diane Sawyer captured the attention of a Thayer development officer, who recruited Kamkwamba to Dartmouth.
While he was at the College, Kamkwamba’s story continued to spread, eventually catching the attention of movie producers and Ejiofor, who directed as well as starred in the film. It premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last month to rave reviews.
Coming Full Circle
Kamkwamba, who relished the chance to trade scrap metal for the Thayer School Machine Shop, has always intended to use his fame and College opportunities to improve life in Malawi. After working in San Francisco and Chapel Hill on humanitarian engineering projects, Kamkwamba has returned to his home country, where he’s simultaneously running a transportation company and working to improve access to technology.
His nonprofit, the Moving Windmills Project, has brought a solar-powered well, crop irrigation, and a grist mill to his village. Meanwhile, he’s currently fundraising to bring his own version of the Thayer Machine Shop to Malawian youth.
“The Moving Windmills Innovation Center,” he explained, “will use machinery and mentorship to foster a spirit of innovation in Malawian youth and farmers. Our model emphasizes youth involvement, participatory action, and human centered design to co-create tools that change lives, lighten loads, and increase crop yields for greater food security and economic freedom. With Moving Windmills, I am working to co-create a space where talented youth design and create solutions that directly respond to the real-word needs of their communities.”
Though Kamkwamba enjoyed attending Sundance, he hopes that the film’s impact will lead to action rather than accolades. “I hope the movie will be able to reach some people who weren’t able to access the book,” he said. “Maybe it can inspire some people who hear my story to do something similar in their own lives.”