A weekend with the Boy who Harnessed the Wind

I started my 2nd morning in Lilongwe Malawi by exploring the nearby curio center – a dusty outdoor area where craftsmen and hawkers sell their crafts. Like most African crafts areas, all the peddlers pounce on you, trying to get you to buy from them. I’m pretty experienced at saying ‘no’, but I did buy a couple small things (though only after bartering them down to 1/8th of their original asking price).
Blessings and “Mr. Gray” (guide and driver) picked me up. Blessings said he had a cold, but he thought he would be fine.  At my request, we visited a local “crisis nursery” for abandoned babies. It was a very well home with about 20 babies, aged 1 day to 2 years. Ultimately the children are placed in foster homes. We saw some real cuties.
Next we headed to Kasungu, but 5 minutes into the drive, Blessings got a call from the Kasungu Hotel saying that recent guests from the BBC that Blessings had brought to them the previous week had skipped out on their bill.  Blessings heard these Brits were in a local internet cafe and asked me if I wouldn’t mind tracking them down.  In fact, I did sort of mind – because I am paying for the petrol in the car, not to mention it was eating out of my time, but I said ‘OK’.  We found the Brits, got the money (it wasn’t entirely their fault – they tried to pay before they left but an unknowing clerk kept telling them they had no bill to pay), and finally headed to Kasungu.  En route, we passed the site of Madonna’s planned school.  A big plot out in the middle of open land with expansive views and big sky. There is some dispute about the land, however. I guess some local chief gave it to Madonna, but it wasn’t entirely his to give away.  People in Malawi like Madonna, but many are worried that now that she is divorced, how can she raise a child without a father.  (Odd, given the number of fatherless homes in Malawi and all of Africa.) They also worry that she is immoral and they have yet to see photos of her adopted children going to church, which would make them feel much better. I assured those who asked that her immorality is part of her entertainment persona, and my hunch is that she does not wear cone-bras around the house.
The cover page of the Malawi paper was about a political sex scandal.  Seems Malawians like celebrity gossip as much as the rest of the world.  The Tiger Woods story was very big here.
When we got to Kasungu, I heard Blessings tell someone he had malaria. He was lying when he told me he had a cold. Guess he thought it would scare me, or I would want another guide who was healthy, or who knows what…. He’s taking medication and assured me it was not contagious, and I assured him I already knew that and wasn’t concerned.
At night , I watched the Ghana World Cup match. About 50 locals came to the hotel to watch it on a mid-sized plasma TV screen. Everyone was of course rooting for Ghana, so it was a big disappointment when they lost.
The next morning, we drove up to the village of Wimbe – home of William Kamkwamba (the author of ‘The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind” – when he was 14 he taught himself to build a windmill and he saved his family from poverty). GO awarded him with the GIA (GO Ingenuity Award), which allows him to hold workshops to inspire youth. This was the purpose of my visit to Malawi – to see the GIA workshop in action.  It was great – The teachers had selected 50 children to attend, but I noticed 3 boys loitering outside, so I asked the headmistress to please let the boys in.  I’m so glad I did – one of them turned out to be the most enthusiastic, engaged kid — He kept asking questions and trying to figure out all the problems posed by William at the blackboard. William taught them how to build a windmill and about how electricity works.  William frequently had to wait for friends to show up with materials, so during the down time I told the kids to ask me questions about America. Many of the kids speak a little English. Most of my questions were about Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jean Claude van Damme, and Dolph Lungren. And of course everyone knows Obama. I wonder if he’s the most famous man in the world – he must be close. One boy asked me “Is it true Obama is a black American?”.  When I say yes, I ask if they have seen his photo (and sometimes I show them my photo with Obama). They say yes they have seen his photo before of course. So I ask why they are asking me if he is a black American if they have seen his photo? I guess they just want confirmation from an American that it is really all true.
I offered up other information about the kids of food we eat, etc.  They were all surprised we don’t eat much goat, or much cornmeal.  And I always have fun telling them how we spoil our pets in America, how they are part of our families, and how some even wear clothes. Kids think this is hysterical.  (Adults usually think it’s crazy and some seem slightly angry about it.  Can’t blame them.  Hard to explain why our dogs have their own beds and own doctors ,when so many people here don’t.)
William did a great job with the workshop, which extended into a second day, and the kids seemed to really be paying attention.  It was very African in terms of organization – having to wait for so and so to bring such and such – parts for the windmill need welding – someone’s coming with a new battery – etc., etc., but no one seemed to mind the delays.  On day 2 I decided to fill in one of the gaps by learning all their names.  I learned about 25 names in 20 minutes.  Then I would close my eyes and let them switch seats, to see if I could still match up the names.  Some kids tried to trick me by switching chairs AND clothes. There were a few names I could remember but couldn’t pronounce, which gave them a good laugh. I took a lot of photos today (available on my Facebook page).  One boy kept saying ‘Draw me!’ – his translation from Chichewa to English for “Take my picture”.
I told the headmistress about the TGO.tv project and how I had some money to do good, and I asked if there were any kids who could not go to school because of lack of funds. She consulted with a couple teachers, and they said there was one boy who was very intelligent and would surely pass his exam to the next grade, but they were afraid he might not go due to lack of finances.  She sent someone to fetch the boy and he came to the school. His name is Alec and he’s 16. His dad died in 2002, and his very poor mom has remarried. Alec has moved into the house of his aunt and the aunt’s husband. The aunt’s husband has a small store that sells clothes, and while he houses and feeds Alec, he has his own children to take care of, and Alec’s schooling is not a priority for him. I offered to pay 2/3 of Alec’s tuition for next year. Alec thanked me, but said quite honestly that it was not going to be enough. He would need clothes for school and books and such, and his family could not afford to give him this. I consulted with the headmistress, and we agreed it was worth a shot for me to go and talk to the uncle. So I walked with Alec the 5 minutes to the home of the aunt and uncle, and I explained to the uncle how smart Alec is, but that his school fees next year would be almost $60 per semester (there are 3 semesters). The uncle said he would like to help with Alec’s schooling, but that was too much money for him. I then told the uncle that I was contributing and paying 2/3 of the tuition, but I asked the uncle if he would cooperate with me and pay the other 1/3 and pay for Alec’s uniform and school supplies and such.  The uncle agreed, and Alec (who speaks great English) was finally relieved.  (I’m a little worried about what will happen next year when I am gone – I won’t be surprised if they track me down next year at tuition time.)
After the end of both days of workshop, I went back to William’s home, where his mom had cooked us some delicious eggs and tomato, some nsima (cornmeal), and some white beans.  May not sound too enticing, but it was all so fresh, I thought it was delicious.  (Though a bit messy – I ate with my hands.)
There are some cute dogs and cats here in Malawi – all skinny and hungry – and they must know to go right to white people for petting, since they don’t get any petting from Africans.  I always oblige and pet them, though the whole time I’m wondering what disease they are transmitting to me, and afterwards I always go straight for the Purel.  William has several dogs around his place. It’s a modest brick structure with tiny rooms and outdoor cooking area and several windmills in the yard.  The one William built actually generates more power than the commercial one next to it that was later installed. A third windmill is attached to a water pump.  And there are solar panels sitting on the roof.  It’s quite a contrast to the home itself and the surrounding village. Amazing what a 14 year old boy can do and how a passion for learning can lead to the impossible.  William starts college in September – at Dartmouth.